17 Oct 2018
Cairo, Egypt
Sustainable Textiles and Clothing

Italy may be the world’s home of designer fashion labels, but it was the local thrift stores that captured the imagination of Seif El Attar, co-founder of Cairo vintage brand Vecchio. El Attar was studying abroad in 2014 when he started building up a wardrobe of cool, second-hand Italian clothes. “At first I was into how the shirts looked,” he said. “But then I wondered why people buy from mass producers when they already have clothes in good condition.”

Al-Attar returned to Egypt and, last July, founded a startup clothing operation with his partner, Nouran Sleat. In the spirit of repurposing, they adopted the Italian word “vecchio” — meaning “old” — which neatly summarizes the pair’s commitment to making the most out of Egypt’s existing clothing resources.

Vecchio’s sustainable clothing mission works against global market trends, with their growing emphasis on “fast fashion.” Shoppers once bought clothes to last for years; now, at affordable prices, they can stock constantly rotating wardrobes with up-to-the-minute looks. These wasteful practices have wreaked various forms of environmental havoc. Toxic clothing dyes run into clean water sources, while textile waste piles up — the debris of the latest outmoded trend. Such factors have contributed to the apparel industry becoming the world’s second largest industrial polluter.

Sleat and al-Attar believe that their compatriots need to start taking these issues very seriously indeed. “We were inspired by the waste problem in Egypt,” said Sleat. “People have this notion that second-hand clothing is unclean.” With Vecchio, the pair scours thrift stores for excellent old garments, upcycling and redesigning them into funky new shirts, jackets and skirts. The young business still has some difficulty sourcing quality material and marketing its products, but forges on with changing Egyptian mindsets about pre-loved clothes.

Passion for fashion:

In truth, Vecchio’s first seeds were sown long before al-Attar’s jaunts through Italian thrift stores, when a young Sleat would comb through her mother’s wardrobe for hidden gems. “I used to love taking my mum’s old stuff and turning it into my own thing,” she said. This childhood hobby later transitioned into avid thrift shopping, as Sleat expanded her vintage look.

Vecchio started up last year at markets around Cairo, but the concept of upcycled clothes did not take off immediately. “Many customers did not have the right mentality to buy second-hand clothes,” said Sleat. “They would ask us if the clothes were used — we would say ‘yes’ — and they would give us a strange look before walking away.”

Dahab, Egypt’s free-spirited beachside getaway, proved to be more fertile ground for Vecchio to start out. Sleat and al-Attar were there on vacation, decided on a whim to participate in a local market, and promptly made Vecchio’s first sales. Word-of-mouth spread from there, aided by Vecchio’s marketing efforts on Facebook and Instagram.

Sleat and al-Attar operate Vecchio around their work schedules — Sleat is a kindergarten teacher, while al-Attar takes charge of high school students. “We look forward to weekends and public holidays, which let us get work done for Vecchio,” said Sleat.

At present, customers can only buy Vecchio products at flea markets, or by meeting one of the founders after hours at the company’s New Cairo showroom. As anyone familiar with Cairo will attest, travelling across Egypt’s sprawling, traffic-clogged capital can be — to put it mildly — challenging. Sleat and El Attar tried to solve this problem by selling clothes online, but shipping logistics have proved insurmountable for now.

Sleat identifies sourcing quality materials and tailors as a separate, key challenge for Vecchio moving forward. She and El Attar spend hours confirming that each garment is in good enough condition for resale. This painstaking selection process helps explain why Vecchio even recycles its own products, rather than giving up on vintage items of proven quality.

“If a shirt does not selling during summer, we can take the fabric and make it into a sweater or a bomber jacket for the winter season,” said Sleat.

Old becomes chic:

Where Vecchio has definitely enjoyed success is in helping make upcycled clothes fashionable in Egypt. “Little by little, perceptions are changing and our style is becoming more familiar,” said Sleat. She reports that Cairenes, who once turned up their noses at Vecchio’s wares, now come searching for Vecchio’s stall at flea markets.

Sleat and El Attar are determined to use Vecchio’s growing popularity to spread the word about sustainable fashion. “Many customers choose us because our products look cool, but we always tell them why it is better not to always buy new stuff,” El Attar said. Vecchio reinforces this ethos by using minimal packaging and sustainable bags.

It also does not hurt that Vecchio products are, counter-intuitively, exclusive — a key criterion for fashionistas the world over. Each design is a unique, one-off special, allowing customers to feel an added connection to their purchase. “When you buy something from us,” said Sleat, “you are the only person wearing that.”


Learn more about Vecchio through Instagram and Facebook.

Photos courtesy of Vecchio

Since getting his MA in Middle Eastern Studies last year, David has worked as a freelance journalist based in Accra, Ghana, and Cairo, Egypt.David Wood
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