Thu, Apr 05, 2007 - Page 13 News List

Couture under the eye of Qaddafi

Rabia Ben Barka's idea is that her clothing represents a marriage of where Libya was and where she would like to see it go

By Michael Slackman  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , TRIPOLI, LIBYA

Workers sew fabric in fashion designer Rabia Ben Barka's shop in Tripoli, Libya, Monday. A portrait of Col. Moammar Gadhafi, the Libyan leader, hangs in the background.

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

The bold, flowing, multicolor gowns that add to Colonel Muammar Qaddafi's reputation for flamboyant and quirky behavior may actually make a subtle point.

They are, in fashion terms, what some people would like to see Libya become — a blending of the traditional and the modern. Rabia Ben Barka knows because, she said, she often designs clothes for the colonel, known here as Brother Leader.

Ben Barka, a slight, cautious woman, has waited a lifetime to have the chance to combine the styles she learned in the capitals of Europe with the traditions of Libya, her North African homeland. But Libya was not always open to Ben Barka; it was not open to anyone who sought to pierce its isolation.

Or to recover family assets seized by the state.

Ben Barka began life lucky, born into a very rich family. Her father owned eight textile factories in Tripoli. Her uncles owned buildings and hotels.

Then she wasn't lucky. Or rich.

Qaddafi (he was a captain at the time) and a small group of officers staged a coup d'etat in 1969 and ousted the monarchy. Once in power, the colonel (he promoted himself) nationalized almost everything on his way to establishing a socialist-style economy. The government took the eight factories, the hotels and the other buildings.

Ben Barka was abroad at the time, attending an elite boarding school in Switzerland. She moved on from there to Rome, w here she studied with leading fashion designers. In 1976, when she was 26, she said, she won a regional fashion show in Egypt, defeating better known Egyptian and Lebanese designers.

But her career never took off, she said, because she could not work from her home in Tripoli and pursue her passion of combining traditional Libyan dress with modern Western styles. "I missed many years," she said.

Instead she did work for others, designing lines in Rome while trying to slip in her own Libyan-inspired flourishes. But her heart was always in Libya, and her aim was to return.

Ultimately, she said, the ticket back came through the family that took everything away: the Qaddafis.

First, though, a note of caution. Ben Barka may not like what Libya has become under the rule of Brother Leader, but she will not say it. She may not like that her family's assets were stripped and her life's work stalled, but she will not talk about that either.

She has made a mental accommodation with what Libya is under Qaddafi. It is much like the accommodation many intellectuals and artists have made to work, or simply live, in authoritarian states like Iraq under Saddam Hussein or the Soviet Union.

"They call me the ambassadress of Libyan fashion," she said. "I am an artist. I have nothing to do with politics."

She said the door to Tripoli was first cracked open for her by Qaddafi's daughter, Aisha, who apparently liked Ben Barka's designs. It was during the 1980s, and Ben Barka was coming in and out of the country, traveling between her temporary home in Rome and her birthplace, Tripoli. Over time, she built up enough contacts that she was able to open her own firm.

She does not want to alienate her most important client in any way, so the details of her climb to success are thin and come slowly. But she says that eventually, she moved from daughter, to wife, to Brother Leader himself.

"I was the leader's designer," she finally allowed.

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