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A form of genius
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 18 - 12 - 2008

Giovanna Montalbetti and photographer Sherif Sonbol reflect on the illusion that beauty is effortless, especially in the fashion business
Irish writer Oscar Wilde once said, "Beauty is a form of genius -- is higher, indeed, than genius, as it needs no explanation."
In the presentation of his latest collection at the Cairo Opera House Mohamed Dagher proved, once again, that Wilde was right.
Dagher comes from an entourage well versed in beauty: son of the famous composer and violin player Abdu Dagher, he was encouraged to pursue the family's musical tradition, eventually graduating from the Music Conservatory of Egypt. But Dagher's always had a passion for fashion design. His persistence and talent led him to study fashion in Paris fulfilling his dream.
The true worth of Genius resides in the ability to develop one's gift, and this can only be achieved through hard work. It is through the combination of hard work and talent that Dagher has accomplished his current position as one of the best Egyptian designers. He not only creates beautiful dresses for equally beautiful women to wear, he strongly believes fashion should be designed to enhance and bring out the beauty traits of any particular person: "Not every dress suits every woman." he declares. "What matters is that she wears something that precisely suits her."
In his latest collection Dagher's vision of women is once again glamorous, with reminiscences of the classical grace of the Hollywood 1930s and 40s. Sleek cuts that bring attention to feminine curves, with special emphasis on waistlines, vertiginous necklines, vaporous skirts and jewelled or metallic fabrics bring back memories of the silver screen sirens. One was almost expecting to see Rita Hayworth or Marlene Dietrich strolling down the catwalk. But the surprise of the night was the guest appearance of the lovely Lebanese singer Haifaa Wahbi, who looked absolutely stunning in Dagher's blue design.
Wahbi may have been the surprise appearance, but she was not the only star of the night. The show was hosted by actor Mahmoud Hemeida, and it opened with a small concert in which Abdu Dagher presented the assistants with his music. The Cairo Opera House Ballet performed to Dagher's pieces under the attentive supervision of the company's artistic director Erminia Kamel. Two famous choreographers were in charge of the event: Italian Renato Greco was responsible for the ballet numbers, while Paris-born Chantal Rohr choreographed the fashion show.
The models, of course, played also a major role in making the soirée a complete success. On seeing them on the catwalk, one almost forgets these are women and not heavenly creatures of some sort. Their job is to show the designs in the best possible way, keeping in tune with the mood and ideology the designer developed for that particular collection.
"Beauty is a form of genius", Wilde said. The problem with Genius of any kind is that it is a gift that takes its toll in hard work. Genius is wasted if one doesn't work hard to make the best out of it. But many times, the hard work necessary to achieve Genius is taken for granted by the ordinary man. On watching the models, one dreams of a glamorous comfortable life: fame, travels, exclusive parties, beautiful dresses... it is tempting to imagine how their lives must be. But the truth is, most of the time we are just envisioning how we would wish our lives were if we were given the chance to be in their shoes.
A look at the backstage just a few hours before the fashion show begins is enough to break this vie-en-rose illusion. The models gather waiting for their turn to be "made beautiful" by the expert hands of the makeup and hair-styling teams. Time is essential and they all deserve the same attention, so they have to patiently bear hands doing their makeup, pulling their hair in complicated braids, and even helping them dress, all at the same time, in order to look good enough for the dress without eclipsing it. Because the work of the model -- except on very exceptional occasions -- is to show the gown and not themselves. As a matter of fact, some designers prefer rather ordinary beautiful models in order to make sure it is their designs that will be the protagonists. We learn this is why not too many Western top models are seen in the Arab world catwalks: a Western super model may attract attention, but on herself more than on what she is wearing. Models are vehicles for the dresses they wear; they should never compete with them.
Some of the models are so used to letting others decide when they are "fit to be seen" that they don't mind being shot while waiting for their turn to be beautified. Curiously enough, others show the insecurity of ordinary women, and will refuse to be photographed until they are done.
But this is not the only "human" traait these goddesses have. Pre-show excitement plays a big part backstage and combined with waiting periods, results in hunger. Of course it is the sort of hunger that can not be satisfied by a piece of fruit, and some models succumb (like most of us) to the temptation of "forbidden" snacks.
One last example of the earthly worries models share with us can be illustrated by Tara: a professional on the catwalk, no one would guess this 14-year-old girl is worried about a Biology exam she can't study enough for. She makes the most of any spare minute she can find backstage, but when showing off Dagher's designs, she is capable of appearing relaxed and unaltered by the flashes.
Dagher's show was a success, with a huge audience turn out that left little room for photographers. Dagher and all the people involved in the fashion show collaborate to create beauty. All of them are devoted to make the most of their form of Genius. Beauty may not need explanation, but it needs appreciation. The trap of beauty is that it seems effortless, but this is just an illusion.


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