His East-meets-West Elizabethan-inspired work has been compared to the likes of work by Alexander McQueen; he is one of the world’s first designers to introduce 3D printing to fashion; and he was shortlisted for the prestigious LVMH prize. Karl Lagerfeld is a client. And yet, Nabil El-Nayal is relatively unknown in the Middle East. That is all about to change.
CATERINA MINTHE: Why don’t you tell me a little bit about your roots? You were born in Syria (1985) and moved to the UK when you were 14-years-old. How did those early, formative years contribute to your development as a designer?
NABIL EL-NAYEL: As a child, I was always interested in how things operated—I wasn’t academic, rather I was interested in how things were constructed and created. I was very hyperactive and never really slept. I used to entertain myself because everyone would tire of me and by 3am, my family would all go to bed and I would stay up all night.
Did you start “designing” from an early age?
Well, one night, I was looking at these curtains on the wall, I tore them down and made a dress out of them. The next morning my mom came into the bedroom and instead of berating me, she smiled encouragingly. From that moment on, I was fascinated by fabrics.
Making dresses with curtains is not exactly a typical activity for a young boy growing up in Syria.
No [laughing], but it was also the family business in a way—my grandfather had a textile shop in Aleppo, and every Friday, after prayer, we would go to the shop to look at the stock, and I thought everything was so fantastic. There were all these lovely prints and embroideries and I would always imagine the garments I could create. My dad would always give me a piece of fabric of my choice and then I would go home and make something.
Your family’s decision to move to the UK when you were a 14-year-old must have been a difficult one to adapt to.
We moved mostly for educational purposes, but there were also a lot of changes already happening in Syria. When my mom, who is English, first arrived, it was a culture shock, but she was very much accepted—and she became fluent in Arabic and was fascinated by the clothes—she really embraced it. But by the time it got to the year 2000, things were changing rapidly. There was a big divide in cultures and my mom didn’t feel so comfortable anymore. But when we moved to the UK, we maintained the traditions and the culture that we grew up with in Syria and I still celebrate that in my work today.
What was one of the biggest differences that you noted when you moved to the West?
Growing up in the Middle East and being very creative, apart from my family, there wasn’t much support—for university and the like. My mom did her research and she decided that Manchester would be a great place for me to study fashion. I began with an art course and it was fantastic because it really gave me the chance to explore and interact with different creative people as well.
You’re currently doing a PhD that focuses on Elizabethan dress and innovative technologies; where does the bottom line and sales fit into your process?
My PhD is practice-based, so although there is a lot of theory and writing, there is also a lot of practice. I’m interested in creating pieces that transcend time and will last, stay in a woman’s wardrobe for decades—I’m not interested in creating garments that will sell in a few days and have a short shelf life.
From the looks of your collections, it appears that you are keen to bring Elizabethan dress back into our wardrobes.
Yes, I’ve always been fascinated by this era and costume in general. I love the idea that one day, in 400 or 500 years, people might look at our work from 2015 and be just as fascinated.
Do you believe that you have in some way merged your two worlds—English and Middle Eastern—into your latest Fall 2015 collection?
This collection definitely showcases juxtaposition between the Middle East and the Elizabethans. I found out that Elizabeth I had written many letters to Middle Eastern towns because she was trading with the Far East. This took me on a journey to Kazakhstan and Iran…this intertwining relationship between East and West is very interesting to me. I got very excited by the Kazakhs—what they used to wear, and used it as a print [some of the prints are hand drawn] within my work to celebrate the Middle East. Even though there’s a lot of negativity going on there [in the Middle East], there’s a lot of beauty and excitement and culture that I think should be celebrated.
Some of these prints are very masculine; they feature men with very long beards in ceremonial dress. Who are the women who you are speaking to with these clothes?
I think the women that will be drawn to my clothes are confident and very strong-minded—just like Elizabeth I was. She wasn’t afraid to wear men’s clothing, in fact she used to wear men’s jackets. I think that the woman who wears my clothes rebels against the norm.
Let’s talk a little bit about technique; from what I understand, you were one of the first designers to ever use 3D printing in your work (2010 collection, featured above).
That’s right, I started looking at 3D scanners and technologies—you know it’s funny when you hear a teacher or someone say, “Wow, I’ve never seen this before.”
They all said that it was very innovative and sounded very new but to be the first person to use 3D printing is extraordinary; the technology had been around for a long time so I’m really pleased to introduce it to fashion.
How did that come about?
As you know now, I’m pretty obsessed with the Elizabethans, so that is something that I began working with for my final collection for my masters. I was looking at baroque constructions and how architects used baroque within their buildings and then I came across this Elizabethan mirror from 1575. It was, of course, very precious and old, but I actually scanned the mirror itself to extract the shapes and then I went about 3D printing it. Then I realized that it worked very well as accessories for my collection, so I created these belt pieces. Harrods bought the collection, actually.
Style.com/Arabia, along with the Dubai Design Fashion Council, has launched the region’s first fashion prize in partnership with Farfetch. You yourself were shortlisted for the 2014 LVMH prize. Can you tell me how this experience has affected your career?
It’s been an overwhelming experience because I didn’t realize before I applied how much of a reach the LVMH prize would have. I know that LVMH is a very powerful global company, but in terms of the fashion press and the response I had from people who saw my collection—well, I just wasn’t expecting that. We arrived in Paris, and on the same day we were told we had to set up the space, and put our garments up on the rail. I wanted to create a world for people, I wanted to put images and fabrics up on the wall, along with visuals of the collection.
I understand that Karl Lagerfeld was on hand to view your collection?
Yes, the next day, in the evening, we had a reception where people like Kanye West and Karl Lagerfeld came to see the collections and I remember seeing Karl Lagerfeld from the distance, and I could see the press and people photographing him and I thought, “Oh my goodness, he’s my hero, he’s such an iconic person and inspiration.” I didn’t think he would come by my stand or my space, but he did, and suddenly, I had to explain the collection to him. He stood there in silence for a while, and then he explained, “I love it, I love it.” Then he looked at Amanda Harlech behind him, and said, “We’ll have to buy this piece [a white shirt] for Amanda.”
What do you think drew Karl Lagerfeld to this particular shirt?
He was looking at the collection and was saying, “I really understand it, I get the story, and I think it’s really interesting.” He leaned over and started touching the shirts and he felt the pleating on the neck and asked me, “How did you do this?” I explained that I used a very modern technique, and then he said that the shirt was really exciting and interesting and new—unlike anything he had ever seen before. I was shaking, I couldn’t believe he was even saying these things.
I was having a chat with Alexandra Shulman [British Vogue Editor-in-Chief] about it a couple of months ago and she said that it’s the kind of story that brands are built on.
You’re a born and raised Syrian designer, with an LVMH prize nomination under your belt—what’s your relationship with the Middle East now?
Nascent I guess [laughing], so far, you’re “it.” I’m very passionate about the Middle East—it’s where I was born, it’s where I’m from, it’s my culture, and to this day it continues to inspire my work. I think that if I wasn’t born and raised there, I wouldn’t have designed the brand that I have today. It’s that mix of East and West in my work that makes me unique. I think that I have yet to be discovered as a brand in the Middle East.
The Fall 2015 Nabil Nayal collection will be available for viewing for the first time during the upcoming Paris Haute Couture.