CAIRO (AFP) – Egypt is using the ancient grandeur of its pyramids as a backdrop for modern pop concerts and fashion shows, hoping to boost its image, tourism and the luxury brand sector beloved by its moneyed elite.
French fashion house Dior debuted its latest collection on Saturday at the Giza pyramids, after Italian designer Stefano Ricci held a show at Luxor’s dramatic Temple of Hatshepsut in October.
Dior CEO Pietro Beccari told AFP the fashion house chose the pyramids as far more than “just a useless background”, drawing on Egyptian astrology for the collection named “Celestial”.
Before that, American pop bands Maroon 5 and the Black Eyed Peas performed at the Giza Necropolis, where contemporary art was also recently shown at the latest Art d’Egypte exhibition.
The modern cultural push is a new direction for Egypt’s image.
Long a cultural powerhouse in the Arab world, with wildly popular singers and movie stars especially in its heyday in the 1950s-70s, Egypt has set its sights on its ancient heritage to attract the global spotlight once more.
A harbinger of the new embrace of ancient culture and history was a “golden parade” last year of 22 pharaohs that crossed Cairo from an old to a new museum in a carnival-style grand spectacle.
It was part of a push by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government to revive tourism, which accounts for 10 per cent of GDP and some two million jobs but has been hammered by political unrest, economic upheaval and the COVID pandemic.
Showcasing Egypt’s heritage in a new context “will encourage other brands and international cultural figures to come to Egypt”, said art historian Bahia Shehab.
Fashion photographer Mohsen Othman agreed that such glamorous events are “vital”.
Big brands like Dior “come in with a huge budget”, employ local talent and “support young creators who can put Egypt on the global fashion map”.
Iman Eldeeb, whose agency cast two Egyptian models for Saturday’s show, told AFP it was a “long-awaited step for the fashion world in Egypt”.
Egypt’s luxury goods sector has grown despite years of economic turmoil that saw the pound lose half its value in a 2016 currency devaluation.
Despite the downturn, Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country, is home to 86,000 millionaires, according to the bank Credit Suisse. “The richest one per cent are enough to create demand,” said public relations specialist Ingy Ismail, who advises luxury brands.
The boutiques in the shopping centres of Cairo’s chic new satellite cities, she said, are “up to the standards of international luxury brands”.
Egypt’s bubble of super rich has helped create a home-grown fashion design scene whose pioneers have recently ventured onto the catwalks of Milan and Paris.
At this year’s Paris Fashion Week, Cairo-based luxury brand Okhtein showed a resin-made bustier that evoked Egyptian alabaster at French fashion house Balmain’s show.
It was a rare success story for Egypt’s creative sector, where “most people are self-taught, working hard with scarce resources to try and meet international standards”, said Othman, the photographer.
Ismail said the country’s luxury clothing and jewellery market “has gone from under 100 Egyptian brands to more than 1,000 today”, fuelled by “a huge pool of young creative talent”.
International events offer rare exposure, but getting them to the country is still a challenge. “It is a big step for the government to authorise Art d’Egypte and Dior to organise events at the foot of the pyramids,” the art show’s curator, Nadine Abdel Ghaffar, told AFP.
Red tape and tight restrictions can still get in the way, she suggested, conceding that “the legislative framework is complicated”.
But “promoting the country’s culture” must be a priority, added Abdel Ghaffar, who believes a dedicated government body could better promote exhibitions, concerts, shows and even film production.
Shehab, the art historian, said many realise that Egypt, known for its timeless architectural marvels in the desert, needs to project an updated image of itself.
“There’s more and more awareness about the need for soft power and for culture as a representation for the country,” she said, cautioning however that Egypt still requires “better infrastructure” to make this happen.
She even dared dream that Egypt could draw in Hollywood productions, if it only starts granting permits.
“We have lost count of the number of international productions that have resorted to shooting in Morocco, Jordan or Saudi Arabia,” she said.
The latest Egypt-themed production was a Disney+ TV miniseries, Marvel Comics Moon Knight for which two entire Cairo city blocks were built from scratch – on a set in Budapest.