Eco-fashion offers a renaissance for new Tunisian brands

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Lasaad El Beji Amine El Hrairia, a silk weaver In Tunis' Medina and that Hassan Ben Ayech, the designer for the Bardo Collection, uses, holds a fabric in Tunis, Monday Oct.5 , 2020. El Bji is an example of a local Tunisian artisan whose craft and production of high-quality hand-made material is being incorporated by these new sustainable fashion brands. (AP Photo/Hassene Dridi)

MAHDIA – The sun is setting by the time Tunisian fashion designer Chems Eddine Mechri reaches the breezy, seaside town of Mahdia. He has spent half the day driving in the scorching heat in pursuit of the precious, handmade fabrics he needs for his upcoming winter collection.

With a 200-kilometer ( 125-mile) road trip from Tunis coming to an end, the designer knows just the place: the basement of a blue-lit workshop, hidden away in the labyrinth of Mahdia’s old medina, where silk weaver Mohamed Ismail’s spinning wheel still is going at full speed.

In a globalized world dominated by fast fashion brands such as Zara, H&M and Topshop, Tunisian designers like Mechri are increasingly going back to their roots, embracing local artisans and environmentally conscious materials. Thanks to North African nation's age-old textile-making traditions, Tunisia is a good fit for the eco-fashion they want to champion.

Ismail has been spinning locally sourced wool and cotton, as well as silk thread imported from China, for the last 47 years. “This work is in our blood…it’s in our DNA,” Ismail says as he unwinds a crimson silk yarn in his workshop. “It’s intergenerational, and for my family, this work is very precious to us.”

Back in the capital of Tunis, Mechri and his dressmaker sew together a dress from scratch for his fashion brand Née. They combine a shimmering pink and gold traditional fabric used in Tunisian embroidery with a mesh material from the 1960s. Both were deemed unsellable by the merchant Mechri bought them from.

“They (didn’t) fit with the tastes of the day,” Mechri said. “And that’s why they (the fabric merchants) need us, the designers...to give a second life to these materials.”

The $2.6 billion textile industry is a pillar of the Tunisian economy, employing 160,000 people and producing roughly 25% of the country’s total exports, according to estimates by the Oxford Business Group. However, fashion is among the most polluting industries in the world, responsible for producing 10% of carbon dioxide globally, according to the World Bank, and tens of millions of tons of clothing is discarded every year.

Mechri and other designers have turned to the eco-friendly practice of “upcycling” — taking old or unwanted materials and turning them into something new and modern by incorporating high-quality fabrics. Mechri mixes old fabrics with the craftwork of artisans across Tunisia - from embroiderers in Tataouine, on the edge of the desert, to seamstresses in Bizerte in the country's north.