Laila Gohar’s Exquisite Taste | The New Yorker

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At Alcova, an apple atop a swooning tower of red and green fruit wore a lacy Gohar World vegetable bonnet—which, as its name suggests, is a bonnet for produce. As with many of the pieces in the collection, it is defiantly inessential. No one needs a Battenburg-lace apron for a wine bottle, or a wrought-iron chandelier that can hold eleven hard-boiled eggs. The charm of such items lies in their roguish refusal to pretend otherwise. And the tactile, handmade look of Gohar World is an emphatic rejection of the sleekly anonymous and tech-inflected millennial aesthetic that has dominated consumer goods in recent years. “It’s the opposite of a screen,” as Gohar put it. She wished that she had brought the egg chandelier to Milan, but her sister, generally the more practical of the two, had thought it would be too cumbersome to pack. Nadia oversees sourcing in Egypt—where the family is from—while Gohar takes charge of promotion; they devise the products together.

Place settings from the Laila Gohar x HAY collection, 2022.Photograph by Adrianna Glaviano

Gohar was in town for a flurry of projects timed to the Salone del Mobile. After the Alcova installation opened, she would host a party with Gucci celebrating Gohar World’s capsule collection for Gucci Vault, the brand’s “experimental concept space” (a Web site). Then she would unveil a multi-tiered “Pigeon Table” that she’d created with the Belgian design team Muller Van Severen, inspired in part by Egypt’s pigeon houses. In between these commitments, she would take a brief trip to Florence, so that she and Nadia could attend the runway show for Chanel’s Métiers d’Art collection—a showcase of traditional trimmings and handicraft, similar in spirit to the artisanal work that the sisters had enlisted for their own line’s lace and linens. Then Gohar would leave for Copenhagen to preview housewares that she would release this fall with the Danish design brand HAY.

The photographer and filmmaker Andrew Zuckerman has collaborated with Gohar throughout the years, and counts her as a close friend. Last year, he shot her for Tiffany; she wore an Elsa Peretti cuff and held an egg. Zuckerman, who was at Alcova to show a new collection of wallpaper from a brand that he founded with his wife, told me he saw Gohar’s work as embodying “a new luxury.” Her installations are so otherworldly that you could imagine one of them appearing “twenty years from now, thirty years from now,” he said. At the same time, “you can imagine, almost, one of Laila’s installations happening for Marie Antoinette at Versailles.”

Gohar was born in 1988 in Cairo, to an Egyptian father and a mother of Turkish descent whose family had been in Egypt for many years. Gohar’s father, Mohamed, started his career as a cameraman for Egypt TV and for a time was the personal photographer of President Anwar Sadat. Eventually, he founded a news-production company called Video Cairo Sat, which grew into one of the country’s largest privately owned media organizations. He strove to raise his children in a largely secular environment. Laila and Nadia, thirteen months apart, attended school at Cairo American College, near the family’s home, in the suburban neighborhood of Maadi. (They also have a younger sister and brother, who were born nearly a decade later.) Their classmates were the children of foreign diplomats and wealthy Egyptians, and, though the family could afford to move in these circles, Gohar remembers feeling alienated from the haute-bourgeois conformity that prevailed. She and Nadia would go to school dressed in custom outfits that a seamstress friend of their mother’s sewed from upholstery scraps. The effect, which Gohar failed to appreciate at the time, was a bit “like if Comme des Garçons made children’s clothing,” she said.

Gohar was, by her own assessment, “a difficult child.” Her mother, Nevin Elgendy, remembers her as “a very difficult child” who was “not into rules very much.” In an early family photo, Elgendy is radiant, with a bright smile and fluffy nineteen-eighties hair. Baby Nadia is wide-eyed and grave, transfixed by the camera. Meanwhile, Laila, mouth open, eyes shut, is howling with toddler rage. (“Forever mood,” she wrote when she sent me the picture.) Once, in elementary school, she was given three days’ detention for acting out in Arabic class. Her father was troubled to learn that the punishment entailed sitting in the principal’s office and doing nothing, so he took three days off work and spent them chatting with his daughter in detention. “The first day, I remember walking across the school with my dad and just thinking, I am untouchable,” Gohar said. (In her father’s telling of this story, she was sixteen, and had been disciplined for kissing a boy.) At school, Nadia was easygoing and popular. Laila was not, but she had the kind of precocious charisma that appealed to her parents’ friends.

Her father was an inventive occasional cook, but Gohar’s first forays in the kitchen were largely inspired by her dislike of the foods that her mother prepared. “My mother is just one of those people who eats to survive,” Gohar told me. (“I don’t have a problem eating something that is not amazing,” her mother said.) Gohar remembers mushy peas in tomato sauce, schnitzel with breading that peeled off like skin, and, most of all, omelettes. “They would smell like sulfur—like gross pee-eggs,” she said. “You know when that happens with overcooked eggs? And they were rubbery.” The first recipe that she attempted on her own, at around age ten, came from a United Nations children’s cookbook—it was chicken teriyaki, the entry from Japan. “I just became obsessed,” she said. “I would make it almost every day.” She started sneaking into the kitchen at night with Nadia to teach herself to make meringue. Elgendy remembers coming down in the morning with their housekeeper to find the kitchen looking like something had exploded.

