Nabil El-Nayal is the Syrian designer behind his eponymous ready-to-wear brand Nabil Nayal. He was born in Syria, before moving to England at the age of 14. El-Nayal best describes himself as a “disruptive designer,” as he constantly challenges the boundaries of the traditional fashion landscape. He is most known for being the first designer in the world to use 3D printing in his work in June of 2010. Alongside this are the various prestigious awards that he has accumulated over the years, which include the Royal Society of Arts Award and the Graduate Fashion Week ‘Best Womenswear’ Award, he was nominated for the LVMH Prize in 2015 and again in 2017, and won the British Fashion Council’s Fashion Trust two years running.
People familiar with El-Nayal’s work know of his enduring interest in historical dress, seen through his use of pleats, dramatic construction and powerful silhouettes. “Most of my collections have been informed by European dress history, most notably the Renaissance and the Elizabethan age” he explains. While this backdrop of historical references remains at the heart of the brand, in recent years he has turned his attention to his own lived history, namely by looking within and exploring his unique cultural identity. “I’m lucky enough to have been born and raised in one the most vibrant places on earth – Aleppo, Syria. My memories of Aleppo are somewhat stuck in the 90s which is when I did my growing up, I guess. So it has stayed with me and has had a huge impact on my life and the way I see things,” he says.
Driven by his desire to further explore and tap into his unique cultural identity, that is often referred to as “otherness,” being both, English and Syrian, El-Nayal travelled to Amman, Jordan in November of 2021 for a life changing experience that could forever change the course of his career. Below, the designer exclusively talks to Pulse about his trip to Jordan, working with Syrian refugees in the Za’atri camp, as well as his plans for the future.
In November of 2021, you had the opportunity to visit and work with Syrian refugees in the Za’atri Refugee camp in Jordan. Can you tell us more about how this trip came to be?
I’ve wanted to be more actively involved in the region for years and, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize that there’s a part of me that is missing and that part is the Middle East. A chance encounter with Professor Helen Storey MBE led to a conversation about her work in Za’atari, which blew me away. Helen shared examples of some of the incredible projects she’d overseen. Months later, Helen got in touch and asked if I’d be interested in joining her on a new project in Za’atari, which would focus on embroidery and the preservation of culture and natural heritage. Of course, I said yes, and we got started on planning. I owe a great debt to Helen for taking me on a transformative journey and enabling my return to the region.
What did the work with the refugees entail and what can you tell us about your experience there?
The project is about developing a new type of stitch – a new Za’atari stitch that connects Syria with Za’atari. The aim is to help support the development of a self-sustaining business for the women, who can run and manage it themselves after we have left. Our first trip in November gave us a chance to explore the possibilities and limitations of the project. We reviewed 150 applications and narrowed it down to 28 women who would join us for the 5-day workshops we’d put in place.
The first day was spent in Tiraz, a museum in Amman that’s dedicated to the conservation and preservation of historical textile culture and artifacts from the region including Syria, Jordan and Palestine (I highly recommend you visit it, by the way). The 28 participants were granted permits to leave the camp and join us at the museum. The visit to the museum gave us all a chance to get to know each other and for us all to immerse ourselves in the wonderful exhibition, which set the tone for the rest of the week.
The most important thing I learned was to leave myself behind and enter a space of mutual learning and understanding. Life in the camp is very different to life outside – there is no space for ego. Before we left London, we spent months planning what we would do every day, including workshops, presentations etc., which all went out of the window as soon as we met the women. You’ve got to be really good at listening and reading the room. You quickly have to get good at picking up on the invisible, listen to the inaudible, and see solutions to problems as they arise. The women we worked with had the most incredible and diverse range of abilities, and we became the students who would go on to learn from them all.
Would there be a potential to collaborate and work with them as many are experienced seamstresses, crossstitchers, pattern cutters etc.?
Yes definitely. That’s what we’re exploring at the moment and it makes total sense to work with the women more closely going forwards. The focus will likely be on embroideries and other decorative methods. But working with the community needs to be a mutually beneficial arrangement. I’m really keen to give back and to protect our combined legacy and cultural identity. Our rich textile culture goes back many centuries and it’s really important to ensure it goes on for many more to come.
