By Nada Zamel
Nesrine Makhlouf, the fashion entrepreneur, who brought life to the Tunisians wardrobes with her African-inspired prints and modern cuts, and one of the selected Tunisian designers in this year’s edition “Open Art Week”, to be a part of the online exhibition “Fashion Break”, is our Designer Of The Month. Her now called “ MADE IN IFRIQIYA” brand has evolved and witnessed a lot of changes these past few years.
During the interview, the outstanding designer told us about her struggles during the lockdown and the real reason behind changing her brand's name from Nesrine Brand to MADE IN IFRIQIYA.
Maft : You started MADE IN IFRIQIYA from the ground up without going to fashion school. What were the challenges that you have faced as a designer, a woman, and an fashion entrepreneur?
NM: “Well, I prefer to be referred to as designer-artist because I don’t have the diploma of a stylist, and my educational background is in graphic designs and visuals which helped me a lot in creating my brand.” She continued, “ Contrary to what people might think, I actually grew up in a very conservative family. From a very young age, I was a rebel. I have always tried to break the social rules that my family has imposed on me because I am a female. Entering the business world, I was not afraid because I had already won the "biggest war" which is convincing my family to travel and launch my business. The main obstacle that I have encountered was the Tunisian bureaucracy; the administration and the endless paperwork. Frankly, pursuing your dreams in Tunisia is hard, whether you’re a female or a male. For example, in my case, they told me that I have the right to a BTS (Superior Technician's Certificate) and a loan only if I am a tailor, but I don't want to be one. I can manage my project without that title.
My transition from a designer to an entrepreneur was very spontaneous. I learned everything concerning business through practice and being on the field. I had no idea about neither business plans nor sales. I only knew that I wanted to create art.
Maft: North Africans are very detached from the African culture. Do you think you have taken a risk by introducing an African brand to an audience that don’t value their origins?
NM: Yes, it was definitely a risk. I was the first brand that sells African-inspired clothes in Tunisia. Unfortunately, that was not appreciated, I have instead received many racist comments. I was very disappointed to hear such hurtful things, as I was hoping to build an engaged community.
Photography: Yesmine Abed
Maft: Your brand صنع في إفريقيا – Made In Ifriqiya promotes diversity as we can see from your Instagram feed. The brand's visuals, models, and aesthetics are not the typical content we are used to seeing. How important was it for you to build a brand based on inclusion and freedom?
NM: It was very important for me to engage with my community and to show that we support marginalized communities and promote diversity. Growing up as a curvy girl, I have felt pain every time I see a beautiful dress worn by a 5"6 skinny model. Even when I imagine myself wearing it, I would think '' the dress is so beautiful but I can never rock it”. I also grew up in a popular neighborhood, and being part of that " Houma" inspires me enormously. I wanted to convey the message that everyone should be included and represented. That’s why we featured “ordinary” people who do not comply with the standards of the fashion industry. I don’t want to exclude anyone, our brand “Made in Ifriqiya” is for everyone. I only care about creating pieces that have interesting and personal stories behind.
Maft: This pandemic is not only a health crisis. It affected the world's economy, many people lost their businesses. How did you stay grounded during these difficult times? Especially that you import your fabric from other African countries.
NM: Concerning the fabric, luckily I had a stock that I am still working with. Business-wise “Je Suis Dans La Merde”. Like all other artists; musicians, actors, painters, singers, etc...There are no sales. We have tried our best to keep it going for way too long now, but with the number of COVID-19 cases increasing, we don't know how further we can go. People are anxious, amid this economic crisis, and they are saving up their money. It's been hard, very hard. For a moment, we had hope and thought that the whole COVID thing is over, and then everything went back to the way it was and worse. I have lost a lot during the lockdown; The landlord kicked me out of my atelier, I sold my machines so that I can pay my tailors. The COVID-19 pandemic harmed my business in many ways and not only mine several others’ too. Unfortunately, we, as artists, seem like we don't belong to this country. I hope one day artists, in this country, get more recognition for the work they do.
Photography: Mondher Mejri
Maft: In the middle of the pandemic, you made a decision which, in the business world, is considered risky. You remodeled your brand and gave it a new image even though you have been in this business for 3 only years. What were the motives behind the rebranding?
NM: Two years ago I made the famous t-shirt " Made in Ifriqiya - صنع في افريقيا". That phrase traveled around the world. Even the Tunisian media outlets call my brand “صنع في افريقيا”. The rebranding happened naturally, everyone preferred that phrase. The new logo matched the real identity of the brand; the fabric is made in Africa, the workforce were Africans, I am African. So I seized the time we had during the quarantine to work on it. The name " MADE IN IFRIQIYA '' can reach more global artists who are interested in African culture. I am open to collaborating with any artist, I am all about Cultural exchange.
Maft: What are the things you wished you knew before starting your brand?
NM: I wish I knew how to make a business plan and how to set long-term objectives for my brand. However, I wouldn't have it any other way. I loved every step of my journey.
Maft: As a fashion lover, you are someone a lot of people look up to. Your success story is motivating and praiseworthy. What advice would you give to future designers?
NM: Perseverance is key to success. That word meant a lot to me during my journey. I truly believe that you need to persevere in your life to realize your dreams.
Maft: Do you have any last words for our readers?
Love what you are doing because only then you can resist and defeat the obstacles. Doing what you are passionate about and fighting for it is so important. For me, giving up means death.
Photography: Med Mhamdi