“Loaf,” a collaboration between Gohar, the designer Sam Stewart, and the bakers Millers & Makers.Photograph by Brian W. Ferry

Gohar knew from a young age that she wanted to get out of Cairo, and, when the time came to apply to college, she researched scholarships for international students in the United States. The University of Miami appealed to her: it was hot (Gohar loves the heat), and it was unfamiliar. “I remember arriving in Miami and thinking, This is amazing,” she said. “I don’t know anyone, I don’t understand anything that’s going on, I know nothing about this place. And I just felt so free.” In her first week of school, she told a classmate that she was from Cairo; the student replied that she’d grown up twenty miles from there. She meant Cairo, Georgia. “People always think it’s so exotic that I’m from Egypt,” Gohar told me. “As far as I’m concerned, growing up in a suburb of the U.S. is really exotic.”

While studying in Miami, she worked in restaurant kitchens, and as an assistant to a local artist. She began cooking lunches at his studio, and the meals soon attracted other artists and neighborhood friends. Gohar stopped when a reporter expressed interest in covering the gatherings. “It just made me feel uncomfortable,” she said. “I wasn’t doing it for any other reason than for us to be fed.”

This was not Gohar’s first brush with media attention. Early in her time in Miami, she had been photographed in her swimsuit for a street-style spread. Her mother remembers the day when, back in Egypt, the housekeeper delivered the news: “Madam, Laila is in Teen Vogue! ” Gohar moved to New York City after college for a job at a now defunct food Web site, then enrolled in a New School program in media studies and worked in the kitchens of restaurants that she prefers not to name. She is impatient with the “hype-y” culture around brand-name chefs and restaurants. “It’s so fetishized,” she told me. “I think the only thing that establishes credibility is your own work.” (A general tendency, almost a reflex, with Gohar is to resist efforts to pin her with a particular job or label. Her Instagram occasionally nods to artists and designers she appreciates—Louise Bourgeois, Isamu Noguchi, Schiaparelli—but she avoids claiming straight lines of inspiration.) At the same time that Gohar was working in New York restaurants, she started to build a catering business called Sunday Supper. An old friend from Miami had relocated to the city for a fashion job, and he introduced her to a social swirl of magazine parties and brand-sponsored benefits. A number of Gohar’s early clients emerged from this world, which is one of several that her career has allowed her to move between.

Today, Gohar calls the Argentine psychologist Susana Balán her “therapist,” though she concedes that the term isn’t quite right: they speak regularly, but Gohar does not pay for sessions. “It’s more like I’m a subject she’s studying,” Gohar explained. The two met after Gohar read Balán’s self-published children’s book, “Link and the Shooting Stars,” and identified with its hero. The story follows a young misfit horse, Link, who sets out to find a life that can accommodate his many talents and interests. The book is intended to illustrate a concept that Balán has developed called the “Link personality,” which she feels Gohar exemplifies. Such people have “many ‘I’s,” Balán told me.

In the past ten years, as the world’s attention went digital, Instagram became central to the marketing strategies of fashion and luxury brands. But successfully using this new platform required a different tone than that of the glossy ad campaigns that once fattened magazines. On Instagram, the essential quality was “authenticity.” This could mean enticing potential customers through spokespeople (from the emergent field of so-called influencers) tasked with appearing to like your products. It could also mean inspiring consumers to advertise your products themselves. Brands have long sponsored events in the hope of drawing publicity, but when smartphones and social media effectively turn every guest into a potential party reporter the goal takes on new urgency.

Many of Gohar’s pieces are arresting enough that it is not immediately apparent how or whether to go about eating them.Photograph by Hanna Grankvist

Gohar’s career coincided fortuitously with this shift. Mainwaring, her agent, started working with her in 2015, a period when she had wound down Sunday Supper and was beginning to move in more experimental directions. Mainwaring recalls that guests would arrive at an event and see, for example, a mountain of five thousand marshmallows, which Gohar once produced for Tiffany, “and instantly they would take their phones out.” They would post pictures, tag the brands, tag Gohar. “The brands were, like, Well, this is fantastic,” Mainwaring said. “People are coming and they’re doing the job that we actually always want them to do.” No one pulls out her phone to take a picture of sliders or mini quiches—here was a way to turn catering into viral marketing. Gohar’s growing online following made her an ideal subject for quick-hit fashion-media interviews and photo shoots, setting in motion the cycle of publicity and discovery by which people who seem as if they could be famous actually become kind of famous. Eventually, brand representatives would interrupt Mainwaring mid-presentation: Oh, wait, hold on, this is @lailacooks!

Fashion often turns to other fields to burnish its intellectual credibility and lay claim to eccentricity that defies commercial appeal. A menu wherein the food is “not the point” satisfies this particular craving. Alexandra Cunningham Cameron, the curator of contemporary design at the Cooper Hewitt, has followed Gohar’s career throughout the past decade, as food gained currency as a vehicle for social commentary in the design world. She sees Gohar’s work, in contrast, as more “experiential” than critical. “She seemed, in my interpretation of her work, less about using food as a starting point for critique—whether it be about foodways or consumer culture or aesthetics—than as a way of bringing people together and creating these delightful, unusual, novel experiences,” Cameron said. In her view, Gohar is engaging with craft and tradition. “There is always such intimacy in what she’s creating.”

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