the syrian designer who became an lvmh prize finalist

After Karl Lagerfeld became one of the first customers of his Elizabethan-infused sportswear, 31-year-old Syrian-born, London-based designer Nabil Nayal has been busy building his eponymous line and finishing his PhD.

by Steve Salter
19 June 2017, 4:00pm

"We're excited to show the LVMH Prize jury how we've progressed and share our plans for the future," Nabil Nayal explains as we tour his factory in north west London on the eve of the announcement. After making the shortlist stage of the 2015 edition, the Syrian-born, London-based designer has spent the last two years refining his work and building his business. While French designer Marine Serre walked away with Prize for Young Fashion Designers and Kozaburo Akasaka of KOZABURO was awarded the special prize, this year's LVMH Prize saw Nabil Nayal take another leap forward.

"They thought that creatively the ideas were relevant and right for the market, but there was no business -- and they were right," Nabil explains. "Karl Lagerfeld was one of my first customers," he adds with a laugh. During a jury walk through, Karl became fascinated by Nabil's bonded pleating methods and bought a piece as a gift for Lady Amanda Harlech. "At that point I said to myself, 'well, if it's good enough for Karl and Lady Amanda, then I have something.'" With a growing business, and ­stockists that include Harvey Nichols in Kuwait and Doha, and ­Dover Street Market in Tokyo, he's back in Paris as a finalist for the prize.

"After the feedback from LVMH, I asked myself, 'who do I trust with my life?' I walked away and found Jennifer, who I've known for ten years," he adds. The pair first worked together when Jennifer was a musician and had kept in close contact ever since. "When Nabil came back from Paris, fired up about building up the business, he asked me to come on board and I accepted the challenge," she explains.

"Within the creative world and fashion in particular, you don't walk in and take a business off the shelf and think that's the model you're going to follow," Nabil explains. "In the two years since Nabil was first shortlisted, someone from LVMH has seen every collection and whenever we've needed advice, we've been able to reach out and ask them. It's been invaluable," Jennifer continues. "One of the best pieces of advice we've received was from Sophie Brocart [CEO of Nicholas Kirkwood and director at J.W.Anderson Ltd), she said, 'stay true to your core and don't be afraid to say no to the wrong types of opportunities'. We've really focussed on doing that and it's meant that the people that we work with, really love and believe in what we do."

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As modern sportswear silhouettes and cutting edge technology are melded with Elizabethan codes of dress and fabrication techniques, Nabil's designs delight in the duality of old and new. This collision of cultures and sense of otherness is something Nabil holds dear. "My mum left Sheffield for Syria when she was eight months pregnant with me," he explains, of his upbringing. "She had bleached blonde hair, sky high stilettos and skinny jeans in Sheffield; we were entering a different world in Syria. I was born against a backdrop of opposites and this collision is kind of how I've embraced fashion -- seeing the history of it and looking to the future too. For me, the garments have to be contemporary and reflect the here and now. Essentially speaking, in four hundred years from now, I want people to see what happened in 2017 and I'm trying to articulate this moment, through the marriage of history and technology."

As he delves into museum archives and loses himself in forgotten 15th century craft, experiments with the 3D printing and machine bonding of today and daydreams about how his clothes will last in four hundred years, the past, present and future might blur in the mind of Nabil Nayal but he's perfecting his own sartorial time travel.

It is his insatiable appetite to learn which has driven Nabil forward. "If you want to become an artist, you study the history of art. As a fashion designer, I want to study the history of fashion. I want to really understand where fashion came from and where it could potentially go." After moving to England at 14, he has pursued courses in fine arts and textiles before completing a BA in fashion from Manchester Metropolitan University -- his collection scooped the Graduate Fashion Week womenswear award -- and duly secured a BFC scholarship to complete his MA at the the Royal College of Art. Today, he remarkably balances his label with a practical-based PhD that focuses on Elizabethan dress and innovative technologies.

"Money was tight and I had to be creative about the ways in which I could fund collections and the PhD provided that funding," he explains. "Not only has that award helped with the creation of the collections, it has given me a living and provided the opportunity to accumulate real knowledge. Ultimately, I don't think I would have arrived at the same conclusions creatively, had I not had this practice-based PhD. Having the opportunity to visit museums around the world and extracting from the archives has been so positive for my creative output. It means that what I'm producing is not only accurate and true to the past in many ways, I'm able to inform other people too. It's not-traditional but it shows that there are other ways of doing this."

From Syria to Manchester, London to Paris, Nabil is walking his own path. Before his attentions return to the LVMH Prize announcement and the jury's line of questioning, we end our chat by discussing their plans for the future. "We have some ambitious plans," Jennifer begins. "In the seasons ahead, we'd like to give every garment an archival style code which would bring up a whole host of information, from Nabil's research and design work through to the handmade production in London and it will hopefully provide a ways for us to continue the dialogue once it has been purchased. It means people can interact with the brand in a different way," she adds. I'm keen on sharing and disseminating that knowledge with everyone else," adds Nabil. Whether it's Nabil talking about Elizabethan dress and 3D printing or Jennifer discussing plans future innovations, the pair's passion is infectious and although it didn't sway the LVMH judging panel on this occasion, their future in fashion certainly looks bright.

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Text Steve Salter