Why we’re breaking up with Tunis Fashion Week

By Eya Rziga 

After surviving two years and several seasons disrupted by the health crisis and lockdown, with almost non-existing cultural activities and events, our country has been rising from the ashes. We started slowly going back to life as we knew it.

What we’ve been waiting for the most as a magazine was Fashion Week, as it marks the highlight of the year to revive the dying cultural scene. It’s where the most influential people in the industry gather around to appreciate and promote fashion designers and models. The audience varies from top editors, top buyers, top press to huge social media coverage from celebrities, fashion influencers, and critics.

Fashion Week is "THE" fashion event of the year, and it represents a milestone for anyone participating in it. 

The creativity that comes from the intensity that a runway show deadline gives, pushes designers forward beyond expectations. They’re not just creating collections, they are building stories that connect to what’s happening in the world. Fashion week is the most visible event in the world, and thus represents a positive opportunity to advocate for change and raise awareness.

Fashion Week Tunis … Tozeur… Tunis?

This year marked the 12th edition of Tunis Fashion Week, which took place in the heart of the exotic Sahara of Tozeur, in Anantara, a luxury resort, which marked a change from the capital for the first time.

From December 2nd to the 5th, 2021, fashion lovers had the opportunity to discover the ready-to-wear and Tunisian couture collections of 22 Tunisian and foreign designers: Soltana, Yousra Sen, Lore and Heart, Born in Exile, Miss Anais, Anissa Aida, Rayhana, Mirin Miladi Couture, Narciso, Atmosphere, BENMA, Trending Topic, Kata Szegedi, Yossra Dhiflaoui, Ludovic Winterstan,  EYE K, Braim Klei, Soraya, Life after Life

Photoshoots were being held outside with photographer Bechir Zayene as Head of Photography, Wissem Yahyaoui, and Hend Henid as Head of Make-up for the cosmetics Inglot Team. There was a press conference, as well as exhibitions at the famous “Village Des Créateurs”, organized this year in parallel and in collaboration with Minassa incubator and Maft Studios.

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Credit to Nizar Messaoudi 

This event united multicultural international creators, DJs, artists, photographers, and designers in an offbeat world that aimed to be a crossroad of creativity.

Fashion filled the quiet suburban streets of the city that held so much history and culture, as the dunes of the Sahara were watching over us a few kilometers away. But the event struggled in so many ways due to the organization and bad weather. What went wrong?

We’re going to unravel the misfortune behind the glitter, the struggles behind the beautified pictures, alongside testimonies from insiders of the event.

But first, let’s start with the pretty picture that was painted for us, which made us very hopeful and excited about this edition.

I believe we were all seduced by the mesmerizing campaign that was shot by the talented Bachire Tayechi, by the nationally, internationally celebrated designers, and the beautiful scenery of Tozeur. These factors made us ignore our opinion and old thoughts about the organization of the event and its reputation that’s been getting worse over the years. We were optimistic, but again, unfortunately, we were disappointed. 

                                               يا مزين من برى شنحوالك من داخل 

I arrived at the event on the second day with my editors, and as soon as I introduced myself as a journalist, people kept reaching out to let me know about the chaos they got pushed into.

As one of the models told me and insisted on staying anonymous :

'I have been parading for the FWT since 2013, this edition was the worst of all. It was a complete disaster with zero organization. We usually have schedules before a week, we know in which group we are, who will model for whom, who has such passage, etc.'

In this edition, we were kept in the dark. We didn’t know if we were going to walk or not on certain days, nor receive the information of passage. Nobody took the trouble to inform us, whether it is for the fittings, for the bus routes or others. Nobody had exact information.

Even the press was unaware of what was going to happen. I asked many people from staff, photographers, to collaborators, but they all had no clue, no one knew anything about the program. Why wasn’t it available online? Why didn’t they communicate the details? And why is the website, to this day, still not updated?

Alongside, here’s another ugly truth by another anonymous:

`We had a change of hotels or roads 30 minutes before our arrival, imposing us to a quadruple room with poor conditions: Straw-coloured tap water, lack of towels, no comforters, no heating, and the windows didn’t close. I have been doing FW since 2015 and this year was the worst experience for me. We were bombarded with “bad news” every hour, and we didn't know what to expect.’

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My shock only grew by the hour. It turns out that the conditions backstage were unbearable.

The space was very small, not enough to fit designers, models, and hair and make-up staff. I’ve seen designers working in hallways, tiny corners, and small closet spaces. It was chaotic, to say the least. It allegedly costs 4000 DT to take part as a designer, this includes models, hair, and make-up artists, and location. And that makes us wonder, Is this what they paid for?

