In Conversation with Pioneering Syrian-British Designer Nabil Nayal

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Photo: Courtesy of Nabil Nayal

Nabil Nayal is one designer who is helping put the Middle East fashion industry on the map.

They say there’s nothing new under the sun, but Syrian-British designer Nabil Nayal may just prove that saying wrong. As a pioneer of 3-D printing technology – a process that he has fully absorbed into his ‘Elizabethan sportswear’ aesthetic – Nayal has had a toe on the cutting-edge of fashion since 2009.

He’s as brainy and articulate about his craft and methods as a professor, which is why you will occasionally find him giving presentations on Elizabethan dress, a subject on which he is an expert. His formal education and knowledge of design as it applies to his specific aesthetic is unparalleled. For that reason, his has been a name on many famous lips – even before landing on the LVMH Prize shortlist last year and garnering the attention and patronage of none other than Karl Lagerfeld.

Nayal’s designs seamlessly integrate the metaphysical, historical, and cultural with innovative digital design practices, and the results are nothing short of astonishing.

Nayal’s designs seamlessly integrate the metaphysical, historical, and cultural with innovative digital design practices, and the results are nothing short of astonishing. By resurrecting the lost art of Elizabethan pleating – which is used to stunning effect on his voluminous pieces – and fusing it with 3-D printing, Nayal is the sole inhabitant of a rare intersection between fashion, art, and technology. He recontextualizes the past in exciting new ways that provoke the imagination and thrill the eye, and vividly interprets the regal, confident spirit of Queen Elizabeth I for the modern-day woman. He is helping put the Middle Eastern fashion industry on the map, and Savoir Flair was fortunate enough to sit down with him for a lengthy discussion during his time at Paris Fashion Week. What follows are insights into Nayal’s extraordinary universe, and an introduction to one of the most exciting designers working in the industry today.

Nabil Nayal SS16
Spring/Summer 2016 | Photo: Courtesy of Nabil Nayal

When did your interest in fashion begin?
My first experience with fashion was when I started making clothes when I was three years old. I was very hyperactive as a child. I would stay up all night, every night, and one night I looked at my bedroom curtains and I remember thinking, “I want to make something with this.” So, I took them down – this was around 3 a.m., mind you – and I started cutting them up and I made a dress out of them. By the time I finished it was around seven in the morning. Then my mother came into the bedroom and normally after me being up all night like this she’d be like, “Oh, Nabil, not again,” but this time around she was really impressed. She said, “We’ve found something for you to channel your energy into.” I thought well, you know, that’s positive, so I carried on.

I want to blend the past with the future and create a new hybrid out of the two.

It’s surprising that you had a clear vision of your path at such a young age. Are you still as hyperactive now as you were when you were a child?
[Laughs] Yes, definitely, although I managed six hours last night, which was great because I’ve been running on two hours of sleep for weeks. In between showing in Milan and Paris, I just managed a trip to Nuremberg to conduct some research, basically because I didn’t sleep.

When did you start formally studying fashion design?
Growing up, I excelled in arts and in design. When I went to do my A-levels – which is what you do before university between the age of seventeen and eighteen – again I did really well in Art but I failed English miserably. Then, I went on to do an Art Foundation course in 2004, which is a one-year-long course, and I got a distinction in that, so I thought, “Okay, I’m on the right path. I’m doing something right.” Then I progressed directly to a fashion degree in Manchester and started to win all of these awards, which was another sign from the heavens that I was doing something right. The first one was a Royal College of Art award in 2008. There I met quite a few influential people, which was the start of a very interesting journey for me. Then I won the Graduate Fashion Week Womenswear Award, which is an award the student designers participate in every year. After that, I won the British Fashion Council Awards for the Royal College of Art Scholarship, which was just unbelievable in terms of press and prestige. It opened a lot of doors.

I was working at Burberry under Christopher Bailey over the summer before that, and I remember we had finished working on Sunday to get the collection finished and then on Monday I started at Royal College of Art for my Master’s. Wendy Dagworthy, who was then the head of the fashion degree there, said to everyone in the course, “Welcome to the hardest two years of your life.” I remember thinking, “It cannot be as hard as working at Burberry,” because that was really tough. But, she was right, it was even harder. The two years at the Royal College getting my Master’s were extremely hard, but they were the best years of my life. I learned so much and met so many amazing people. I became friends with Erdem [Moralioglu] because he taught there. Giles Deacon as well.

Why is achieving advanced degrees in design so important to you?
It’s important because you can’t learn everything overnight. I wanted to take the time to really learn skills, to gain knowledge about history and design, and to be able to put everything in context.

