The first Sevinch workshop

August 31, 2012


Finally the day came when Sevinch had to choose between Shithead and the continued existence of her business. This coincided with my own decision to stop being a corporate man, and to set up my own business, a textile testing laboratory in Cairo.

We rented two separate apartments, each within a few hundred yards of the other and a third apartment where we lived. This was on the island of Zamalek, which is somewhat akin to working and living in Belgravia. That is, if you can ignore the garbage in the streets and the broken pavements that risk broken ankles.

Sevinch’s workshop was on the ground floor, and had a tiny yard, in which we intended to do the spinning of cords. We rented from a very congenial lady called Madame Sadeyah: how congenial, we discovered later when she used to pop round for a chat every so often, and in a loud whisper ask whether we might have any vodka – or failing vodka, a beer would be just fine – in the fridge.

We built our first looms, set the whole place up, painted and decorated it – and waited. Sevinch was terrified: the thought of taking on the responsibility for her own production, for providing wages every week for 20 or so workers – it paralysed her. For six entire months her workshop remained empty, as she continued her daily commute to the Village of Rogues and Bandits. I was pulling my hair out with frustration, we were paying rent every month seemingly for nothing. It was the most dangerous moment of our lives: not only were we trying to get one new business up and running, but two; and this in a country that is notoriously difficult for foreign business owners.

I was also going through a difficult period. A textile laboratory is an expensive thing to set up and operate, and although I had a small portfolio of blue chip clients my former employers were doing much to try and frustrate the successful start up of the business.

But Shithead proved in the end to be our saviour. I can’t remember what he did, but as we have learned to patiently expect, people like him always overplay their hand just as they always underestimate the force of Sevinch’s rage once she realises she is being crossed. The next thing I knew was, the empty apartment was full of workers, the looms were resonating with the rhythm of the shuttles, and Sevinch was bustling around, her fear vanquished….

Dear John

October 24, 2009

When the Metropolitan Museum of Art re-opened the Wrightsman Galleries after refurbishment, it threw a great reception around the centrepiece of the gallery: an 18th century state bed from France.

Metropolitan State Bed2

John Buscemi, our Boston friend and colleague, has over the years worked tirelessly and patiently with North American museums, and historical restoration and preservation organisations, promoting with ever-increasing success the use of Sevinch’s work. Working for these organisations is a validation as great as one can hope for: not only are they utterly demanding in terms of craftsmanship and technique – but more importantly, in terms of authenticity.

One of the great commissions John secured for us quite early in our relationship remains the most complex, the most arduous piece of weaving we ever did. It took 6 months to make 22 yards, and the hanging decorative elements on the fringe contained over 20,000 hand-made components. It was the reproduction of an 18th century piece for the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina.

Take a look:

Biltmore 015

When the Metropolitan had its opening party, the Curator himself was kind enough to describe our work on the State Bed as “the most impressive passementerie that the Museum had commissioned in its history”. John was almost peeing himself, puppy-wise, at these words. Later, he was standing close to a couple of distinguished designers who were examining the fringes and the tassels:

American designer: “these trimmings are definitely American-made: Scalamandre”

French designer: “mais non, mais non, these are made in France: Claude Declercq”

John Buscemi, tapping them on the shoulder: “gentlemen, you are both wrong, these are made in Egypt, and they are made by SEVINCH”….

Dear John.

The Big Apple

October 24, 2009

One day, I think it was in 1994, Sevinch came home and announced: “We’re going to America. I am going to sell tassels in America”.

What else was there to say except: “Yes, dear”?

Off we went, budget airline, all the way to New York, arriving at 6 am. After checking in at a cheap but fun hotel we had chosen on the internet, The Wolcott, I was ready for a bit of a rest. Sevinch was having none of it. Oh no, we had to hit the road.

You must understand, this first foray into marketing in America was done in an utterly whimsical manner. There was no preparation, no preliminary contact with potential clients, nothing – except for the Yellow Pages in the hotel room. And a big holdall containing about 40 kilos of samples.

Green as grass in the Big Apple, we went out and did the door to door thing. It was demoralising at first: although we did manage to get to see people, generally the response was “look, lady, it’s a tough world. and I have to maximise the return on the display space that your product demands, and I can’t see that happening.”

