day one of london fashion week with nabil el-nayalBack
Jennifer Lee O'Brien
There’s this story Nabil El-Nayal always tells, when people ask him how it all began. In the story, he is four years old. He is in his bedroom, it is the middle of the night and he is tearing down the curtains.
That it is the middle of the night is not, to this story, particularly important. Nabil would stay up all night, every night. He was, he says, a hyperactive child. He still doesn’t sleep, sometimes.
No, this story is all about the curtains. Nabil, a four year old insomniac, stares at his bedroom curtains. He stares and stares until he can’t stare any longer. He can’t explain why, but he needs to tear them down.
So he does. He tears the curtains down, and from three in the morning to seven, he creates. At seven, his mother checks on him. She knows Nabil never sleeps; she knows the kind of destruction her child can make between the unsupervised hours of his bedtime until morning. But this morning, the destruction is different. She is amazed; her four-year old son has torn down his brand new bedroom curtains and transformed them into a dress.
From that moment onward, Nabil was a fashion designer. He didn’t know it then, but everything had changed.
I met Nabil (now thirty-one, still a fashion designer) in his showroom at 180 Strand on the first day of London Fashion Week. There are so many clichés about Fashion Week; on this day, the first day, they were all true.
The whole of the Strand was buzzing. Yes, really! It was 5:30pm on a Friday, so people were crowded outside bars and pubs, totally buzzed. The crowd consisted of the nine-to-fivers, who were feeding off each other’s Friday Feels like suited-up, symbiotic creatures of the sea. And also, the fashion folk — all beautiful and strange, just like you’d expect, dressed up in this season’s most obscure or most refined. Hovering outdoors, smoking and drinking wine and lager and maybe martinis with the nine-to-fivers. Everyone was together, getting buzzed off the buzz of this Friday, the first day of London Fashion Week.
Outside 180 Strand, there were protesters. Yes! Real life PETA protesters, wearing masks, carrying signs and shouting; sharing tarmac space with the photographers, who were waiting to shoot the beautiful and strange and (maybe, hopefully) famous. At the registration desk, there were actual bloggers trying to talk their way into a pass to the showrooms.
All these fashion week clichés breathing and shouting and coercing and shooting and sashaying and drinking on the same sidewalk, or metres from it, was so hyperreal, like walking into sunshine from total darkness.
I was at 180 Strand to ask Nabil how it all began and to hear what happened afterwards, and what might happen next. It was the end of the first day of his showroom. He had been talking all day, as he would for the next four days. He looked immaculate; not at all tired, or tired of talking. Because it was the end of the day, and everyone had been drinking all day, 180 Strand had run out of champagne glasses and had begun to serve prosecco in glass cups.
When Nabil sees my prosecco-filled glass cup, he says: “that is so northern.”
Nabil is northern. He is from Sheffield, but also from Aleppo, Syria. His mother, a woman he admires more than anyone else, is British. She met Nabil’s father, who is Syrian, at a club in Sheffield. It was the early 1980s and Nabil’s father was working in Sheffield on a PHD in metallurgy. A year later, they were married. In 1985, they moved to Syria to help look after the family’s textile shop; shortly after, Nabil was born.
“It was an amazing backdrop to be brought up in,” says Nabil, about Aleppo. “I’m so grateful to have grown up in that world. Culturally it was, and is, incredibly significant.”
He spent his formative years surrounded by fabrics. The materials in the shop were infinite canvases for his imagination. Nabil would cut fabrics into small pieces and draw on them. “My father saw me doing this, and he said, ‘these are things you make garments out of, not what you draw on.’”
Nabil didn’t understand, so his father took him to see his grandmother, a seamstress, who taught him how to make clothes. His mum’s friend Rosemary taught him how to knit.
“It was really then that my love affair with fashion began,” he says.
As a kid he lived a “nice, international lifestyle.” Nabil visited his grandparents in England every summer. He was fluent in English; “but we were based in Syria, so I was very Syrian,” he says.
