18 Sep 2018
Cairo, Egypt
Sustainable Furniture, Sustainable Textiles and Clothing

A university graduation project became the basis of a successful, environmentally friendly business for Mariam Hazem and Hend Riad, the co-founders of Cairo designer Reform Studio. The business revolves around their student invention of Plastex, a hardy material made from discarded plastic bags. Reform Studio’s fashion and furniture products have impressed design industry heavyweights, sweeping up awards at international conventions.

Hazem and Riad also ensure that Reform Studio helps mitigate a range of social problems in Egypt, from breathing new life into traditional manufacturing techniques to employing women in underprivileged communities. This local impact will continue even as Reform Studio takes an enormous step next year, contributing to a new project for omnipresent Swedish designer IKEA.

From next year, Cairo’s Reform Studio will get exposure in bedrooms, kitchens and offices across the world. The eco-friendly designer is contributing to IKEA’s upcoming African collection, helping the furniture behemoth to convert plastic waste into material for bags, rugs and cushions. “We are super excited,” says Reform Studio’s co-founder and designer, Mariam Hazem.

This opportunity is just the latest development in the meteoric rise of Reform Studio, which was founded amid Egypt’s post-revolutionary excitement of 2011. The company produces a range of textile, fashion and furniture items based around Plastex, a unique thread made from the discarded plastic bags strewn around the north African country. Egyptians use around 12 billion plastic bags per year. While 45% of this plastic is recycled, only 5% is directly upcycled into new products.

Reform Studio is a for-profit lifestyle design business, but its social contribution extends beyond addressing Egypt’s plastic waste dilemma. According to Hazem, Reform Studio is determined to continue reviving traditional Egyptian weaving techniques, a centuries-old handicraft threatened by economic hard times and increased automation in the manufacturing industry.

Reform Studio also prioritizes the empowerment of women from disadvantaged circumstances, giving them vocational training and an independent source of income. “Our business strives to make an economic, environmental and social impact,” says Hazem.

A burgeoning industry player:

Hazem established Reform Studio with Hend Riad after graduating from the German University of Cairo. The pair had developed Reform Studio’s first product, a sustainable trash can made from Plastex, as the final project for their studies in major product design. Hazem and Riad built Plastex to last — independent testing shows that it holds up to 50 kilograms, can be stretched to twice its size and is water-resistant.

Hazem and Riad expanded Plastex’s utility, using it to make contemporary home furniture, fashionable bags and sturdy carpets. Their factory employs a team of Egyptian plastic cutters and fabric weavers, all of whom are tasked with converting the humble plastic bag into the durable Plastex thread that underlies Reform Studio’s products.

Before long, Reform Studio made a sizeable splash in design circles. Its various products have picked up a slew of industry awards at events held in places like Milan, Como and Cairo. Reform Studio’s social and environmental achievements were recognized at the 2014 Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards in Paris.

This success has not come easily; Hazem points out that Reform Studio needed to overcome significant obstacles in developing its business. “Weaving was a dying craft in Egypt,” says Hazem. “It took us at least 18 months to find craftsmen with the skills to do the weaving.” The erosion of weaving techniques is a real concern in Egypt, where the downturn has been blamed on a decades-long lack of commercial demand.

While Reform Studio has now found qualified personnel, Hazem reports that other social challenges persist, some of which stem from patriarchal attitudes in Egyptian society. “Often, it is hard for Egyptian men to take orders from women, especially young people like us,” says Hazem. She adds that communication with male manufacturers has improved over time, but the situation is still not entirely smooth.

At present, Reform Studio sells direct to the public from its display room in Cairo. The company’s client base claims not only IKEA, but also strong markets in the United Kingdom, the United States and Saudi Arabia.

Beyond the bottom line:

Reform Studio’s commercial achievements have not obscured the founders’ post-university idealism, as the business maintains its commitments to improving social, economic and environmental conditions in Egypt.

The business model does more than prolong the practical utility of plastic bags through building the capacity of local women to earn money. Females handle the delicate process of cutting plastic bags so that they can be weaved into Plastex by their male colleagues. “We are helping the women by teaching them a new craft,” says Hazem. Such job opportunities are precious in Egypt, a country that continues to grapple with a prolonged economic crisis. As an added perk, Reform Studio allows the women to work around their home commitments.

Hazem also emphasizes the importance of saving painstaking Egyptian weaving techniques from a sad, untimely death in an age of automated manufacturing. Thinking pragmatically, Reform Studio has pursued this objective by updating Egyptian handicrafts for modern consumer tastes.

So it comes as little surprise that, when asked about her favorite Reform Studio product, Hazem did not hesitate before nominating something thoroughly practical — a backpack. “We have a range of great products,” says Hazem, “but our backpacks are definitely our biggest hit, and our customers’ favourite.”


Learn more about Reform Studio through Facebook and Instagram.

Photos courtesy of Reform Studio

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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