You see, whereas other passementerie makers produce stock collections with a defined number of models and a defined number of colourways, all of which can be collated in sample books; we, Sevinch, were doing one-off custom work. No collections, no sample books, just the notion that we could make beautiful product to order, customised to match any fabric or design theme, on a project by project basis. Little did we know then how difficult it is to sell this concept. And we were selling it to the wrong people, people whose business model was fast turnover of sales, with the minimum of overhead and creative input.

Then one beautiful New York morning, we managed to get an appointment at Clarence House. We were somewhat overawed at the elegance of this firm, and of the people that agreed to meet us. There we were, novices from Cairo with our bag of samples, slightly out of breath and warm; and there they were, beautifully mannered, courteous, surrounded by a cornucopia of fabrics and passementerie on the walls of the showroom.

Louise Friedman showed us their passementerie collections. They were exquisitely made, the colours were clean and mellow, it was lovely work. Only later did we find out that they were the work of the most famous of the French passementerie makers, Declercq. And from that moment on, Claude Declercq became Sevinch’s hero, the benchmark against which she has thereafter always compared herself, and striven to equal.

But I digress. Louise explained to us very kindly that Clarence House was committed to another supplier and therefore was unable to do anything with us. But after a moment’s hesitation, she asked us to excuse her, and she went into her office to make a phone call. A few moment later she came back with a name and address on a piece of paper, and suggested that we might be welcomed there.

We returned to the hotel and called the number. It was Christopher Hyland, at the D&D Building on 3rd Avenue, and he asked us to come over straight away.

Let me simply say that this was in 1994, and we are still most happily working with Christopher. He saw the potential in our work, and backed us from that moment. He sent us swatches of the most beautiful and expensive fabrics against which to colour our trims and tassels, and fringes. At the same time, an inspired Sevinch was refining over and again the execution of the work until it became clean and crisp, and with the new colours we knew that we had entered a new phase: that we were becoming professional passementerie makers, that our work began to command respect.

We owe a debt of gratitude to both Louise and Christopher, who set us on the path which has culminated (so far) with Sevinch product hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Wallace Collection in London and many other points in between.
Metropolitan detail 4

It was a good first trip to the Big Apple.

Mohamed Abboud’s precipitate departure from Egypt left Sevinch a bit exposed. She had secured a modest client base, and she had orders to be executed. Fortunately, we had met on a social occasion a congenial young Canadian who by a remote coincidence was also making tassels in Egypt. And he put us in touch with another workshop.

And thence started our long and troubled relationship with the village of rogues and bandits. I am sure you will forgive me for not naming it, but vendetta has a long memory in this country.

The first swarovski fringe

The workshop owner was named Sabbagh, but rapidly became known, for reasons that will become clear during the unfolding of this tale, as Shithead. The man was hugely talented, experienced, and at the beginning cooperative and reasonable.

The village was almost beyond description. The main street an open sewer, running next to an irrigation canal choked with detritus, raw sewage, noxious chemicals, and the ubiquitous plastic bag. Half-finished houses are within mere feet of each other, separated by muddy lanes, with livestock and barefoot children cohabiting in tiny garbage-filled courtyards. And everywhere you move you feel the eyes upon you.

Sabbagh’s workshop was tiny, cramped, so badly lit, you could barely see the floor, let alone the work on the looms. The lines and cordage were wound on spinning motors out in the street, and the mountains of discarded yarn bobbins were stored on a flat roof with no parapet: one day (a year before our arrival in the village) one of Sabagh’s 11 children stepped on a bobbin, slipped and crashed to his death in the street below.

For all that, at the beginning, his work was good: well-executed, the colours spot-on, and delivered on time. Sevinch and her customers were satisfied with this at least. But all too soon, Sabbagh’s innate instincts took over. Delivery periods started to slip, the quality became patchy, and he would put up the prices halfway through production. Sevinch discovered that his workers had not been paid for up to 6 months at a time, and in desperation effectively took over the responsibility for financing his payroll: Sabbagh was all too happy for her to pay the salaries directly to the workers, whom he would then put onto production orders other than Sevinch’s.

In no time at all Sevinch was doing a daily commute to the village, and effectively running Sabbagh’s workshop for him. Did I say Sabbagh? No, no, no – by this time he was well and truly Shithead.

