Scavenging for new outfits on a budget in Bulaq
Heba Afify and Pesha Magid model their polka dot jeans from Bulaq

The clothes market in Bulaq doesn’t end. Just as the racks of clothing seem to be tapering off into residential streets, there’s an alleyway to your left, which branches off into five other tiny alleyways, all filled with clothing.


But this is a good thing, because the clothing in Bulaq is cheap and awesome — some of it literally leaves you in awe. Who designed the velour, camouflage onesie, for example? Can I marry them?


Heba and I arrived at the market with our friend and Bulaq veteran Louise, who is effortlessly elegant and swears she gets her unique, fashionable clothing from this market. Case in point — while I was unable to tear myself away from pleather, leopard print sparkly leggings, she was masterfully flicking through clothing racks and discovering numerous cashmere sweaters and blouses fit for classy brunches.


Sparkly leggings

Sparkly leggings


Louise explained the key to her discoveries is quickly browsing through the racks and not pausing until something catches your eye, then snatching it up and storing it at the end of the rail. Once you’ve finished going through, you can take stock of your finds and decide which ones to take home.


I didn’t want to point this out to Louise, but there was a clear flaw to her method. She was assuming all of us have the same hawk-eye as her for fashion. Others among us, who have been told multiple times that they don’t understand “outfits” and “dress like a color-blind carnie,” found this whole process slightly stressful.


Bully dress, blue outfit

This classy dress and intriguing blue outfit were on the same rack, both for LE40


But Heba and I had a goal. We were going to get full outfits for LE100 or less. Nothing, not even the frightening array of choices without the guiding hand of a well-placed mannequin or a picture of an unreasonably attractive person wearing the clothing in question, would stop us.


One of the best things about Bulaq though is that money is hardly an issue, and this is coming from a girl who once lived off onion soup for a week to save a couple of pounds. All of the racks are clearly labeled with signs saying how much things are. Prices range from LE10-45 and items are separated by clothing type, although the pricing is sometimes quite random.  


I bought a lovely purple sweater for LE10 and then turned around and found an equally lovely beige sweater for three times the price. But there is no need to bargain, which makes things a bit easier.


Bulaq sweaters

Pesha in her sweaters


That is not to say you won’t be scammed, as Heba and I discovered after being fleeced by an enterprising hosiery vendor. Heba was feeling pretty savvy after buying ankle socks for LE5, until she heard another vendor with the same socks announcing everything on his cart for half a pound. I bought some staple black tights for LE20, which I knew was a mistake as I bought them, but after talking the vendor down from LE35, I felt too awkward to walk away. But if you stick to the racks of clothes, things are pretty straightforward.


Or so one would think. As we discovered, it’s pretty easy to be dazzled by the peculiar things you can find there. The sweater below, for example, was clearly meant for an adult, and yet, sewed to its sleeves were tiny little mittens clearly made for an infant. Why?


Weird sweater with tiny mittens

Weird sweater with tiny mittens


As with all truly important questions in life, this one had no satisfying answer. Maybe it was for a person with really tiny hands? Or for a mother who wants to hold her warm baby’s hands constantly? The possibilities are infinite.


Heba and I were happily distracted for at least two hours by numerous sweaters with puppies and stags on them, and sparkly bunny hoodies. So much so, in fact, that we lost sight of our mission. It was time to focus, get down to business and find ourselves some outfits we wouldn’t be embarrassed to wear in front of Louise.


We discovered there were some important things to look out for. Many of the pieces have factory errors, a small stain or rip. Tip: examine your clothing carefully before purchasing.


Also, look at the labels if they’re not cut off. We found a shirt from Ralph Lauren for LE35 and lots of other pieces from H&M, Zara and other well-known brands. This is not to say that you should aim only for flawless pieces though  Heba decided to overlook the small rip in the collar of this C&A dress, which she was elated to get for LE40.


Heba's C&A dress for LE40

Heba’s C&A dress for LE40


There is no way to try things on, unless they’re sweaters or jackets, so you need a keen eye to guess whether something will suit your figure or not. And seeing as many of the labels have been removed, you have to estimate sizes.  


But when you find a good rack, stick with it. We got almost all our clothing from one vendor. Heba found her entire outfit there, snapping up a cute brown dress and matching brown sweater. The dress and the sweater were LE40 each, bringing her outfit total to LE80, sailing in way below the LE100 limit we set for ourselves.


Heba's outfit

Heba’s outfit


My first outfit cost LE25 for the leggings, which are bright pink and glorious, and LE30 for the classy Scandinavian-style sweater I purchased to even out the effect. A sweet LE55 for a full outfit  not bad, although I’m not sure I can face Louise in the pink leggings. But, at some point, we all must face the consequences of our decisions, and I loved the leggings too much not to buy them.


Pesha's outfit

Pesha’s outfit


We thought we were done with our shopping extravaganza at this point. Both Heba and I had sweet outfits and our feet were really starting to hurt from standing for two hours — shopping till you drop is hard work. But then, we saw the rack with the pants.


We couldn’t let the opportunity pass by. It took about two seconds to decide we were going to get them. As my mother always says, friends who buy matching polka dot pants together, stay together.  


But this purchase came with another hard-learned lesson for Heba: No matter how good a deal it is, clothes that are not your size will likely be cast aside later. She will sadly never wear the amazing LE20 Zara polka dot jeans again, because she likes breathing too much. Although she did put them on once, as she wasn’t going to miss out on the reactions of everyone in the office when we walked in wearing awesome matching pants.


Heba and Pesha in their matching pants

Heba and Pesha in their matching pants

And that is the story of Bulaq. If you’re strapped for cash and want to look cute on a budget, this place is a goldmine. But go there even if your budget isn’t tight, because it’s magical.


You have a right to access accurate information, be stimulated by innovative and nuanced reporting, and be moved by compelling storytelling.

Subscribe now to become part of the growing community of members who help us maintain our editorial independence.
Know more

Join us

Your support is the only way to ensure independent,
progressive journalism