Flourishing where other Egyptian fashion designers have failed, Amina Khalil's line of handmade, intricate designs has grown despite economic turmoil. We talk to the designer about her inspirations, obstacles and sharing a celebrity name...
"Fashion fades, but style is eternal," Wiser words have never been spoken. It's hard finding a designer that combines good knowledge of the technical side with a personal style and flair that makes the collection pop out but that’s exactly what Amina Khalil (the designer, not the actress/singer) possesses. A young ingénue who started out almost six years ago, after learning the tricks of the trade at London School of Fashion, Khalil has come a long way in a short period of time. With her brand, Amina K, quickly establishing itself as a pioneer in Egyptian fashion design, it's safe to say her design methods matched with her quirky habit of mixing fabrics and techniques are a huge hit with the fashionistas of Cairo. We sat Khalil down at our Drawing Board to find out what makes her tick...
How did you start out in the fashion industry?
I've always wanted to make clothes since I was about 10 years old. I started off in AUC doing a Mass Com degree; I stayed there for a year but then I couldn't take it, so I went to London for a summer. I tried it out, did a couple of summer courses in fashion, came back, packed my things and went back to study fashion properly.
Since you were studying fashion in London, you could've started your line there. What made you decide to move back to Egypt?
One of the things is that I have an Egyptian passport! The thing is, I finished my fashion degree in three years and then I did a few internships and it came to a point where I was going to pursue a corporate career where I was, which was with British designer Matthew Williamson, or make it on my own. I started Amina K when I was in London, coming back with a small collection to sell to my friends here in Egypt. So I had Amina K going on and the corporate fashion thing going on at the same time, but I had to choose. Honestly, it was so much easier to come back and start it in Egypt than it is to start it in London, so I moved back.
Was your family always supportive of your decision to get into fashion?
Yeah, from the start. The year I joined AUC, my dad was like, "What are you doing? Why are you wasting your time? Go to London!" At the beginning, I was really worried but he's the one who pushed me to do it. My mum works with me now actually. She started off when I was in London, by monitoring the production and now she's doing the accounting and the bookkeeping. She does a lot of sales too, she's very hands on.
What's the biggest fight you've had with her?
Just generally the growth of the company because, as a mum, she always thinks I'm putting too much pressure on myself. She wants me to grow a bit slower, and I obviously want to go a bit faster, so that's always the struggle.
Do you import the materials you use?
When I started off, I was very strict with the whole "everything had to be Egyptian" policy, and I was buying a lot of my fabrics from the local markets. But as my quantities increased and I had to do new things every season, I didn't want that to constrain my creativity. So, if something is made in Egypt, like cotton or linen, I'll buy it from here. However, there are some materials that we don't make here or we don't make well. So things like chiffon or silk, I’ll import, as well as buttons and zippers. You can't avoid it, we don't make everything.
What's your favourite fabric store?
I don't usually go to stores because I need larger quantities, so I just go to El-Azhar or El Wekala. I also have my suppliers; the one I constantly go to is Hessny,because they provide the best Egyptian cotton.
How would you describe your line?
When it started out, Amina K was very much an Egyptian brand in terms of fabrics and design. As the brand developed, so did I. When I was in fashion school, I wasn't just an Egyptian designer; I was designing so many different things. There are other things about Amina K other than it being an Egyptian brand, like the patching and the mixing and matching of fabrics and creating double-sided garments. I'm trying to keep the brand identity consistent but constantly evolving.
Who is the Amina K woman?
She's in her late 20s, an active woman. Whether a working woman or a mother, she’s definitely not a stay at home kind of woman. She's always looking for that thing that makes her unique; the type of woman that adds her own style to anything she finds. Actually, one of my best friends has an amazing sense of style, so whenever I'm designing, I always have her in mind.
If you could pick anyone in the world to wear Amina K, who would it be?
How do you go about the design process? How do you get into your creative space?
I always keep my eye out on what will get me inspired for next season. So I start out with a theme, then I do whatever research that particular theme requires. I have a sketch book with all the research, do a mood board, then I start designing. But I have to design in a very short period of time, so I start off by getting fabrics and then draping them directly on the mannequin and adjusting it as I go along. The way I design is very hands on, because a lot of things change once you have your fabric.
You clearly pride yourself in the fact that every piece is handmade and there's a lot of attention to detail. Have you ever thought of expanding into mass produced clothing?
It's kind of tricky, because I still want to keep the attention to detail and there's a certain volume I just can't produce, so I don't want to expand to be a mass produced retailer. Amina K is always going to be the type of brand that you find in boutiques, or at a small concession stand somewhere, or in my own showroom. I can commercialise it by collaborating with someone, like I did with the sunglasses line I did with Baraka.
You came in the market at a time when every society girl thought she was a fashion designer. However, you've lasted the distance. What do you think differentiates you and your brand from those girls?
As with any type of business you get into, if you do it with passion and there is depth to it, it will continue. It's just something I've always wanted to do. Regardless of whether it was a trend or not, I was going to do it anyway. I actually like that there are so many people that want to do it, we need an industry. I don't want to do it alone.