At fourteen, his mother made the decision to move the family to Sheffield.
“It got to the point where my mum decided it wasn’t right for us to live in Syria,” he says. “She went to Syria very Western, and it began to affect the way she lived her life.
“Also, she knew I wanted to be a fashion designer, and in Syria you were either going to be a doctor or a lawyer. My mum said to us, for educational purposes, we have to go.
“It’s because of her that I am who I am now,” he adds.
They arrived in England in December, 1998.
Nabil had grown up watching his British mother walk down the streets of Aleppo wearing whatever she liked; he was used to being stared at. In Sheffield, he walked down the street and people would stare. He thought: this must be the norm.
“I fell in love with fashion at the age of three, but I started to really analyse fashion at the age of fourteen when I came to this country,” he says. “In Syria, it’s not about who you’re wearing; it’s not about Nike or adidas. You wear clothing because you like wearing it. In England, you wear certain brands to be cool in school. It was so different, it was very alien.”
But it gave him the confidence to be assertive. “I wear what I wear because I believe in it, and I took that from Syria,” he says. “It has pushed me to think beyond a name and beyond a brand.”
He describes his teenage years as “rebellious”. When the time came to apply to University, he decided on a course in Fashion Design and Technology at Manchester Metropolitan University, but changed his mind. The “pure” Fashion course was much more creative. “However, to do that I had to do an art foundation course, and take a step back a year,” he says. “A lot of my family pointed out that I was delaying my education by a year; but my mum said, ‘he’s doing the right thing, we need to believe in him.’”
In his final year, on the advice of his tutor, Nabil applied for a Masters in millinery at the Royal College of Art. He was fascinated by Elizabethan history and style; he was particularly interested in garments for the head and neck. “Which is why I do a lot of these ruffle pieces,” he says, gesturing towards the clothing on the rack behind him.
Nabil was interviewed by Wendy Dagworthy, the head of the Royal College Fashion course. “She said, ‘I think you’re more womenswear,’” he says. “And she was absolutely right.”
Nabil was accepted on the course, but he didn’t have the funding to go. He spoke to another of his tutors, Alison Welsh, who told him about a scholarship offered by the British Fashion Council.
“She printed out the application, I filled it in in pencil and just threw it all together,” says Nabil. “I thought I was going to get a letter back asking me to never apply again. Instead I got a phone call asking me to come for an interview.”
Nabil was interviewed by Christopher Bailey, then the Creative Director of Burberry. “He’s an amazing mentor to me now,” says Nabil. “And I was successful; I got it! That scholarship let me go to the Royal College of Art to do a Master’s. And Christopher Bailey invited me to come work for Burberry for the summer.”
Burberry, Nabil tells me, was tough. And because it was menswear, which Nabil had never worked on before, it was even tougher. He worked hard that summer, and through the weekend before his course his was supposed to begin.
“I finished on the Sunday night and on the Monday morning I started my first day of University,” he says. “Wendy Dagworthy came to speak to everyone, and she said, ‘well done getting in, because it’s tough. But if you think what you’ve done in your BA has been tough, you’re in for a big surprise because your MA is even harder.’ And I thought, nothing can be harder than the Burberry experience I’ve just had. But it was even harder! It was also the best and most amazing experience of my life.”
Lately, Nabil has been visiting Italy. He has been working in archives in Prato, examining 16th century shirts and smocks. He wants to know how things were made “way back when.” He takes the study of his craft seriously; he once said: “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.”
Nabil has taught his manufacturers in London how to make his clothing. “Like the smock neckline on this dress here,” he says, touching the fabric. “I took my smocking machine and hand rolled the whole thing through. I said, ‘this is exactly what they used to do in the 16th century.’ And they couldn’t believe it! But now, a manufacturer in London can do something from the 16th century and sell it across the world. It’s brilliant.”
The Nabil Nayal aesthetic is described as Elizabethan sportswear, which he is researching as part of a PHD at Manchester Metropolitan University.
