Nevin Altmann – Fortune Favors the Bold



It all started 26 years ago during a trip to the desert: The idea of reviving the time-honored needlecraft of Siwa and of giving local women the opportunity to make their own living. Over the years, this vision has developed into a brand that combines extraordinary designs and exquisite quality with social engagement.

When her daughter was just 9 months old, Nevin Altmann decided to drive to Siwa, an oasis that lies at the westernmost point of Egypt on the Libyan border – in the middle of the Libyan Desert. In those days, 26 years ago, it was almost impossible to obtain a permit from the military to drive to this part of Egypt. But Altmann was determined. She wanted to see myth-enshrouded Siwa with her own eyes: An oasis where, according to legend, Alexander the Great went to consult the oracle of Siwa. Mainly, however she was curious to see the handicrafts of the Siwa people. “I was completely fascinated by their baskets,” Altmann tells us.

She finally got her permit, but couldn’t find anybody to accompany her on the long trip through the desert. And so she packed her little daughter in a well-padded laundry basket – child safety seats were not available in Egypt yet – put the basket with its precious contents on the front seat of her four-by-four, and drove off. All alone.

The long tradition and signature style of Siwa embroidery

In those days, Siwa was almost untouched by modern civilization. With no electricity and no motor traffic, the only sounds were the creaking of the donkey-drawn carts and the incessant chirp of the crickets. Each morning, Altmann rose with the sun to the scent of palm trees and freshly baked bread. She would sit for hours and observe the daily happenings around her. “It was so beautiful, I never wanted to leave.”

She couldn’t get enough of the colors and the scents of the oasis. Or the local women’s needlecraft displayed on their headscarves and shawls when they strolled through the oasis. Siwa embroideries have an extremely old tradition and an entirely distinctive signature. Yet, when Altmann first came to Siwa, not a lot of the craft was in evidence anymore. “Regretfully, in Egypt, a lot of the good and beautiful things belong to the past, be it architecture or handicraft,” the designer tells us. “Siwa was no different.” Ancient pieces of embroidery still existed, but they were extremely expensive and often damaged. Modern needlework was nowhere near as skillfully executed. “As soon as commercial considerations start playing, the embroideries become larger so they can be stitched faster.” Was there a way, Altmann asked herself, that the tradition of these wonderful old embroideries could be revived? And from that question, an idea started to grow. “It was a challenge for me,” says Altmann, a woman of German-Egyptian descent.

Colors symbolize the ripening process of dates and olives

In an impressive edifice from the late 19th century located in the center of Cairo, Altmann sits in her studio, sketching, sewing, and experimenting with colors at her desk. She has her best ideas when she is alone in her small realm. Here she can immerse herself in colorful fabrics and draw inspiration from the, in part, century-old patterns that she transforms into exquisite designs. A large white cloth lies on the floor. Laid out on it are piles of brightly colored tassels that will be sewn on to the ends of the scarves, dyed only the day before. Altmann manufactures everything in-house, “to maintain the quality standard.” The tassels on the ground are sorted according to color: Green, yellow, orange and red. Spread out on the white cloth, they look like the dates and olives in the Siwa oasis that are laid out on the fields to dry. “These are the original colors used in the Siwa embroideries,” Altmann tells us. The colors symbolize the ripening process of the fruit.

If a local woman comes and asks for work, you can be sure she really needs it.

Initially, Altmann hadn’t considered turning her idea into a business. “I wasn’t doing this for myself. I just wanted to get a viable project off the ground that I could hand over to the women in Siwa as soon as my daughter started school and I wouldn’t be able to manage it anymore,” Altmann explains. Yet, working with the women, buying the fabrics, and creating new designs and products turned out to be so much fun that she continued. “There’s always this thrill of anticipation in opening a new parcel with the latest embroideries.” She sends the design specifications to the seamstresses, who then make the articles in their own homes. Even when an embroidery can’t be used because the quality is too poor, the women are paid for their work. “These local women often support their entire family,” Altmann says. Which is why she doesn’t turn anybody away, and many women have been working for her from the outset. “If a local woman comes and asks for work, you can be sure she really needs it.”

Each piece of needlework is unique

Every embroidery is different, each piece is one-of-a-kind. “I recognize the characteristic signature of each seamstress, when I unpack the new lots,” the designer tells us. Twenty-five years ago she started in Siwa with three seamstresses and three designs. In those days, almost the entire production took place there. However, as more local women in Siwa wanted to participate, Altmann had to come up with new ideas. And so they started making bags, scarves, cushions, wallets, caftans, and clothes for the dolls that Altmann has also been making for nearly 25 years – her greatest passion of all. At some point, cloth bags were added to the range, and for almost five years now, they have been producing delicate leather bags. Today, the range of products includes some 250 different articles. Because every piece of needlework is unique, no two designs are identical – meaning every Altmann product is one-of-a-kind.

Every town, every village on the banks of the Nile has its own traditional wear.

Today, over 300 women from all over Egypt work for the brand, with embroideries coming in from Siwa, the Sinai, Assuan, Sohag, Assiut, Alexandria, Ismailia – even Cairo. “Every town, every village on the banks of the Nile has its own traditional wear,” Altman tells us. Each seamstress works at her own pace. There is no definite timetable. “The women work how and when they can,” Altmann says. “We’ve had things sent back to us after six years.” The seamstresses are paid per delivered item.

During the past 25 years, Nevin Altmann has made a name for herself in Egypt although officially the brand itself has not been in existence very long yet. Previously, no label decorated the designer’s products to identify them as a brand. People bought the articles because they liked them and knew who and what the products stood for. A shop exclusively selling Nevin Altmann designs was only founded in the last quarter of 2011 and is run by Altmann’s daughter, Tamara Altmann. The 26-year-old returned to Egypt after having studied hotel management in Europe, bubbling over with irrepressible energy and the idea to start a shop with her mother’s products. “I think her things are so beautiful, especially since she started to work with leather five years ago,” Tamara Altmann says. She didn’t have a plan. “I just wanted to do it and embraced the challenge.” Mother and daughter don’t just look alike: They also share a love for Egyptian artisanal work and some major character traits, including passion and courage.

There’s always this thrill of anticipation in opening a new parcel with the latest embroideries.

The two of them work together closely, but responsibility for operating the shop and designing is strictly divided. Each has her own domain, of which she is entirely in charge. Since 2014, Nevin Altman products are available on-line, and Tamara Altmann plans to open a second shop this year. She still doesn’t have a set strategy, but trusts her instincts instead. And, after all, fortune favors the bold.

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