Reviving Levantine Artisanal Traditions in New York
Tala Barbotin Khalidy looked to her Lebanese heritage to launch her US-based sustainable line of clothing
Racks of gorgeously embroidered gowns, shelves of ornate beaded textiles, tables topped with handcrafted finds from around the Middle East, all arranged in a series of intimate rooms overlooking the Mediterranean. A terrace where a shopper could wander out for a breath of salty sea air. Sensory impressions like these are hard to shake, especially when they’re the stuff of your childhood. For New York City-based designer Tala Barbotin Khalidy, who grew up in Paris but spent summers in Beirut at her grandmother Nadya El Khoury’s shop Artisans du Liban et d’Orient in Ain El Mreisseh, those impressions sparked dreams of someday creating her own line of clothes, each one its own treasured piece.
On her visits to the seaside Artisans shop as a toddler and in her school-age years, Tala would admire the clothes her grandmother made using Lebanese and Syrian textiles embroidered by artisans in Baalbeck, and would browse through the vintage pieces in the shop. The early exposure to design led her to an internship at Maison Rabih Kayrouz, and to taking up an interest in embroidery that continued after her grandmother passed away and the shop closed. Tala soon headed to New York City to attend Parsons, to study fashion design and find her own voice.
The Parsons classes focusing on sustainability were an eye-opener. “I saw how draining the fashion industry can be from a sustainability perspective,” says Tala. She took note of the sustainability principles built into classic garments that make use of entire pieces of fabric without wasting scraps, and felt drawn to ways of preserving traditional craftsmanship.
After graduating from Parsons in 2018, Tala worked for Ulla Johnson and Datura while also starting to build her own brand. Launched in 2019, the Tala Barbotin Khalidy line features contemporary pieces that incorporate Syrian fabrics embroidered by Lebanese craftswomen, including some of the same artisans who once worked for her grandmother. A number of fabrics she commissions for her garments feature the tarq (Arabic for “striking”) style of embroidery, in which artisans strike metal threads onto the fabric to create a textured effect. Tala then sews the pieces for her collection herself or outsources the work in New York City.
For winter 2021, she introduced a capsule collection of mostly unisex pieces – flowing elastic-waist pants, drapey shirts – in strikingly fresh shapes made using a variety of embroidered Levantine fabrics. Her Soraya pants, for instance, are made of corduroy and trimmed on the sides with a Syrian jacquard brocade. “These particular pants have a geometrical abstract motif, influenced by the embroidered fabric of Syria that takes from Islamic abstract representations and shapes,” says Tala. Fabrics traditionally used in Levantine homes, such as Syrian aghabani textiles, also show up in her new line. “A lot of the fabrics in the new collection are traditionally used for furniture. There is a big coat (the Assia Coat) made from upholstery velvet that is fully beaded over with these motifs.”
Combining the familiar with the sharply new, Tala’s pieces reflect an ethic of preservation and sustainability that informs her work at every step. Many of her garments are made using the traditional square-cut fabrics of Lebanon, Syria and Palestine. “With rectangular patterns, there’s an opportunity to make zero-waste garments because it’s easier to use all of the fabric that you have. It’s something people did naturally. As they were creating jackets and such, they were naturally trying to optimize fabric use.”
This spring, Tala is also releasing a line of T-shirts embroidered by craftswomen from Lebanon’s Artisanat du Chouf. She’s donating portions of her revenues for certain items, including the T-shirts, to Impact Lebanon and other organizations involved in rebuilding Beirut after the August 2020 explosion. Her Le Beirut tote bag, named after the classic Fairuz song and created to raise funds after the blast, is also available on her website.
In 2019, Tala started hosting embroidery workshops in New York, to serve as occupational therapy for women enduring domestic abuse and other traumas. This winter she launched a new series of virtual workshops, some of which focus on craft-making for gifts, and all of which start with a brief meditation session.
She hopes the embroidery workshops, all held online now, will help participants of all backgrounds cope with the events of the past year. “We’re all on our phones all the time – it’s not re-energizing us. It’s important for people in Lebanon and everywhere to get into their creativity right now.”