What obstacles have you faced since you started out?
It's all obstacles! From the minute you decide to open your own business, it seems like it's all obstacles; sourcing fabric, finding the right people to do it, the consistency of the quality. When you're trying to build a proper company, everything is hard, because it's an industry that doesn't exist in Egypt. However, production is mainly the biggest obstacle I've faced.
How annoyed are you, on a scale of 1 to 10, that Amina Khalil (the singer/actress) stole your name?
It's her name, I can't really blame her! It's really funny, though, because we had to meet because of that. I used to get tagged a lot in things that were meant for her, like "You have an amazing voice!" so I was like, "I'm amazing, I can sing and act and design!" I also keep getting messages on Whatsapp from Saudis thinking I'm her, telling me that they loved me in the last episode! But then, when we met, I told her, "You're more famous. I'll be Amina K, you can have Amina Khalil." I don't like my line to be known as "Amina Khalil", I like to be known as Amina K.
Has there ever been someone who showed up to your store that you didn't want to dress?
All the time, actually. When you're a retailer, a lot of people walk in and the clothes won't fit their body shape or their style, and you know they're going to ruin it but what am I going to do?
Has there been a fashion trend that you absolutely despised?
I'm very open minded when it comes to fashion trends. It's all about wearing what suits your own style. You can kill trends – like Egyptians did with neon – but at the time it comes out, I keep an open mind about it. But the obsession with designer stuff kills me, I don't get the obsession with dressing head-to-toe designer brands.
As Amina Khalil the person, not Amina K the designer, would you design your own clothes?
No. I didn't even do my wedding dress. I just wanted it to be ready, I didn't want to think about it.
Now that you're married, how are you finding the balance between running your own business and running your husband, so to speak?
It's not easy, especially since I live in Heliopolis and my office is in Mohandiseen, and I commute every day. It's not like I can do it from home, I have to go to the office from 9 to 5, like any other job. It's a constant juggle; you have to push and pull, slack off here for a bit, then slack off there.
How supportive is your husband of your career?
He's very supportive, because he knows. He's been there from the very beginning. He knows I come with this big package so he's very supportive.
Does he wear your designs?
Yes, he wears my men's shirts.
Do you have other designers on your team? And if so, do you control everything creatively or are you okay with delegating?
Yes, I do. And I'm okay with delegating. The other designer on my team didn't start as a designer, but she studied fashion, so I slowly started to push her in that direction because I couldn't handle the pressure of being constantly creative while juggling all the other aspects of the business. I come and go, then I have to give the final approval on the design.
Who's your favourite fashion designer? Egyptian and otherwise?
Locally, I have a lot of respect for Yasmine Yehia. What she does with wedding dresses is just amazing. Internationally, I'd go for Karl Lagerfeldjust for the consistency he's presented in Chanel. He's like 80, and he's still cooler than any 20 year old ever! Also, Alexander McQueen, design-wise is just perfect. Valentinois also doing an amazing job regarding craftsmanship. I like different designers for different aspects; some for their designs, some for craftsmanship, and some for their branding concept.
How have the last couple of years affected you as a business?
Really badly. Actually, this year is our worst year sales-wise. Especially with Beymen being my main retailer, I used to have a lot of Arab clients and they completed stopped coming as the Four Seasons shut down for a long time. That really affected my cash flow. But I know that this is a tough time, and I'm looking at it from a different perspective that I can use this time to build something. But at this point, we're just trying to make ends meet to survive.
Where are your personal favourite places to shop?
London, obviously. Notting Hill, East London, Portobello on a Friday. I love market shopping. On the highstreet, it’s Topshop and Zara. If I'm not wearing Amina K, I'm wearing Zara!
Talk to us about the concept behind your latest collection, Woven Shreds...
I've been playing around with doing a weave for a very long time now, and it's a technique that I knew I wanted to do when I had the resources. So I felt like we were ready this season, and it started out as trying to perfect the weave and putting it on different things. The colour palette was inspired by the Nubian houses, so you'll find a lot of muddy colours like brick and olive with a hint of mint or melon to give that vibrant edge. It was actually my biggest and toughest collection to date; I had 29 different looks.
How do you think Egypt can move forward in terms of fashion?
You need an industry and a community and this is what ex-foreign trade minister Rachid Mohamed Rachid tried to do before the revolution. He had this thing called the IMC, and he tried to get all designers under this one umbrella to create a community. Usually, any government has an organisation or a council that helps the fashion industry along, but in Egypt, there isn't one. There needs to be a network.
Do you have an arch enemy in the fashion industry?
Oh, no! But I don't like what Hany El Behairy does. I’ve never met him to be honest, but I don't like his work.
If you could dress one member of the Muslim Brotherhood, who would it be?
Oh no, no, no! None of them!
What if the Egyptian army asked you to re-design their uniform?
Ok, it's basically like the uniform they already have, but I'd change the colour pallate up a bit!
What would you like your legacy to be?
Wow, that's a big word. I just want to have an international presence as an Egyptian designer.