Five years have seen Nabil Nayal traverse numerous highs. The Syrian designer Nabil El-Nayal, who moved to the UK in his early teens, has pioneered 3D printing, twice become a finalist for the LVMH Prize, and saw the late Karl Lagerfeld (“I love it! I love it! I love it!”) become a client, ultimately launching his brand. Below, El-Nayal reveals the images from his tenth collection that revisits archival pieces, with his signature architectural flair, researched shirting techniques, hand-smocked dresses, crisp shirts with pleated necklines, and diaphanous organza and organdi jackets and skirts. The designer shares his present-day challenges, and how he considers fashion will change following the impact of fashion’s greatest disruptor yet, Covid-19.
How do you anticipate the ongoing lockdown will affect your business?
The immediate impact of the pandemic on our business has been acute. Sales are way down as retailers seek to reduce risks and close budgets. Cash flow is major issue. Smaller independent brands are the first to go in times like this and we’ve heard stories from many young London-based designers who are facing similar challenges (95% of fashion businesses in the UK have experienced COVID-19-related disruption).
Looking to the future, there’s still so much uncertainty that it’s difficult to know what the long-term impact of lockdown will be. The economic downturn that will follow the current humanitarian crisis will no doubt completely disrupt the luxury fashion market (along with every other industry).
The disruption to businesses is of course, pronounced, but necessary in order to protect our healthcare system and the lives of the most vulnerable. We owe a great debt to our National Health Service (NHS) workers who are working so incredibly hard during these challenging times. My brother is a respiratory doctor and is on the front line everyday – my business being closed helps protect people like him and his patients.
It does seem a little bleak at the moment but there is also a glimmer of hope in the dark. This global health disaster and enforced lockdown has shown that huge change is possible. Societal and economic change on a massive scale has happened virtually overnight. It shows that when human beings around the world put their minds to it, seemingly insurmountable problems can be solved. What if we focused our energies on ending the climate crisis? Or inequality?
The machinery of the fashion industry has juddered to a halt and all of the frenetic energy that was pushing it forwards in ever more unsustainable ways is now being directed inwards. For the first time in what feels like forever, I am forced to pause. We are ALL forced to re-assess, re-think and re-imagine better ways of working and creating. There is a feeling that this could be a pivotal moment.
Ten seasons. This collection comes across as both a departure and a continuation. It’s a departure, a continuation, and an opportunity to question and challenge. It’s something we all need to do – the fashion industry is dominated by the giants and the voice of the new or the emerging grows more and more faint. With all the challenges required to succeed in the industry, there is no time for pause – and this is especially the case for newer labels that have to compete with those big names. The industry is running – racing in fact – and ironically, falling behind.
I began the research for this collection without knowing I was entering my tenth season – that’s what running at 100mph does to you I guess. It wasn’t until I was thinking about what it meant to enter this new fashion decade that I realized: this time ten years ago I was at the Royal College of Art (RCA) working on my final collection. On my shelf in my office, I have a rejected 3D printed shoulder antler modeled on a renaissance Baroque mirror, which I was developing for the collection – rejected because its twin fell from my locker and shattered into a million pieces just two days before my show.
Five years later, I was shortlisted for the 2015 edition of the LVMH Prize. It was there that I met the late Karl Lagerfeld who was so enthusiastic about my approach to historical dress referencing. I remember explaining how obsessed I was with the sixteenth century and how much I wanted to disrupt this with contemporary technologies. I had just started my PhD at Manchester Fashion Institute and, without realizing it, I was about to launch my label thanks to the press attention Karl brought to my work by purchasing one of my shirts. Sarah Mower, fashion critic at American Vogue and BFC ambassador for emerging talent came by to see me the next day and said, “You know he never does that… he never buys designer’s clothes.”
I’ve had some incredible moments since graduating from the RCA in 2010. What has remained consistent is my devotion to sixteenth century references – I love anything that relates to Elizabeth I. I was lucky enough to collaborate with the British Library and the British Fashion (BFC) Council for Spring/Summer 2019 where I had the incredible opportunity to explore Elizabethan manuscripts. Through the support of the BFC’s Fashion Trust, I was able to show my collection at the British Library and become the first designer to show on-schedule in the Library’s history! It made total sense to return to my love of the Elizabethan period (and the British Library), which would serve as a thread that tied all the reference points of my tenth collection together.
You recently finished your PhD. Can you tell us more about that experience?
The PhD was something that completely re-shaped my understanding of my practice in ways I never thought was possible. I was challenged in so many ways to dig deeper, to unpack my ideas, to underpin practice with theoretical frameworks and vice versa. It’s important to note that it was a practice-based PhD, which required 50% practice and 50% theory. I was also running my growing business at the same time and, whilst this was extremely challenging at times, it forced me to step outside the parameters of academic walls and engage with the industry I was writing about. I loved every minute of the PhD – but it was hard work.
You have become involved with the foundation Inara, designing t-shirts with funds going to Syrian refugee children in need of medical assistance. You have also been sharing your own experience speaking. You are stepping into your power. Discuss how do you hope to deepen that.
My dad had returned to Aleppo earlier that year for the first time since the civil war broke out to support our extended family after my grandmother passed away. His return to Syria triggered a series of emotions and ‘transported’ me back to my childhood when I lived there. When my dad finally arrived, he sent many photos over including some of our old house, which had been turned into the new textile shop; the old souk, which had been all but destroyed and various streets in Aleppo – all of which seemed familiar but somehow distorted. I felt an urgency and a need to do something to help in any way possible and to be a part of something positive in the face of so much negativity. There is still so much more to do and it’s important to bring attention to incredible organizations such as INARA who are doing unbelievable work in bringing hope and positivity to the life of many.
What have you learned about yourself from this experience thus far?
It’s reasserted my resilience – I’m coping pretty well in isolation to be honest. Maybe I’m just an introvert at heart? I’ve learned that I don’t need a lot to be content and I should appreciate the small things more.
As a designer and business owner, this whole situation has crystallized a lot of the thoughts and discussions I’ve been having over the past few months. I’m emboldened to step outside of the existing fashion paradigm that has become somewhat limiting. Whatever happens when this is all over, it won’t be back to business as usual.
What is next for you?
Working! I never have a problem finding things to do. I am also the Course Leader for the MA Fashion Design Technology Womenswear at the London College of Fashion (LCF) – a post I took up last August and love! Today I have been interviewing new applicants for the course and it’s been great getting to meet so many people around the world. I’m also finding the time to look after the 478 plants I’ve somehow accumulated. I’m working with IBM on an exciting project… Not sure if I can say much more yet but stay tuned!
What is the first thing you will do when the lockdown ends?
Go and see my grandma in Sheffield and give her a big hug.
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