Moving Egyptian fashion forward: How the youngest in a family of entrepreneurs is taking the company online

Anne Marie Kirollos

Anne Marie Kirollos

Key takeaways

  • Ecommerce is rapidly gaining traction in Egypt
  • Egyptian fashion consumers are becoming more open to experimenting and trying something new

At the age of 14, without her parents’ knowledge, Egyptian-born Anne Marie Kirollos applied to a boarding school in London. She wanted to attend the International School of Creative Arts, hoping to move on to the prestigious fashion university Central Saint Martins (CSM) after graduation. Only once her acceptance letter arrived, she informed her parents and convinced them to let her attend. This was in 2011, the same year the Arab Spring Egyptian revolution developed in her home country.

“My fashion pathway started in the year I turned 15,” she says.

Kirollos is the youngest of two children of Marie Louis Bishara, well-known Egypt-based fashion designer of the Marie Louis brand (which has graced the Paris Fashion Week catwalks) and vice chair of the Bishara Textile and Garment Manufacturing company (Bishara Group). She is also currently the president of the Egyptian Garment Export Council. Kirollos’s grandfather, Louis Bishara, founded this vertically integrated company – which does weaving, textile colouring and garment manufacturing for local and export markets – in 1961.

This sounds like the origin story of an entrepreneur and designer who knew from a very young age that fashion was her inevitable future. But, for Kirollos, a career in fashion has not always been a desire. On the cards? Possibly. Ingrained in the DNA of her family? Yes. Something she has always aspired to? No.

“When I was younger and I would see my mom work so much, I wasn’t very understanding of the industry and what it required of the people who worked in it. I did not feel like I fitted,” she says.

A fine arts summer camp in London, when she was 13, changed her mind. The camp was presented by CSM (a fashion school that has delivered the likes of Stella McCartney, John Galliano and Steve McQueen) and for one assignment for the arts course students had to make something out of anything. She made a dress out of newspaper. The tutors convinced her to join the fashion and textile classes.

She ended up loving it.

A brand, reborn

In 2017, Kirollos graduated from CSM. Her graduation project showcased her Egyptian roots. The collection titled Voyage Aux Bords Du Nil 1940, under the label Anne Marie K, received some attention, but she moved back home to join the family business.

One of her mother’s previous brands, named after the iconic Egyptian queen Tiyi, called out to her with its untapped potential. Originally, Tiyi was a brand only available to the French market and consisting of a limited range of pure Egyptian cotton items.

Kirollos wanted to breathe new life into Tiyi and present it to the Egyptian public.

Mother and daughter took the brand out of the inner circle of the Bishara Group and, after a mutual friend made the introductions with Ahmed Ragab (CEO of the Baraka Retail Group), the label was reborn in 2018 as a partnership between the two groups. The line was sold in two brick and mortar retail stores in Cairo – one in the Mall of Egypt and the other in City Stars Mall.

While the original brand was built around exclusivity, Tiyi as an Egyptian brand and company is geared towards inclusivity. “I want to dress everyone,” Kirollos says of her vision.

The Damn Jina Jumpsuit by Tiyi

The Damn Jina Jumpsuit by Tiyi

“Our market is young women, of all ages,” she states emphatically. “I want to revolutionise the fashion industry in Egypt, creating Egyptian garments that anyone can wear.”

Tiyi has over 400 stock-keeping units (SKUs or distinct garments for sale), all manufactured locally using the Bishara Group’s vertically integrated infrastructure.

“I weave my own fabrics. I pick the colours, the threads. We mix and make samples. It is made from scratch. Where we are not able to make some of the fabrics in the Bishara Group factories, we try to outsource locally. There are only a few exceptions where we need to import some of the materials or components (such as shoulder pads or zippers),” she says.

The Bishara Group has well over a 1,000 employees. This partnership allows Tiyi to thrive with only four employees of its own.

Balancing the creative demands and manic pace of the fashion world with solid business management can be challenging, but the example set by her mother has been the best education she could ask for. “I’ve learnt by watching her and seeing how she deals with various situations,” Kirollos explains.

Going online

Tiyi started out as a purely brick and mortar brand where customers had to visit the store to purchase their garments. In 2020, that changed. Covid-19, amongst other things, contributed to the speed at which a business decision was made to take the brand online, as public gathering and mobility restrictions forced storefronts to close.

Blue Denim Pumps by Tiyi

“We believe e-commerce is definitely the future for fashion. Here, in Egypt, especially. Our online sales are at the same levels as in the brick and mortar stores and even better, less all the costs for overheads,” she says. Subsequently, all Bishara Group brands will be taken online – a responsibility Kirollos has taken on to execute before the end of June.

“Having had stores, previously, gives us credibility,” she says. “I don’t think our online endeavour would have been this successful if people had not seen the brand in the stores.”

With no physical retail presence after the move online, the partnership with retail partner Baraka Group requires a rethink, but Kirollos believes that the relationship and bond is strong. “We are hoping to be working with them on a lot of different projects,” she says.

Trends and trajectories

For the team at Tiyi, one of the biggest challenges in the fashion industry, especially in physical retail, is how demanding customers can be to see. “In the retail stores, our neighbours were the likes of Massimo, Zara. We had to compete with these brands due to their location, even though Tiyi was a startup and local. It was difficult to feed the market with quick responses and maintain short lead times to produce a lot of products, in almost no time,” she says.

The pace for e-commerce is less frantic, she says. Also, Covid-19 has slowed the pace of the entire fashion industry, although Kirollos says Tiyi will remain at the pace that she has grown accustomed to. “It has made us more efficient.”

A case in point is the speed at which the brand reacted to lockdown restrictions by launching a T-shirt loungewear collection with “stay at home”-slogans, in partnership with the Egyptian Clothing Bank. It has been one of the bestsellers during the last couple of months.

Kirollos says she has seen a change in the Egyptian customer and in the industry in North Africa. Customers are more willing, in the last year or so, to try something different and new. To move closer to the forward of “fashion forward”, where the garments are setting the trends instead of lagging a season or two behind. Still, the growth potential, is locked up in lounge- and sportswear, Kirollos believes, partly due to the impact of Covid-19 on lifestyle.

The immediate focus, for now, will remain targeting the Egyptian market through targeted online advertising. With time, and most likely organically, the international market will grow as well. Since its online launch, Tiyi has seen clientele from the Middle East, especially Dubai, increase.

Further reading

[May 2020] How Kenya’s Wandia Gichuru has tackled the business of fashion
[May 2020] Fish leather shoes: Kenyan entrepreneur finds export market for innovative products
[May 2020] Spotting opportunities in Ethiopia: The story of serial entrepreneur Addis Alemayehou
[May 2020] A mix between serviced apartments and a hotel: Nigerian talks about his hospitality business
[March 2020] Lelemba Phiri: The investor who backs Africa’s women entrepreneurs