CAIRO: Between the frenzy of wardrobe changes and photographers preparing for shoots, Iman Eldeeb’s agency is slowly innovating for the Egyptian fashion scene by hiring a diverse range of models.
Eldeeb forged an international career in Milan, Europe’s fashion capital, where photographers told her she was “the first Egyptian model they had ever seen”.
Seven years later, she returned to Egypt in 2018 and set out to shake up a fashion scene where old stereotypes reign.
In the Arab world’s most populous nation, modeling has long been dominated by “fair-skinned, Eastern European girls”, Eldeeb said.
The 28-year-old said such “outdated” standards have made it difficult for Egyptian and Arab models to break into the industry.
“Beauty cannot be limited by the appearance and shape of a face etc. I think that is a misconception of beauty,” Eldeeb told AFP.
“Hair color, eye color, all of those things were part of a very old understanding of beauty and that’s something we’re moving away from as much as possible.”
According to The Fashion Spot, an industry-focused website, “models of color” accounted for more than 43% of global runways in fall 2021, making it “the most racially diverse season on record. “.
Traveling the world as a model, Eldeeb said she felt a new trend of more diverse faces and bodies emerging.
Back in Egypt, she and her sister Yousra then founded UNN Model Management, a name that means “rebirth” in the language of the black Nubian minority.
The agency provides a platform for budding talents in Egypt who lack support in the highly competitive industry.
“The fashion industry is still developing in the Arab world,” Eldeeb said.
Today, UNN oversees around 35 contracts with major brands such as Louis Vuitton, Adidas and Levi’s, making it a leader in the nascent Egyptian scene.
Mohsen Othman, a freelance photographer also known as Lemosen who works regularly with UNN, praised the agency for its “bold” approach.
In the industry in Egypt, “we have creative people but we lack the means, and training remains outdated”, he said.
For Sabah Khodir, an Egyptian activist against gender-based violence, UNN is a force to “decolonise beauty standards” and “deconstruct internalized racism”.
“Being more represented in fashion, on screen or elsewhere, can save lives. It humanizes you in the eyes of the world,” Khodir said of the situation of underrepresented women.
Adhar Makuac Abiem, a model from South Sudan, has long endured taunts and racial slurs on the unforgiving streets of the bustling Egyptian capital of Cairo.
When she moved to Egypt as a refugee in 2014, she never imagined she would be hired by a local agency.
She was often told that she was “too black” or “too ugly” to have a job, she said.
But since 2019, the 21-year-old has managed to build a modeling career working with UNN.
Egypt resembles “the West where prejudice persists against dark-skinned people,” said Marie Grace Brown, a researcher at the University of Kansas and author of a book on women’s fashion in Sudan.
But that hasn’t stopped Abiem from trying to “become a positive role model” for young black women in the industry.
Mariam Abdallah, 22, who was busy doing her hair before a photoshoot, said she does more modeling abroad than in Egypt.
“We’re not very interested in ‘exotic’ tops,” she told AFP.
Beyond fighting discrimination in a highly predatory industry, where there have been high-profile cases of sexual misconduct, obtaining parental consent is another challenge in the conservative Muslim country.
According to Eldeeb, three-quarters of parents are concerned that images of their model daughters will be “misused” online.
There are also concerns about revealing clothing, as well as “inappropriate working hours” for young women.
“Whatever the profession, the parents always try to decide for the girls,” she added.
The World Bank reports that less than 20% of Egyptian women had jobs in 2019.
But Eldeeb managed to obtain work visas for some of its models in France, a first for local talent.
Abdallah left Egypt for the first time recently thanks to the contracts she now has with a dozen agencies in Europe and the United States, giving her a sense of independence and determination.
For activist Khodir, the focus on developing Egyptian talent for global fashion houses is more than just good business.
“It’s a form of healing that we really need,” she says.