You’re building a foundation for your future as a designer.
Exactly, and it’s important that I do it right, because ultimately I’ve been doing this since the age of three, and I hope to be doing it until the age of 93. Hopefully I’ll  live that long [laughs]. It’s important that I do it in a way that feels right for me as a designer and as a person. I want to preserve my design integrity, and I want to make sure even now as I’m doing my PhD back in Manchester, that the reason I’m doing all of the formal training is to inform my practice as a designer, to inform my garments and collections. I want to make sure they are as authentic and respectful to tradition as possible – at least as far as the Elizabethan-era techniques go. So, I’m also doing classes at the School of Historical Dress in London. I’ve done the most recent one on Elizabethan ruffles, and the construction of those ruffles, and I’ve learned so much about how they used to do them 400 years ago.

If you want to become an artist, you study the history of art. As a fashion designer, I’m going to study the history of fashion so I can really understand where fashion came from and where it could go, potentially.

Your work so clearly reflects history, but also the future. Right now you’re working on a marriage of Elizabethan design and sportswear, correct?
Yes, I’m juxtaposing historical dress and modern-day sportswear.

How do you synthesize those two disparate aesthetics?
First, I do lots of research and dig through archives to unearth historical pieces so that I can understand their construction completely. Then I put that through a filter of sportswear technology. At Manchester Metropolitan University, we have this amazing sportswear kit, which they use all the time for running gear, football shirts, and things like that. I thought to myself, “How can I use this technology in a new way,” because I wanted to blend the past with the future and create a new hybrid out of the two.

Well, clearly you are having success with this method as you were recently short-listed for the LVMH Prize!
Yes, it was a massive coup! You go into these things not knowing what to expect and just hoping to do your best, and then Karl Lagerfeld comes around and you’re standing in front of him in disbelief and thinking, “I’m meeting the fashion legend himself.” Then to have him really appreciate your work – to exclaim three times, ‘I love it!’ – and buy a piece from it literally off the mannequin for Amanda Harlech is just a surreal experience.

He was really impressed with your bonded pleating technique, right?
Yes, he was. It goes back to that fusion I’m trying to achieve. He said he’d never seen it before.

It’s so interesting that you’re transforming historical dress with modern technology, because Elizabethan-era clothing is really where fashion started. Fashion started in the royal courts. So, you’re pulling that thread through to the present day.
Exactly! If you want to become an artist, you study the history of art. As a fashion designer, I’m going to study the history of fashion so I can really understand where fashion came from and where it could go, potentially. It’s so important! It gives context to your work to know where things came from. I don’t like it when designers say, “I’ve taken some bits and elements from history,” because when I hear that I think, “Be specific. What era from history are you looking at?” Just saying “history” is so general. You can’t be that vague. That’s why I’m being very specific about Elizabethan dress. Even now I’m narrowing it down further and thinking about the 1550s and 1560s for this collection.

Nabil Nayal FW15
Fall/Winter 2015 | Photo: Courtesy of Nabil Nayal

I want my clothes to be remembered in 400 years time. And I won’t achieve that by making boring shirts and dresses.

When it comes to Elizabethan dress, how do you translate that for the modern woman? Who are you designing for?
I always say that, if Elizabeth I were alive today, she would be the perfect person to wear my clothes, because she was very confident from what my research has revealed of her personality. She was very assertive. She was one of the very first women to wear men’s doublets and jackets. That exemplifies how strong-minded she was, and she wasn’t scared to challenge conventions. For me, that’s how I approach design. I see my customer as that kind of woman, someone who isn’t scared to challenge the status quo. I do see the garments in my collection as challenging pieces, and I’m looking for a woman who wants to rise to the challenge and wear something really new and different. She has to be confident, like Elizabeth I, and maybe also enjoy being the center of attention, because these clothes will absolutely get you noticed when you walk into a room. She needs to be noticed. She wants to be noticed.

I also want the clothes to be remembered the same way I look at Elizabethan dress from over 400 years ago – I want my clothes to be remembered in 400 years time. And I won’t achieve that by making boring shirts and dresses.

You use 3-D printing in your designs. When did you first start doing that, because it’s a relatively new thing?
I was at the Royal College of Art, and it was the beginning of my second year. I had just completed my collection for River Island. Although I loved the work I did, I wanted to do something that challenged conventions and I wanted to do something more interesting with my garments. So, I spent my first couple of weeks going through all of the different floors in the building – there are around seven different floors  at the Royal Collage of Arts – and everyone has different disciplines. There’s jewelry, there’s millinery, etc. One of the floors was where they did Rapid Prototyping, and that’s where they do the 3-D printing and 3-D scanning. I thought, “This is opposite enough from what I do that I’m interested in what I can do to make it fashion.” So I went in, and it was all very technical and I was thinking that it was already very daunting, but I love a good challenge. I could see all of these sculptures being produced by these machines, and I immediately started thinking of ways I could integrate them into my next collection. I started talking to the head of the department, and she explained the process and the various systems that go into creating a 3-dimensional piece.