“I’ll take a machine that might do a bonded technique for sportswear and apply it to couture, dresses — that kind of thing,” says Nabil. “People say, ‘we would never fuse those things together.’ But it’s a disruptive way of working, and I do it deliberately. Without disruption, I don’t think there would be anything new.”
Nabil likes to challenge himself with opposites; he is most creative when suspended between disparate elements.
“Creatively, I submerge myself in things that feel very alien,” he says. “In that way I can arrive at new ideas.”
He laughs, and says, “that’s the aim anyway.”
There’s this story that Nabil always tells about the first time he met Karl Lagerfeld. The story is set in 2015. Nabil had been shortlisted for the LVMH prize, it was the evening reception and he was waiting at his stand with his collection. In the distance, he could see Karl Lagerfeld being photographed with Amanda Harlech. Nabil thought: oh my goodness, he’s my hero. And suddenly, there they were, at his stand. And then Karl Lagerfeld was saying: “I love it! I love it! I love it!” It was the best three words Karl Lagerfeld could have said, said in succession, three times. To Nabil, it was like poetry. It is one of his favourite stories.
I wanted to hear the story from Nabil, so I asked him to tell it. “Nothing will ever compare to hearing those words from him,” he says. “You might as well drop dead right there, because you’ve made it.”
He tells me about how Karl Lagerfeld touched his clothes; how Karl Lagerfeld asked him,‘what is this, and how is it made?’
So Nabil told Karl Lagerfeld how he used a new, modern technique. He explained that the material was bonded — that it was his way of appropriating starched fabrics. And then, Nabil says, Karl Lagerfeld pulled a shirt off the rack (white with accordion pleats) and said, ‘we have to buy this for Amanda! I love it! I love it! I love it!’
Karl Lagerfeld did buy Nabil’s shirt for Amanda Harlech. The next time Nabil saw that shirt, it was on model Jerry Hall in a photograph taken by Karl Lagerfeld and styled by Amanda Harlech for V magazine’s 100th issue. “I thought, that’s amazing,” says Nabil.
When Nabil was shortlisted for the LVMH prize in 2017, he met Karl Lagerfeld again.
“He asked me how I was getting on. We had a really big discussion about culture,” says Nabil. “He’s extremely intelligent. Honestly, he is amazing. It’s rare to meet people that really excite and energise you, and he did that beyond words.”
And Nabil thought: oh, it was so good to see Karl again.
“I was shortlisted for the finals and I met him again,” says Nabil. “He asked, ‘do you use black and white in every collection?’ And I thought, this is a trick question. But I said, ‘yes I do.’”
And Karl Lagerfeld said, ‘black and white is timeless, you’re doing the right thing sticking to black and white.’
Later that day, Karl Lagerfeld came out with his entourage (“bodyguards, everything”) and he shook Nabil’s hand. “He said to me, ‘you’re extremely intelligent and creative. Well done on your collection, it’s fantastic.’ And I thought, this is next level.”
When Nabil tells me this story, he is really excited and energised as if he is telling it for the first time; as if it is not the end of the first day of London Fashion Week. As if the security guard at 180 Strand has not just asked everyone to leave.
And then he starts talking about Rihanna.
“I could almost sense her presence coming around the corner of the stand,” he says. “I turned around and she was there, coming towards me. She said, ‘I love your collection’ in her amazing accent. I was like, what do I even say to this person? So I started talking about my concepts and everything. She looked at the model who was wearing one of the pieces and said, ‘this is me, through and through. This garment is me.’”
Great artists, like the rest of us, all have a story about when things began. A moment when they discovered something profound — or really, just true — about themselves; a moment where everything changed.
For Nabil that moment happened years ago, when he was four, in the darkness. He stared at the pristine, new material draped over his bedroom window and although he didn’t know why, he knew he had to destroy it. Those curtains had a destiny; they had a potential not fully realised, and it was his job to make it happen. For the first time in his life, Nabil knew the marvellous, implacable rush that comes from creating. And from that moment on, nothing would be the same.
Originally published in The City Talking: Fashion, Vol. 2