It wasn’t always this way though, The organization had a good start in 2009 in its first editions with the presence of the international press like Vogue and having huge sponsors like the Elite Model Contest. Suddenly, in the past few years and the latest editions, international media has almost disappeared? What has changed in recent years?

Models and hair and make-up artists were allegedly not always paid. There were no buyers invited to invest in the designers, and a not very noticeable media presence nationally or  internationally wise. This year, Instead, we had mostly the presence of national influencers and international “bloggers” which some do not really best represent the Fashion scene of Today. The seats on the third day were empty, with only Two rows filled. 

The poor treatment goes on, even more, the models worked three days without water backstage or snacks. Their contracts were sketchy, as some were promised a total of 80 DT for three days of work in a freezing, unstable environment.

‘ We spent all day backstage without towels for our wet hair, dehydrated from the lack of water and not even paper tissues. Several girls fell sick because of all that. What I didn't understand was the fact that we signed a contract that was not respected. So, the fact that you are offered 80 DT for 4 days, it's almost slavery, to say the least. In my case, I accepted because I’ve been doing Fashion Week for 9 years and I created a mini family within it. And it’s the only initiative, sadly, that gave us opportunities to get recognized. But this edition was very unfair to the models. I kept my mouth shut for the four days for the simple reason that I didn't want to spoil the atmosphere for anyone and especially because no one disrespected me, but the chaos I saw was unacceptable.’

Still, this is not that shocking after all, it’s like a déjà vu. We already heard before, in the past few editions, some rumors about the mistreatment of the models. Why hasn't much been said in the last 4 years? Well, there’s a pretty good reason why.

It is simply because it’s the only initiative that unites this many brands and organizes important numbers of fashion shows in Tunisia. And while that may make us think that we can match with international standards of a fashion week, it can hardly come close to it. The event lost its goals and message.

The goal of any fashion week, anywhere in the world, is to support and promote designers and models and provide them with media coverage and buyers to help them succeed and prosper.

As the shows were broadcasted at a famous Cinema theater, the audience and viewers got mesmerized by the glamor, however, little did they know, models were suffering in the cold, running barefoot in the open air at 8 degrees in thin layers, back and forth between the so-called podium that was totally unequipped and unsafe.

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Credit to Nizar Messaoudi 

‘Arrived at the site, apart from the mess, the podium (if we can call it a podium already) was filled with holes, and we knew that we could fall at any moment. It wasn't stable, and it was dirty with sand of the mud, it does not even make pretty in the photos. Moreover, I didn’t care anymore for my steps, I was frigid, shivering all over my body and I had tears in my eyes. In addition to that, the lack of water backstage or things to eat was Insufferable. We are humans and given the effort that we provide, and the energy required, we would need the bare minimum of things to drink and eat.’ — Anonymous Model testimony.

‘We did not even have a clean corner for us to deposit our things, it was necessary to hide them well for fear that one would swindle us (which was already the case). We had the choice between standing backstage or sitting outside in the cold, not to mention the distance between the backstage and the podium if we can call it a podium, so dirty! We could not cover ourselves while waiting for our turn to the parade, had to wait in the cold and return running for the second passage.’ Anonymous Model testimony.

Photographer, Chad O, and Designer Ali Gasmi  took it to Instagram to unload their disappointment and anger with statements that sum it all:

This was very unfair to the hardworking designers, models, makeup artists, and hairstylists, people who are doing their best only to be trampled on. This is how we drive our creators away. If we don't value them and give them the resources and respect needed, then of course the fashion industry will eventually die. The organization staff was overworked, running around doing their best without getting support for their efforts.

'I am not a robot. I am a human being. I came to work because of my love for fashion. A passion that I dedicate myself to but to be treated in such a belittling way. I poured my heart into creating the event’s program, but they only made a few copies to give to specific special guests. No one else had seen it. I felt so devalued and mistreated. The abuse of power is just awful. This was the worst edition for me. I keep coming back because I know I can handle it. And if I'm coming back next time, I'm getting what I deserve.' Zinou Hachicha, Models Backstage Manager

'Usually, we have always been paid by the designers, and we could negotiate contracts and not have “80dt” which is not worth the physical and psychological effort provided by the models to hold out during the three days and not to mention the shootings for free. In addition, I do not find it normal that we are forced to blackmail the organizers to be paid. Indeed, it is by threatening them not to work the last day that we “managed” to be paid and still not in totality, we still don’t know when we will have the second half. To make a long story short, I have never felt so humiliated in my life for a fashion show, I experienced permanent psychological stress during the fashion week, but fortunately, I could count on my friends to alleviate this experience and on the kindness of some people! Unfortunately, we are still very far from the goal.’ —Model Testimony.

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Credit to Nizar Messaoudi 

Now, with all that being said, let’s talk about the actual fashion week shows.                    

