By Nahed Kazziha
At twenty-five and twenty-four, sisters Mounaz and Aya Abdelraouf have taken the accessory world by storm. We sat down for coffee with the two sisters behind the powerhouse brand, Okhtein. They walked in clad in black. Mounaz was in a Krak Baby hoodie carrying the latest Feryel handbag, named after their grandmother, from Okhteinís AW16/17 collection. Aya was gracefully enveloped in a kaleidoscopically colored featherweight wool scarf, their latest creation. The polar opposite dynamic duo have created a quintessentially quirky brand for the modern sartorial woman. Inspired by their heritage, perfectly juxtaposed yet complementary, the sisters are exuberant and full of passion for what they do. We decided to talk business, both family and personal.
Who influenced you most in becoming the designers and women you are today?
Mounaz (M) and Aya (A) in unison: Our grandmother!
M: Our Syrian grandfather owned a large fabric store in Kuwait, with materials from all over the world, including France, Italy, and India. Our grandmother would travel with him and she loved it.
A: She would use those exotic fabrics to design and sew her own clothes using her Singer sewing machine.
M: She even had this amazing closet where she would show us things she wore at the age of seventeen. Remember the colourful embroidered vest?
A: Or the dress with the gold lace!
M: Oh, she had such unique style! She was also the backbone of the family in a way, raising her three daughters with our grandfather travelling a lot. She was really like a superwoman.
What kind of women are you designing for?
M: We aren’t targeting a woman with a certain style, our bags have a general appeal which enables each woman to style it uniquely.
A: But we do have the Okhtein customer in mind- she’s daring and young.
M: Our message is that you don’t need to either buy that expensive Chanel bag or carry the same Zara bag everyone else is carrying. We offer something affordable with impeccable quality that is unique.
A: So whether you are a woman making it on your own, or really just enjoy fashion, we try to be trendsetters and to keep the brand current.
What did you have in mind when you were designing your very first bag?
A: We started by thinking “who would wear an Okhtein bag?” We thought of a daring woman and eventually we came up with a circular bag with this unique flap.
M: And this is how the flap started, the one you will find on our backpacks, and attached to the Feryel handbag. It became part of our brand identity.
A: It is actually inspired by the stucco ceiling in one particular mosque on Al Moaz Street. And believe it or not, the metal rods are inspired by a mirror we saw in Khan El Khalili. We are very influenced by Fatimid architecture.
M: Yes, Al Moaz Street has played a big role in forming Okhtein; it’s an Egyptian brand. So, we feel we have taken our culture and modernized it in a very unique way.
What is the biggest challenge you have faced in setting up Okhtein?
A and M together: Production, definitely!
A: Abroad there’s an organized process. You send your design to the manufacturer, they produce it within deadlines and there is proper quality control.
M: Finding the raw materials here is also very difficult. We make everything by hand to guarantee our quality, even the clasps on our handbags! The bags are all literally handmade from scratch, even the hardware.
What is it like working with family? (Both of them laugh)
M: Some days you love it, other days we are chasing each other around the dining room table!
A: On occasion, I wake up early to do work before Mounaz gets up. My approach is to stay chilled and do things at my own pace.
M: I work better at night, and am always multitasking. I wake up in the morning and write down my “To Do List” of 30+ items and get to work.
A: We both get stuff done, but in very different ways, so we leave each other our space.
What is the favourite item that you have designed so far?
M: The minaudiere. My goal is to make it into an antique piece.
A: For me, the backpack. It’s still in my head and I want to keep re-designing it again and again.
What essentials do you carry in your bag?
M: You know what’s ironic is we actually use bags very little. We carry a lot in our pockets.
A: But we use them for going out. And I have always been obsessed with designer handbags and even saved for a small Gucci bag when I was a kid in the sixth grade.
M: I actually used to go find plain clutches and use glue to decorate them with stones.
A: Yes! They looked really good and I used to share them with her. In some way we were destined to design handbags.
What are your mystery talents?
M: I’m a good cook!
A: (After much debate, she smiles) I can tell if someone is lying…
M: Really, she is super talented at it. She is an expert at body language and reading people, which saves us in business sometimes.
What are your big plans for 2016?
A: Hollywood! There is so much we want to do in Los Angeles, but what exactly we will end up doing, we don’t know yet. But we are planning our LA trip for the spring already.
A: Look out for our scarves launching soon. We don’t want to limit ourselves to handbags, we are an accessory brand. The scarves are about “people you’d like to meet” drawn in our different styles. There are ten in total, about real stories and real people. One of us will start drawing, then the other will continue with scanning the image on illustrator then photo. After that we color it in and print it on silks and wools.
M: We also want to penetrate the Spanish market, as well as London, LA and New York.
A: Also expect a very, very interesting collaboration in February. We’ve been preparing for it for over four months now.