Last night we were invited to a dinner by very dear friends that we hadn’t seen for many years. As is the usual practice here, one is invited around 9pm, most people arrive at 10pm, and dinner is put on the table by midnight. If you’re lucky.

We were well prepared, this time: a nice siesta after getting back from work, no booze and a light supper. Then and only then did we go out. It was a lovely evening, meeting old friends and making new.

Sevinch was particularly excited as we entered our hosts’ apartment, for who was there other than a rather famous if ageing actor whose charm and limpid ox eyes have always made the ladies go somewhat weak at the knees. She was no exception, her little bum twitching like an excited pup as she made a beeline for him.

After a while I went over to join the conversation, just in time to catch him asking the question: “can’t you find something more socially constructive to do with your time than making fucking tassels?”

Almost in a reverie, I thought aloud: “and can’t you find something more constructive to do with your time than getting drunk and losing several fortunes at the card tables?”

The old boy was clearly in a dark mood, since eventually he found himself isolated in a corner, and soon buggered off unnoticed.

I did remind a mildly annoyed Sevinch that she puts food on the table for 50 poor families.

Jerusalem

October 8, 2009

One day, I had to go on a business trip to Jerusalem. I was still working for a monthly salary, and was scheduled to address a conference on quality management systems. Very dull stuff, but I had never been to Israel and had always wanted to go. Sevinch did too. She perked up like a pointer, eyes gleaming: “I’m going to sell tassels to the Israelis!”

Drop fringe 031

So we went. Whilst I was having an unutterably boring time in a quality management conference, off she scampered like the aforementioned hunting dog, sniffing out potential clients, armed only with a bag of samples and her big brown eyes. All of Jerusalem was her hunting ground.

And blow me down, knock me over sideways with a feather, and all the rest – she came home that evening with a signed purchase order, from a guy called Joe who had a fabric showroom.

Back to Cairo we went, and immediately Mohamed Abboud went to work on filling the order. I remember the tassels well: it was a curtain tieback, the head of which was a bronze cast harlequin’s head, and a simple oatmeal bullion twist skirt. We thought it was the most beautiful thing ever, and little did we know then that it was an outrageous knock-off of someone else’s model.

As it happened, I had to go back to Israel a few weeks later, and we agreed to hand-carry the consignment with us, effectively sparing Joe any freight or Customs expenses. He took delivery, and expressed himself delighted with the work, promising much more work in the future.

And then…..nothing. No orders, evasiveness on the phone, a big sense of deflation.

One day, Mohamed Abboud came to our home, agitated and upset.

“Do you know an Israeli guy called Joe?”

“Errrm….yes”

“Did you sell him the Harlequin tieback?”

“Errrm….yes”

“Well.”

“He was in the workshop yesterday, carrying the very same item that I myself, Abboud, made in my workshop for you. He was looking for someone in Egypt to reproduce it more cheaply, and he had no idea I was the original maker.”

Have you ever seen a normally mild mannered Turkish lady suddenly overcome with blood lust? No, I thought not.

Beginnings

October 8, 2009

I can barely remember how Sevinch got started. She had found the tassel of her dreams in the bazaar, and she wanted to make a career in passementerie. Wait, now I remember: she went to all the fabric and drapery showrooms in Cairo, and asked if she could buy tassels from them with the intention of exporting them. Of course that could never have worked, the pricing and mark-ups could not have permitted it to.

One day, one of the staff in a particular showroom, took her furtively onto the street: “Madam, madam – I can put you directly in touch with a workshop.”

Drop fringe 005

And so Sevinch met a kindly and humble Lebanese trimmings maker, by the name of Mohamed Abboud. Not only did he teach her much about the makings of the product, he encouraged and abetted her to go out and sell. He advised on the styles and colours she should attempt to market. He even gave her the names and addresses of potential clients. A trusting and decent thing to do: utterly rare in the ultra-suspicious market place that we subsequently discovered Cairo to be.

Mohamed was a really sweet-natured man. He had a huge workshop out in green fields close to the city. The area was timeless, fields of green fodder, rocket, coriander and other herbs growing from soil with the consistency and appearance of chocolate cake, the calls of children, turbaned fellahin squatting as they cut the produce with hand scythes, ox carts, donkeys and chickens populating the surrounds of the workshop.

Alas, eventually, Mohamed had to do a runner back to Lebanon from Egypt, his creditors hot on his heels.