An exclusive interview by Fanoos Magazine Transcribed by Oriana 1. When did you begin to bring Egyptian costumes to the US, and why did you begin? I began to import costumes in 1995. Before that, I was working with some of the other
importers selling scarves to some of the boutiques because I started out designing leather belts with crystals. I would talk to the other importers at the time who had costumes and I would say "Can you make this?" or "Can you make that?" I was involved with a Lebanese man at the time, a great love affair that I had for several years and I was engaged to him, and he told me that I was crazy for trying to tell them how to run their business and that I needed to do it myself. So he encouraged me to go to Egypt and start my own thing. So I believe the first importation trip was in 1995.
2. You have made a point to work exclusively with Egyptian manufacturers. Why is this important to you?
I am very very dedicated to Egypt and that is because I feel part of my heart belongs in Egypt. So even though I sometimes buy fabrics in the Emirates, the costume workers and the people that I work with are only Egyptian. The scarves and costumes are only Egyptian. It's just because from day one of traveling there I fell in love with the country and the people and have spent half of my life there. So, I am very dedicated to Egypt and keeping what I sell authentic Egyptian. I am very loyal to them and all of the relationships that I have built throughout the years.
3. Have you noticed any trends that have prevailed in costume design over the years?
Yes I have noticed different trends. Some are for me, and some of them aren't. They've gone from traditional heavy fringe to very lightweight and no fringe. For me, personally, I used create my own trends in Egypt. Twice a year I would make a different collection. Sometimes it would be ocean themed with seashells or sometimes it would just be all gowns. One year I did a very patriotic collection that was red, white and blue only. I did a "Horia" collection which means "freedom" after the Egyptian revolution where I did a lot of red, white and black costumes. Every time I've tried to change it up and have a theme. I've done a nod to the Golden Era where I had costumes similar to Nagwa Fouad's; very very traditional. I loved that collection. I did a Warda collection covered in flowers and floral patterns. I did also a night and starry sky theme with desert twilight colors. I've done fire colors. So I've always had a theme but in the past few years the theme would revolve
around the shows and now we're no longer producing shows.
Finally I just want to say with some of the trends, especially in Egypt, I don't think every trend is for every dancer. Certain body types look better in some costumes than others. I personally don't care for the costumes with the garter belt. I think that is just pushing it too far from the authentic bellydance. I try to always keep in mind different sizes for all women and I'm probably considered by today's standard more conservative with the costumes. At one time I was probably pushing the edge a little bit when I did some mini skirts but I mean that's nothing compared to now. It was an ode to Tina Turner.
4. What was the weirdest trend that you saw? What is one that you wish would return?
One of the oddest things I saw was when they started putting giant flowers on the hips or they would put lots of ruffle on the hips. That's only good only for the dancer that has no hips but any other woman it just would look big and unflattering. So I never really liked that trend of making the hips look puffy. Something that I would like to return to is something that I am very loyal to now; which is I love the glamour and the old fashioned glitz and sophistication of the gowns. For me the gowns are everything!
5. What is the process of importing a costume? Do you contact the designer first and have them design for you or do they give you what they already have?
It's complicated but here's the short answer. The process is that you work with a shipping company and you have them do the documentation and they ship it to the USA. I work with several designers and many designers are now their own stand-alone company. There are many that I worked with from larger design houses that I helped create a name for themselves with my help and suggestions. I can tell you some of them are loyal to me to this day and some others forgot who helped them along the way. A lot of Egyptians designers will tell you that I helped a lot of people by importing their work. My scope of people that I work with has narrowed but at one point I was working with 32 different crews and now I have a handful. The business has changed and I try to diversify the circle of people that I work with. Some do gowns better, so do bras and belts, some people work better with photos or drawings that I make. Sometimes I will even give a design to 4 or 5 different designers and each designer will do it a different way, which is always entertaining! The process is never the same, its never cut and dry. That's why Egypt is Egypt and it's ever evolving. I do have one design that I call the "Joharah Design" that I've had done over and over for 25 years. A lycra mini skirt under with fabric draped on top and fringe, very easy to step into. The bra is usually asymmetrical in design.
6. What are the challenges in the process?
There are several challenges. If you are designing for a particular person or group you have to allow for more time because Egypt being Egypt, you never know when production will slow down. Maybe there's a holiday, family issues, couldn't obtain the correct material in the souk or the right beads- there's so many challenges! Even when everything is ready there's a challenge to get it here. The thing is to have patience working with Egypt.
7. You do a fantastic job of making sure you have costumes for all sizes. Do you believe this has become easier over the years or do you have resistance from the designers?
Traditionally I've always tried to have from B-E cup sizes. When business was great they were willing to make any size because they knew it would sell but now that business is slower and the opportunity for dancers to perform has dwindled and a lot of dance studios have closed I'm having a much more difficult time with sizing. A larger sized costume is double the time, double the work and more material. Oddly enough I'm having trouble with smaller sizes too! So, I continue to try to have all sizes but it does present a challenge.
8. What would you recommend to someone buying their very first professional costume?
Of course if it's your very first costume, I would say stick with a good basic color that will carry you far like a gold or a silver, maybe bra and a belt that you can change out with different skirts or harem pants. Stick with basic to begin with. Then as you grow your wardrobe you can try different styles and different trends like the mini skirts or a gown or an outrageous color.
Joharah International is one of the biggest names in Bellydance! She can be found at:
Joharah International: Belly dance costumes and accessories with love from Florida Costumes & Designs by Joharah International (facebook.com) And make sure to keep an eye out for her upcoming book on her memoirs!