I instantly started looking for Elizabethan elements that I could make into 3-D shapes, and I found the most amazing reproduction Elizabethan mirror from 1555. I bought it at great expense, but I thought it was worth it, because it would inform my collection, and I took it back to the Rapid Prototyping department where we mapped the baroque structure of its surface. When I saw the image of the mirror begin to appear on the computer, I was amazed. Straight away I thought, “I’m really onto something here.” After all, this was back in 2009, and no one was using this method in fashion at the time.

The results were fantastic, but they were just static objects that weren’t really sympathetic to the body. As a designer I have to be sympathetic to the body. People need to be able to wear the pieces. So, in order to make the pieces wearable, I brought in a mannequin and started mapping the form of the mannequin. I was able to manipulate those very flat, baroque shapes on the computer into shapes that contoured around the body, so when it was printed it would conform. I was eventually able to design around those shapes and integrate original Elizabethan pleating methods with 3-D printing in a way that fit the body and looked amazing.

Do you think 3-D printing is a form of craft?
It absolutely is a modern form of craft.

It’s not just a computer doing the work for you?
No, it takes so much time to understand how to make it work with the body, and then time to map and print, and then even more time to integrate it with fabric. It is a highly technical craft.

The end result is made of what exactly?
It is made out of a composite, so you can either have it made of plastic or a substance that is similar to the plaster of Paris.

Is the material fragile?
Extremely fragile! In fact, two days before my graduation show, we were running through the collection, and, of course, as I was reaching for one of these beautiful, fragile, baroque pieces it fell to the ground and smashed into a billion pieces. It was a real head-in-hands moment. And, of course, our 3-D printer was out of service at that time because it was getting repaired. Typical, right? But then I thought to myself, “Maybe this was meant to be.” It was an antler piece that was meant to go under the sleeves of a blouse, so I tried the shirt on the mannequin without the piece and it actually looked really good. The sleeves were even bigger and more pronounced without the antler piece inside.

I wanted to highlight Middle Eastern culture, or essentially fuse the East and the West. I wanted to show both sides of myself.

Do you identify as a Middle Eastern designer?
I’m half British and half Syrian. So, when I was growing up as a child in Syria I was the “English child”, and when I was in England after the age of 14 I was the “Syrian child” [laughs]. I’ve never seen myself as one or the other, I see myself as a hybrid between two cultures, who celebrates both of them. I think that’s what makes my work unique and gives it a different voice.

How has the culture of Syria influenced your work?
It came through very clearly a couple of seasons ago when I was working toward the LVMH Prize. I was looking at Persian Dynasty from the late 1700s to early 1800s, and the way they used color and the way they dressed – and I don’t normally use color in my collections. At that point, I wanted to highlight Middle Eastern culture, or essentially fuse the East and the West. I was 28 years old at the time, which meant I had lived in Syria for 14 years and England for 14 years, and I wanted to show both sides of myself. So, I fused Persian influence with Elizabethan influence by doing these stiff collars on Kajal dresses and coats. Also, while I was doing my research, I wanted to link the Persian Dynasty organically with Elizabeth I, and I found these letters she had written to the Ottoman Empire about opening trade routes for spices, and there I found my link.

 

Nabil Nayal FW15
Fall/Winter 2015 | Photo: Courtesy of Nabil Nayal

I have Middle Eastern heritage, which is a fact that I celebrate both personally and in my work.

What is one thing that has surprised you about the recognition you’ve received as a designer?
I do lots of presentations on Elizabethan dress and, recently, an older woman came up to me and said, “I’m 78 and I would wear every piece you make. It’s so nice to see a designer who doesn’t discriminate against age.” And I never really thought about age before. When I’m designing, I’m thinking about the process, the craft, the garment. That surprised me.

How has the Middle Eastern consumer reacted to your work?
So, so well! In the Middle East, we’ve noticed there’s such an admiration for craft and the work that goes into a garment. I think that’s where I’m connecting really well. Plus, I have Middle Eastern heritage, which is a fact that I celebrate both personally and in my work, and I think people respond positively to that. It has been lovely getting such wonderful feedback. I get to be a part of a really important story, which is a huge honor.

Where do you see yourself in the next few years?
I think it’s important to always be learning and then to pass that knowledge on. I think it’s very important to give back, and that’s what I try to do by using Elizabethan techniques; I feel like I’m giving something back to the fashion community. There is a plan to go into colleges and teach what I’ve learned as a way of giving back. My other plans for the future are simple: I hope that the brand will continue to grow organically and sustainably, and I hope to keep going with Elizabethan sportswear. I said I would only do six collections using that aesthetic, but I don’t think I’m going to limit myself that way.

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