Home Away From Home is a series that spotlights BIPOC brands that are adding a cultural essence to everyday items. This allows anyone to always have a piece of their culture in their own space without ever feeling homesick or out of touch with their roots. We're exploring the stories of the individuals behind the brands that have touched people's hearts through their products and have allowed people to feel at home anywhere.
When a traditional practice of rug weaving was being forgotten in Egypt, Ibrahim Shams and his wife, Noha El Taher, made it their own personal mission to sustain the cultural heritage behind the artistry. Kiliim, their lifestyle brand, preserves historical motifs while also delivering modern aesthetics with its colorful threads and fun shapes in all of its designs. Each design is thoughtfully curated with the purpose of the collection, cultural context, and stories of the craftsmen.
Shah and Taher are not only creating high-quality and unique rugs, but rather recreating the weaving industry to support local craftsmen for the work they're doing. By teaching them more techniques and guiding them through the process, they are reversing the weaving decline and setting an example for other brands to follow suit.
What Is a Kilim?
A kilim is a traditional flat-woven rug which is made by weaving on a horizontal loom.
What's the story behind Kiliim and what inspired you to develop your idea?
IS: When my wife gave birth to our first daughter, Lena, we wanted to buy her a kilim for her room. And we struggled to find something that had modern aesthetics with high quality in the local market in Egypt. We eventually found out that the weaving industry in Egypt fading away and that workshops were closing. We thought, maybe we can join forces to create a brand—me with my background in business, my wife with her background in design.
There was a small town called Fowa in the Nile Delta famous for the rug weaving industry. It had over 2,000 workshops, but only 200 of those were left. So there was a drastic decline in the industry, and it dated back hundreds of years ago. I just took a train and traveled there—I stormed around the workshops that were left, indirectly interviewing the craftsmen, working to understand the industry, understanding the struggles, and meanwhile trying to find someone we could partner up with and start our journey.
Can you walk us through the steps of launching Kiliim?
IS: The first collection was inspired by the original motifs that already existed in the weaving industry—the traditional motifs, Yet, she made them a little bit modern and contemporary using simpler patterns and unanimous colors. It was centered around the cultural heritage—we had a couple of hashtags called Kiliim Stories and Kiliim Reads.
Do you know why the traditional way of weaving was declining in the industry?
IS: Once I went to the village in Fowa, I started asking more questions, deeper questions on why they stopped practicing it and why the younger generations stopped inheriting these crafts from their ancestors. And the answer was basically because there were faster or cheaper options in the market. They also relied on the tourism industry to market their products. Back in 2011, when the Egyptian revolution happened and the tourism industry started to decline, their main source of promoting these products were basically gone—they were manufacturing the same exact designs and patterns.
If you had over 1000 craftsmen, for instance, producing the same exact print—the only way to sell them was to bring the price down. So, they were just selling it for cheaper prices. It wasn't enough for them to sustain their living standards, so they just quit.
What's the design process like?
IS: The designers look for inspiration with every collection and then they start the design process from that kind of inspiration. The debut collection which is the first collection that we introduced was inspired by the same exact product motifs existed already. They just took the motifs, simplified them, made patterns that were more modern, and selected color palettes that made sense.
We also introduced some collections were inspired by the general concept of texture. We went to the craftsman, explained what kind of texture we wanted, and showed them some videos of how they would weave those textures and create them on the loom.
What happens when creating a collection?
IS: For the Art Deco-inspired collection, we researched the Art Deco concept and the design style—we found out that it was actually dated back to the origins of the discovery of King Tut's tomb. It was inspired by the lines, colors, and arches that were found in the tomb itself. We always try to put that kind of story and bring what we are doing back to the origins of our culture and of our identity.
It was one of the top sellers in terms of our collections because people loved the backstory. We found out that a movement was transformed into a design style that was inspired by our actual ancestor discoveries.
What role did Kiliim play in helping these weaving communities?
IB: We tried to reverse this and add value to what they do by our designs, our marketing channels, and our experience in running the financials for them. We told them, "Tell us the fair price that you guys would like for the rugs and this is what we'll be paying you. Then, you leave everything else to us. We'll get the rug, do the operational cycle, run the marketing, and do the packaging and the branding—everything. You just worry about producing those designs that we want."
We knew we could create a final product that was of high quality, that would suit contemporary homes, that would suit the younger generations locally and globally as well. That's the value that we added to the product and to the craftsman that encouraged them to start practicing the craft again. We sort of feel like we started reversing that decline and bringing back the craftsman to work.
Once we started introducing new designs and techniques and teaching them to our craftsmen, so many people and other companies started to follow our model—they're even employing more crafters. It felt like it created a domino effect. Now you can see clean rugs with so many designs and so many brands locally emerging and trying to copy the model that we've been practicing. So, we feel that sense of achievement.
Editor's note: Some answers were edited for length and clarity.