You state that this journey has been one to reconnect with your culture and heritage. What has this trip meant to you on a personal level?
I didn’t realize it at the time, but the collection I produced called MIXED OTHER: ARAB BRITISH (in 2019) would be the beginning of a long journey of introspection and re-evaluation. My early research into Syrian culture responded to personal insights, memories of being a child in Syria and anecdotal information from my family. But, like most things, once you get your hands on something, it’s really hard to let it go and so I kept on looking, searching, investigating – almost obsessively I think.
I got hold of brilliant books – encyclopedias on embroideries from the region, books on architecture in Damascus, gardening books – anything that could help immerse me in all things Syria. It was often emotionally challenging and I’ve felt a sense of loss because I haven’t nourished the Arab side of me for a long time. When I met with the Syrian women in camp, I was worried I wouldn’t be accepted – I was afraid of being seen as an ‘outsider’. But I was moved to tears by the women who were so incredibly supportive and positive. One woman said, “We are proud of you – a Syrian boy who went to England and studied hard to become a successful fashion designer. And now you are here to teach us”. I remember thanking her and all the other ladies who had been so inviting – I really felt accepted and that gave me the confidence to deliver the workshops and to provide guidance. But I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised – my memories of Syria have always revolved around the warmth and love of the people.
Your work often explores the concept of “otherness,” namely, your dual identity in being Arab and English. What can you share about how this trip may influence your upcoming collections?
There will always be two distinct sides of me, punctuated by culture and identity. It’s true that I have often felt “othered” and sometimes I’ve questioned what it means to belong. In many ways I think that questioning of everything has allowed me to step back and look from the outside. I occupy that space and it allows for perspective and perception. I explored the concept of disruption during my PhD and I learned that my approach to fashion is about the collision of cultures, past and present, distant and close – opposites, I guess. We are living in increasingly polarized times and I think my work can speak to that while seeking connections through the medium of fashion; pursuing a highly contemporary outcome, while preserving traditional Syrian dress and textile history.
You point out that Amman reminded of you Aleppo — and the beauty of a city like Amman, is that it is the safe refuge many have resorted to. With wars on almost every border, Amman’s culture is metropolitan and diverse. How did Amman remind you of Aleppo?
Amman surprised me in so many ways. But I think the most surprising was the overwhelming feeling of familiarity. I’ve been to lots of Arab cities, especially in recent years. But Amman is the closest I’ve gotten to feeling like I’m 10 years old on a school bus driving through Aleppo past the citadel at 7am. I’ve not felt that sense of comfort for a long time and that’s one of the reasons I’m really looking forward to going back in the summer where I hope to be able to spend more time there getting to know new friends and new places.
What have you learned about yourself from your experience in Amman?
I think my return to Amman took me right back to being a young teenager again. And, in doing so, there was a new awakening of my senses – I felt really energized, massively curious and desperate to soak everything up like a sponge. I guess the flip side is that it was a really emotionally charged experience. There is a huge part of me that feels a need to be in the Middle East much, much more now, more than ever.
Amman became a refuge for me in so many ways. It was where I would spend time finding my soul and making sense of my days in camp. It was where I’d reflect on Syria and the similarities between Amman and Aleppo. Every day, when we got back from the camp, I’d return to my hotel room and write and draw in response to my day before going for a long walk around the neighborhood.
With the pandemic forcing many businesses to reassess old models and adapt to the “new normal,” you stated that this could be a pivotal moment for yourself and others. What does this mean today, for yourself, and for your brand moving forward?
The pandemic has forced many (if not all) fashion businesses to reassess and revaluate. When we first went into lockdown, all our orders were cancelled. We lost big orders with huge international stores and that was difficult to process. But there was this sense of unity – that it was happening to everyone – which kind of made it easier to deal with in a way. The pandemic forced us to pause as a business, and I couldn’t be happier that we stopped. Like many fashion labels we’d spent years chasing the same goals: more stockists, more sales, bigger shows etc., etc., etc. It wasn’t me, and is not how I work best. Working with people and communities will be at the heart of what I do going forwards – that’s for sure. You’ll see from me smaller, more focused, more intentional and deliberate collections.
What is next for you?
I’m working closely with Helen Storey and we’re both planning the next phase of this project – fully expecting to have to change everything when we land in Za’atari!