Designer of The month: A day at Salah Barka’s atelier 

By Nada Zammel
Salah Barka, the pioneer of sustainable fashion in Tunisia, is our Designer Of The Month. Growing up with his fashion-lover, and model sister Rafika, his passion for fashion started at an early age. The Avant-Garde designer started his career in modeling at the age of 15, where he developed his love for fashion design. Salah Barka is famous for his out of the box and unique ethnic style. His work is a cultural exchange between Tunisian traditions and contemporary society.
Last week we visited Salah Barka in his aesthetically pleasing atelier. We sat down with him in a socially distancing-appropriate way while he shared some personal stories of his modeling career and his future plans. In this interview, you will get to know the real Salah Barka, without any filters. 
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On our visit to his house, we were welcomed by his sister Rafika. The beauty of the interior design struck us the moment we set foot in his living room. We witnessed bits and pieces of the identity of Salah barka and his deep love for the Indian and South culture from the colorful Peruvian-inspired rug on the wall to the Buddha statues that we noticed right when we entered. His admiration for fashion was also clear by the presence of interesting fashion books and magazine collections. When I finally sat with him and we talked, I felt nervous yet humbled by his presence.


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The setting for the interview was extremely cozy, we had a beautiful painting behind us, a bowl of colorful fruit on the table, the sun was shining through the window, and the smell of freshly made coffee. 
Salah Barka started his career in fashion as a model. In fact, it had begun out of the blue, he never had thought about entering the fashion world as a model but he was inspired by his sister Rafika; who had been a model back then and still an amazing tailor. He had never been interested in dressing up and walking the runway as much as he had been fascinated by the outfits and designs themselves. He would go super early to the fittings and runways to observe the collections: the cuts, the texture, and the colors. He had been intrigued by knowing every step in creating the pieces that he would be wearing in the fashion show. Fashion is a lifestyle for him, not just a career. Fashion is the art that he cannot live without, it is a necessity.


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When I asked him about a memory he would never forget from his modeling career the answer was unfortunate yet hopeful. During his modeling career, had suffered from racism. Although he was hesitant at first to tell me the story he decided to share it with MAFT. First, he took a deep breath and we both looked to the wall facing us full of alluring pictures of him as a model. Years ago, a French brand, that he refused to mention its name, had launched a model casting for their fashion show in Tunisia. So he had arrived early to the casting and waited for too long, yet they had not called his name for the audition. He had been told that they would not be hiring black people on the show. At first, he had not taken it personally, but then he had been informed that they had hired two black females models. It turned out that the Tunisian representative of the brand “despised” black men. Fortunately, the story did not end there, when the other 20 models had heard about the inconvenience that Salah had had to deal with, they had stood up for him. They had refused to walk in the fashion show until they had hired him. “Their support meant a lot. I will forever cherish that moment” he said looking at me with a grateful smile on his face. Despite the discrimination, he faced in the industry and the lack of means to go to a fashion school. The innovative designer persevered and taught himself the art of fashion design.


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He had been lucky to be surrounded by other amazing designers who had helped him. He mentioned some names to show his gratitude towards them, such as; SOUCHA MLIHIGUE, Kayes Tounsi, and Samia Fella. His work has been evolving since he had begun his label. He had learned from his mistakes and he is still learning. He had learned that he should not be afraid of taking risks.
Salah has been in the industry since he was 15 years old, and he has witnessed the devolving of the fashion world. He had used to love the fashion industry and the long lasting impact of every collection on the trends. He detests the new fast pace. “Fashion nowadays is more about money-making rather than art”. 
One important thing you need to know about Salah is that he is a good speaker. His body language, the tone of his voice, and his facial expressions make it impossible not to admire him. As I was fascinated by his speaking skills, I forgot my next question. For the life of me, I could not remember them, so he offered that we move to the balcony to feel less stressed. Indeed the fresh air and the outdoor atmosphere were helpful. My question was about the proudest moments in his life. When he heard the question the stars twinkled in his eyes. The first was in 2009 when he had participated in the International Festival of African Fashion in Nigeria, and he had won the second prize. That very moment he had felt that his dreams were turning into reality and he had made a name for himself. The second, when he had seen his first collection on the runway. He had chills all over his body and his eyes were full of tears. “It was very touching, “ he said in a nostalgic tone leaning back on the rustic wood bench with a vibrant purple cushion. The open-aired balcony with bamboo canes covering the fence and plants in every corner gave me eco-friendly vibes. It’s evident that sustainability for salah is a lifestyle. When I have asked him what sustainability means to him he responded with one word “ HUMANITY”. During the interview, he was wearing a New Balance with 3D flowers that he made from recycled materials. As I mentioned before he is one of the pioneers of sustainable fashion in Tunisia. In fact when he had started upcycling he had had no idea about the concept. He had been doing it out of necessity to accomplish his aesthetic vision. Over time he had learned that the fashion industry is damaging our earth. In 2013 he had launched his first 100% sustainable collectionEARTH


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For the rest of the interview we went downstairs to where the magic happens; his atelier. Any fashion lover would love to have a tour there. It was filled with stunning designs and stylish thrifted pieces. Unfortunately, his team was not there due to COVID-19 he had to lay them off. Despite the lack of workforce, his work pace was not affected. Salah is a hard worker and a multitasker genius: he is a fashion designer, a stylist, a runway coach, an artistic direction expert at MOODHA OKHRA, a fashion student, and a host at IFM. The secret to his high productivity is: being single, respecting his time schedule, and loving his job. He loves creating art and teaching the younger generations how to survive in this industry without being self-centered. According to him, the fashion world is stereotypical and elitist, and it is impacting the behavior of the people in the industry. He wishes that he has the power to change this world by removing the frontiers that are limiting the cultural exchange and make it more accepting of each other’s differences. Open-mindedness and compassion, are the values that he lives by and thinks that every future designer should too. He concluded the interview by saying “You can not make it in life if you think you can do it all by yourself. Inspire people and yourself to do and be better, share your knowledge, and be nice and respectful, always.”  
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