Around mid-Ramadan, Tunisian TV, Radio & social media buzzed with the news of the comedian-turned producer/philanthropist Jaafar Guesmi’s latest project: a clothing store. But not your typical fast fashion store, this is a store where a fraction of an item’s price will go to the needy.
Jaafar, who has been in the Tunisian hall of fame for quite a while, is no stranger to mainstream projects that aim to, according to his words, fight poverty. If not in a play, a soap opera, or a talk show he personally hosts, you would often see his familiar face on the silver screen urging people to give donations or contribute to a crowdfund of some sort, usually wrapped in a neat religious package, to reach that allegedly noble goal.
Yet in a Kanye West-esque turn of events, the selfless celebrity has decided to tackle another type of package: shopping bags. Although it is almost the norm nowadays for entertainers to start their own businesses, relying on both their fans’ support and their famous friends’ promotion, and for some to tackle the fashion department as seen with other Tunisian stars such as Manel Amara or Mariem Debbagh for instance, this move from this particular public figure struck the public as a little… contradictory.
The huge gap between the brand’s promises and actual execution caused some uproar, and its owner’s response just added insult to injury. But before delving into that, a quick fashion analysis is much needed.
High Expectations VS Low Quality
Kanye West, an American A-Lister, is best known for his musical career. Driven by strong religious beliefs and voices in his head, he produced several pop masterpieces and became a household name in the rapping scene. But he didn’t stop at that point, and made it in the not-so-inclusive fashion world as well, by becoming a full-fledged designer and collaborating with big names such as Balenciaga.
Jaafar Guesmi, with almost the same spirit, built a career in acting that catapulted him from the marginalized streets of the south of Tunisia to the stages of Paris. A success story that he, unlike the rapper above, claims didn’t get into his head and didn’t make him forget his humble origins… or did it?
In a chic area of Tunis, named after the shallow lagoon it overlooks, where windows are shiny and prices are exorbitant, you find the newly opened “Djaaf” store in all its glory. But inside, products are nothing but glorious: low-quality merch and cheap footwear sold for double, even triple their profit. But that’s fine because a measly 5TND will go to the poor? Sounds like a rip-off of the Robin Hood story.
And indeed, the public did feel like it’s being ripped off, with the growing awareness of how cheap and ridiculous the slogan “̷i̷m̷possible” looks, on shirts that not everyone “can” ( pun intended) purchase. On a forum online, a Tunisian active member wrote:
“Good day everyone. As you may already know, Jaafar Guesmi now has a brand that is heavily advertised all over the media these days. So I decided to go take a look […] and I was surprised by the prices. Let me remind you that Jaafar said his clothes will be affordable and accessible to everyone. Much to my dismay, I came across white sneakers with watercolor scribbles on (lol) for 200TND?! A basic shirt […] for 90TND!! Honestly, I left the store thinking how media spreads lies to boost some people and their brands. How can a father of 3, who earns about 1500TND per month, afford to buy a pair of tacky shoes for 200TND? I’m single and debt-free, yet there’s no way I’m spending that amount. A brand for everyone, they said. Such blatant hypocrisy.”
And replies varied; from mild disagreement because “clothes have always cost that much” and “high rent in such an opulent area justifies the raise of prices” to general criticism of the Tunisian entertainment industry. But one can conclude that the hype and the marketing of the brand were deceptive and misleading.
The brand’s URL is also no different from its IRL: a pre-owned Facebook page with the name recently changed to get an instant fan base, an Instagram page with little to no real marketing strategy, and a website that doesn’t function even after 2 weeks of the brand’s launch. It looks like using a Turtle as its mascot was the right choice after all.
Disrespect To The Customer & The Industry
Had it been simply a matter of overpriced clothing, this article wouldn’t have been written in the first place. But the issue is beyond an exposed business deal with false advertising.
In a trending video, we see Jaafar standing next to an assortment of colorful paint, and making random brush strokes on a matching set of black leather goods. Not only did the bag and the sneakers look tasteless and overwhelmingly tacky, they basically made a joke out of the rising art of shoe customization in Tunisia (see my article on “Kenenti” for reference). The same overpriced pair mentioned above had certainly gone through the same “artistic” process.
It’s also worth noting that this isn’t even the first time the comedian unleashed his creative beast, as he previously drew on some guy’s outfit, live on TV, using spray paint. A feast for the eyes, to say the least.
While it’s true that someone who owns a store gets to do whatever he pleases with it, this behavior seemed a little bourgeois, coming from someone who claims on every occasion he had no access to clothing in his childhood. There is a difference between selling a logo (that you commissioned from a graphic designer), and playing fashion designer à la Virgil Abloh. What’s next? A Djaaf runway show on Tunis Fashion Week? The man already calls his t-shirts “Spring 2022 Collection” on Instagram.
Fans of Emily in Paris will probably recognize the name “Pierre Cadault”, mentioned in this article’s title. This character was created as a stereotypical portrait of a male fashion designer: moody, whimsical, overly confident with relatively nothing to offer, and overall a sad shell of an artist that has been glorified by the media. And of all the talents that the capital of couture had to offer, Emily chose him and worked hard to boost him, which resulted in a nasty Viktor & Rolf SS19 knock-off collection and an ugly partnership with Rimowa.
If this masquerade continues, we will soon have our own local Pierre Cadault who believes he’s the modern Pierre Cardin. And that would be a shame for a country that once was home to Azzedine Alaïa.
Failure To Accept Criticism
As already mentioned above, both Djaaf and its owner have some flaws, that were further magnified by the excessive exposure and Jaafar’s usual overly dramatic discourse. Things were going fine when he was, on many interviews, comparing his befores and afters, preaching about willpower, and doing clown stuff to fill the remaining watching time.