On the outline, there was no structure or theme for the show. We had streetwear, casual wear, upcycled, and luxury wear on the same runway. No specific season whatsoever, we witnessed summer and winter collections at the same time. Some collections shined when standing alone, but as a whole big image, there was no construction. The few collections that captured our hearts and respect were by Anissa Aida, Heart and Lore, Yousra Sen, Mirin Miladi, Kata Szegedi, Mektoub with Love, Rayhana, Born In Exile, and Narciso

The drama continues on the runway as we also witnessed a controversy on Day Two when Designer Hedi Ben Mami, founder of the brand BENMA, painted a model’s face in black and put her in shackles at the end of the catwalk. This created a heated debate after the show, with many people commenting that this fashion statement invokes racism in the mask of ignorance, as it's been done before and has been controversial universally.

However, I reached out to the designer to know his perspective and creative vision that he wanted to share :

‘In fact, my collection is inspired by the military history of my country. I wanted to put my country and the Maghreb in the general face of its history with these glorious hours, but also dark. I have thus pointed out and denounced several scourges, including slavery, suffered by black people throughout history. This subject remains taboo and disturbing, but it is necessary to speak about it and draw a lesson from it in order to not fall into a new form of slavery and to rectify many things in our societies that are insensitive. Our educational system remains in denial and makes abstractions with certain historical facts.

My collection includes black, mixed-race, and white models and is therefore diverse.

That said, the black face is also a call for the inclusion and recruitment of more black models in the casting of fashion week and the catwalks in general because we lack a lot. I wanted to show my total respect and solidarity towards any black person victim of racism, especially that in Tunisia, racism is increasing towards sub-Saharan. I think that it is necessary to shake to denounce.’ 

His vision might’ve come from a good place with good intentions, but hearing the feedback of the audience, we can agree that this statement might’ve re-directed the attention from his collection to this stunt negatively. Putting that aside, BENMA showed us through this collection great potential, creativity, and growth as a brand. 

And what’s fashion week without the after parties?

We support the initiative of Fashion Week as it unites everyone in the industry together. The after-parties were a positive thing in all of this mess. The first one was hosted by AYTMA band alongside Split co-founder, DJ Ezzedine and DJ Khaled Mrabet. It was a night to remember, with a great set of music and an opportunity for everyone to network, bond, and relax from the day’s events.

The closing night was impressive when we had a mini runway performance with talented Tunisian dancers wearing designers from Minassa’s incubated fashion brands and then performing a few choreographies in front of the stage, followed by Tabac Roulé co-founder and artist Yecyne Mejri aka ILLBUCKS.

And of course, Erkez Hip Hop rocked the stage, giving us a mix of Tunisian traditional music and rap. A desert party that we weren’t ready for in 8 degrees weather, getting warmth from the very few available tents. 

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Credit to Nizar Messaoudi 

For the love of fashion:

Despite all the struggles, we would like to give a shout-out to everyone who tried their hardest to do a good job in these hard conditions. And we also like to express our appreciation to all the photographers who did their best to capture the good in the bad and to take shots that best represent the designers’ work. We also acknowledge Tunis Fashion Week for creating a venue for local designers. We really do believe that among the fashion week team, there are plenty of young and hardworking people who did try to do their best and to make the show happen in the best conditions. Unfortunately, something is not working … for years. We believe that resources should be focused in the future on creating a structure that helps the talents in a sustainable model that generates buys and helps designers to prosper. 

We would like to also acknowledge that there is a lack of awareness and education when it comes to models and their rights. They have indeed been mistreated, but we do not blame only the FWT, we blame the lack of agencies to teach, represent and take care of, especially young models. Therefore, we call for a new approach to handling models, for a qualified casting director that makes sure the models are safe, respected, and valued. Not to mention, to start making an inclusive casting process that represents all types of bodies, races, and ethnicities.  

With this review, we wanted to shed light on the organization’s problems because, to fix and build a new sustainable structure, we had to denounce the old one and list its disadvantages. The intention of this article is far from boycotting an event that the fashion community is always waiting for, each year. We’re speaking up, so real changes can be made, and real improvements can be shown in the next editions. There’s always hope, however, that one day, we’ll be reviewing FWT positively and proudly…

The Tunisian Fashion Scene deserves a better representation and strategic promotion. We have creative and business potential that deserves to be supported in order to thrive. Improvement should be made not only at the organizational level but also when it comes to the choice of the participating brands in order to arouse the interest of buyers, distributors, and specialized media on a local and international scale.

We demand transparency from a newly built organism to take its place. The current structure has proven that it's been struggling for its 12 years, and we think it’s enough.

This is why we're breaking up with Tunis Fashion Week. Until "maybe" next time. 

Sincerely yours, literally almost everyone in the Tunisian fashion community.

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