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Designer Nabil El-Nayal

Designer Nabil El-Nayal

By: Oliver Horton

From Christopher Bailey to Karl Lagerfeld, designer Nabil Nayal is associated with the big names of fashion. But itโ€™s his own collections that are shaping a clothing revolution. We chatted with (soon-to-be) Doctor Fashion.

Nabil El-Nayal creates beautiful womenswear. His anecdotes feature some of the most legendary names in fashion, but he is humble and courteous. Even as a student he seduced the industry with prodigious talent and good manners. Awards came thick and fast: the top gong for womenswear at Graduate Fashion Week, the British Fashion Council (BFC) MA scholarship and more recently shortlisted for the LVMH Prize. 

He’s met the Queen. His clothes have been worn by Lady Gaga and Rihanna. Karl Lagerfeld bought a piece for muse Amanda Harlech. Nabil has stardust: “Karl was unbelievably passionate about my shirts. ‘I love it, I love it’, he kept saying, feeling the collar through his fingerless gloves. He liked the bonded fabric, how it was pleated, the starch that made it stand up, sculptured. He bought the shirt there and then.”

We talk shortly after Nabil’s return from Milan, where he showed his SS17 collection, Elizabethan Sportswear Part Three. Three down, three to go. “It’s Elizabethan dress and technical sportswear,” he says. “The old and the futuristic. I’m consciously fusing technology with Elizabethan craft, and finding something new.”

Nabil keeps his collections lean, letting the ideas dictate the number of looks – 10, 12, 16 – not shooting at some commercially driven number. “Sarah Mower [Vogue fashion critic] said, ‘You don’t want to be stocked in every store, you need to find the right showcase.’ Our shirts are £1000 plus, it’s quite specific where they sell.” Nabil Nayal collections are found in stores in Japan, the Middle East, the USA and Italy, in addition to private orders. Everything is made in England: London or the North. He is developing a collaboration for accessories, and toying with menswear. “Elizabethan shirts for guys. Then Karl Lagerfeld can wear them,” he says. 

Nabil’s latest collections fuse historical garments with more technical aspects of sportswear. As well as his own label, he is studying a PhD, started in January ’15. “My old tutor from Manchester [Metropolitan University] called up asking if I knew anyone who would be interested in a PhD with an emphasis on technology,” he says. “I think they had me in mind.” Nabil was the first designer in the world to put 3D-printed designs on the catwalk. 

As part of his doctorate, Nabil is reading French theorist Gilles Deleuze: metaphysics, epistemology and transformation of “the image of thought”. It’s the now-hot concept of disruption, which Nabil uses to facilitate his ideas, take his visualisations of garments into new space in the mind – 3D scanning is at the heart of the project. “Dresses are limited to their form, which is very frustrating,” he says. “When I’m designing, there is so much potential, what they could be. I’m now looking at the creative process in reverse, having a sleeve that comes off and can be reattached, giving people licence to continue designing the garment."

“It’s about wearing the clothes in a realistic way. At the end of the day, I’m creating clothes – it’s worth remembering. If I was just designing museum pieces, I’d never leave museums – I’d live in Prato or the V&A.”

Nabil’s father is Syrian, his mother English. His earliest memory is sitting on rolls of fabric at his father’s shop in Syria, aged about two-years-old. “I can still see all the prints, colours and textures really clearly.” His passion for clothing creation was born. “I made clothes out of fabric in the house until we had run out of curtains. Not that mum complained. She thought it was marvellous. ‘Yes, make me a dress.’ I made a wedding dress out of net curtains… without using a needle.”

His house in Syria was on a farm adjoining a factory that weaved and knitted fabric. Fashion education seeped in, understanding where the materials came from, grown on the farm, processed in the factory. At six, seven, eight, he was sketching designs. “I still have those hideous designs in a file somewhere,” he says. As he grew older, he got more into art, his mum’s passion. But Syria didn’t offer much creative opportunity – doctor, lawyer, dentist were more the tone. At school he struggled with the academic life, but came home and created, made stuff, was happy. For the son, the family moved from Aleppo to Sheffield in 1998, aged 14. “I was into GCSEs and it was so different. There were actually classes in art.”

Ten years later and Nabil won the BFC’s MA scholarship: Christopher Bailey on the panel recruited him as an assistant/researcher for Burberry Prorsum. “I wasn’t submerged in fashion until I went to Burberry. Before it was projects, now there were tech specs and taking designs through the factory. I finished at Burberry on the Sunday of Fashion Week, and on the Monday started my MA at the Royal College of Art.” The back-to-back assignments at the RCA taught Nabil to be less precious, more prolific. He describes it as the hardest two years of his life, but came good – his final collection was bought entirely and exclusively by Harrods. 

Early on, Nabil was well regarded for his civility. Fabric mills talked about the nice boy who had requested some cloth, offering in return credit in the lookbook, the garment after the show. Slight of frame and softly spoken, he is an unlikely but adroit networker and has the lightness of touch to engage people at all levels of the industry, not only the stars. “We’re all human beings and we have to get on together. A thank you goes a long way. There are only so many designers – the ones that do well are the ones that do things right.”

Poacher turned gamekeeper, Nabil is now on the panel of the BFC Education Foundation. He says: “The students coming through impressed me by having a real strategic approach. I spent £3000–£4000 on my final collection, some of them are spending £300-£400. You don’t have to go all-out to make it better. Creativity is the important thing – innovation.”

In fact, Nabil wants fashion to rein it back: “There’s no reason to rush. Enjoy the process. New ideas can’t be rushed. We are going much more towards slower fashion, two seasons. There is so much out there, so much noise. Being transparent, sustainability, doing justice to the creative ideas… I go back and research fashion from 400 years ago; I want people in 400 years to do that to mine.” 

He tells me about a lady called Jean, in her 60s, in and out of fashion manufacturing her whole life. As the industry shrank she would be made redundant, go work in Tesco, then find a job back in fashion. “I want to preserve and nurture craft techniques. I want to keep people like Jean in fashion work” he says. 

“When I met Karl Lagerfeld, I had this moment of clarity,” he says. “I was sharing ideas with another human being, a human being who happens to be called Karl Lagerfeld. That reassures me in a way.”

Want more? Check out images of Nabil's collection below. 

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