Yet when he, driven by a sickening amount of optimism, started manifesting that his store will become an international chain that will rival the best brands on the market, reactions started to take a negative turn. With such claims, he had to prove his brand’s eligibility.
People were looking forward to seeing how Djaaf will be different from and superior to other well-established names. Instead, they were disappointed by the frivolous opening party, the mediocre quality, the atrocious designs, his megalomaniac attitude, and the constant gibberish Jaafar was spouting. Add to that how some people misinterpreted his “vision” and thought he was selling cheap clothes, while his intentions never were other than the 5TND plan.
This caused a wave of dissatisfaction among members of his cult who have long believed in his act and made bystanders, such as the author of this article, laugh at the whole situation because, let’s be honest, it’s like the elections all over again.
After a couple of weeks, right when it’s supposed to be his chance to play Santa Claus with the orphans, the beloved celebrity “responds to haters” with a video where he disses a random comment and explicitly says that he’s targeting the rich as his clientèle, and not people “who can’t afford a 64TND t-shirt”.
Of course, from an objective point of view, every clothing brand is free to target any type of people and cater to their needs. That’s why you find luxury brands that target a small, well-chosen percentage of people and prioritize craftsmanship over quantity; fast fashion brands that sometimes don’t even bother to open real stores, and focus on mass production and making huge profits out of the bare minimum; and a wide array of brands in between.
But to give your public the illusion of an accessible brand that offers quality at a reasonable price, and to spend long watching hours toying with their emotions, either by mentioning the death of loved ones or by exploiting other people’s tragedies, only to throw a hysterical fit because the same public that supported you felt betrayed, is simply a faux pas; business-wise and beyond.
It’s easy to control the masses using words and nationally televised acts of charity, but eventually, actions speak louder. And all that people saw is a man who forgot how it feels like to be poor and chose to satisfy his ego and his circle of privileged rich friends by making poor business decisions. Then when confronted with the huge dichotomy between what he promotes and what he’s doing, he lashes at his fans like a little spoilt baby that never went to bed hungry for a single night of his life.
In a country where starting a business is a challenge for most, where basic financial services are either slow, ineffective, or unavailable, and where dreams are nipped in the bud because of the regulatory system, the lack of visibility, the poor infrastructure or simply coronavirus, yes, it’s quite an achievement to open a store, a clothing store of all things. But what happens after the buzz wears off and the charade gets boring and when influencers go back to flaunting French and Italian houses; what will remain besides 90% of the population that’s split between not wanting and not affording your product?
How To Fix This Mess? (According to the Author)
If you reached this part, you’re probably thinking I’m a hater with so much time on their hands, who decided to latch on to a trending subject for clicks.. which is true.
But I also consider myself a part of the Tunisian fashion crowd, and it pains me to see charlatans piggybacking on fashion and giving it a worse reputation than it already has. This is why I’m suggesting a couple of things Jaafar Guesmi would have done or can do if he could read and understand this article (this is also directed to his team):
- Pick a niche. Swaying between different types of fashion causes confusion. Is Djaaf a store specializing in basic clothing like Hammadi Abid? Or is it artsy and leans toward traditional and handmade goods? Or is it purely street style? And with this will come the real brand’s identity.
- Ditch the fancy location; support the poor by renting in a more accessible location that can be reached by public transportations, and pay rent money to someone who actually needs it. And with this, you’ll be able to lower your prices accordingly.
- Even the biggest fashion houses charge nothing for their basic printed t-shirts (visit moschino.com and check the difference in prices); so make your logo tees the cheapest items in your store. Not only will they sell like hotcakes, but they will also bring you free publicity for months.
- Be clear about your intentions from the get-go. Do you want to make money? That’s your business (no pun intended). Do you want to share some? Cool ok. But don’t go crying about the poor when you clearly do nothing to help them.
- Encourage local designers and freshly graduated fashion students by giving them opportunities to work with you on a creative level. Employ lesser-known models, and call for photographers outside your closed circle.
- Support the needy by promoting their handmade products. A small shelf near the counter showcasing someone’s hard work costs nothing for you but means a lot for them. Zen has a set of totes made by widows who need a source of income.
- Stop making it all about you. Your name or your “cause” might make people curious about it, but it’s the quality and design that will keep customers coming.
- Work on the online store and social media platforms as much as you work on the real deal. Get inspired by Fashionnova, Shein, and similar brands with a cult following.
- A brand’s value comes from its history and legacy. Don’t expect international stars to become your ambassadors when you have just started and on such dubious grounds.
- Collaborate with local brands to REALLY encourage people to consume Tunisian Products. A capsule collection with a brand such as Lyoum for example can result in unexpected results.
Yet again, who am I to give fashion, marketing, and business advice?
There’s nothing wrong with dreaming big and striving to achieve your goal, be it opening a store or fighting poverty. But in the process, it’s most important to not take people for idiots, especially those who are willing to give support.
It’s also important to study your project well beforehand, seek the help of talented professionals, and learn from mistakes instead of showing entitlement and accusing others of jealousy and sabotage.
Finally, this controversy wouldn’t have been there in the first place if Jaafar Guesmi, his taste & agenda aside, knew how to market his store and didn’t shove populism into something so capitalist.
Hope this was a useful and entertaining article, and hope one day people will stop making fools rich and famous. x
If you would like to comment on this article or anything else you have seen on Carthage Magazine, leave a comment below or head over to our Facebook page.
And if you liked this article, sign up for the monthly features newsletter. A handpicked selection of stories from Carthage Magazine, delivered to your inbox.