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A Chat With Tunisian Fashion Designer Salah Barka

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By Amel Gaaloul and Moez Achour

Moez and I didn't personally know Salah until recently, but we had caught sight of him many times, whether on advertising film sets or while exploring Tunis's night life. Because Tunis is so small, as are the worlds of fashion, film, advertising, and TV production here, you always seem to come across familiar faces and find links with people you had never met before. This very peculiar, microcosm-like environment makes networking easier than in other capital cities.

Fashion designer Salah Barka is one of those people who, when you first meet them, strikes you with their genuine kindness and attention. His elegant and colourful allure, and the ease with which he seems to fit into any crowd tend to mislead those who don't know him. The aura he gives off confers the impression that he is inaccessible, when in fact his generosity and delicacy quickly become clear once you've gotten a chance to speak with him.

We had agreed to meet in his favorite café, the Maxim's, in one of Tunis's residential districts. Despite the rainy weather, his dark skin, dressed in vibrant shades of green and orange, combined with his huge white smile enlightened mine and Moez's afternoon.

We spoke about street-fashion in Tunisia, and all agreed on the impression that people here tend to take few risks as far as their clothing and style habits are concerned. Tunisians are perceived as being conformist, and mainstream fashion and tastes are largely influenced by the West. International brands and retailers have in fact met great success on the local market so far.

It is difficult for young fashion designers, such as Salah, to exist in such an environment. And very few opportunities offer themselves to truly emerge, whether locally or internationally.

Salah, who started his career in fashion as a model, works in cinema and advertising as a costume designer, and has recently created his own prêt-à-porter brand: Oshy by Salah Barka. The self-taught designer was happy to announce to Moez and I that he was in the middle of creating his own studio, where he was hoping to fully immerse himself in the preparation of his next collection. He hopes the collection will be exposed at Tunisia's unique outlet for young fashion designers: Sisi Store in Carthage.

Very attentive to international but also local trends in clothing and style, Salah draws his inspiration from the streets and everyday life in Tunisia. Although he specializes in men's wear, he likes to think of his pieces as being unisex, and free of gender considerations, just like the work of his favourite designer, Jean-Paul Gaultier. What mostly distinguishes Salah's work is its narrative dimension, with a harmonious mix of ethnic looks combined with discreet references to the '40s, '50s, and the beginning of the 20th century -- a very unique and enthusiastic vision that celebrates Tunisia's cultural heritage and diversity.

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Photography of Salah Barka by Rim Temimi
Collection photographs courtesy of Salah Barka