It is very clear that Nabil El-Nayal, creative director of his eponymous brand, Nabil Nayal, is obsessed with Queen Elizabeth I and everything related to that era. However, did you know that that’s not the only queen he’s obsessed with? He also holds a special place in his heart for the current reigning: Madonna. Surprised? Well, I was. It’s hard to believe that a man so invested in 16th-century fashion – so much so, that it led him to get his doctorate’s degree in the subject – would have such a love for her. This just goes to show that Nabil is full of surprises, read this interview to get to know all of his quirks.
For starters, could you tell us a bit about yourself?
I am obsessed with Elizabethan dress – I think Elizabeth was probably my girlfriend in my past life. I have just completed a PhD on the subject.
How do you think your Middle Eastern background has influenced your current work?
I would say my Middle Eastern background has influenced my work in the sense that I have never been trend-driven necessarily. In Syria, fashion was always about six months behind the United Kingdom, so it was never about following the latest trends; it was more about wearing things because you loved them, regardless of how ‘cool’ they were.
What is it that you miss the most from your hometown of Aleppo, (Syria) having lived in the United Kingdom for so long? Is it your family’s textile shop?
Of course! I also miss my father’s side of the family (who are Syrian). I miss the vibrancy, warmth and colour of Syria. Whenever I am in any Middle Eastern country now, I am obsessed with colour. Whilst I love black and white – and always will – above all other colours, I almost think that my use of black and white was and still is a reaction to me leaving Syria.
I know that you are very much interested in fashion history, but why the Elizabethan era in particular?
For me, Elizabeth I (after Madonna!) is/was the most incredible Queen of all time. She wore men’s clothing to court and didn’t give an f what people thought about it. When she did wear women’s dresses, they were the best dresses you could have ever imagined. What’s even more incredible for me is that the only surviving image of these clothes remains through paintings; it’s as if it was all an illusion?
How did you come up with the concept ‘Elizabethan Sportswear’ for the collections of your ready-to-wear line? Is this Nabil El-Nayal’s version of the ever-so-popular athleisurewear?
Elizabethan Sportswear is a creative chapter that formed part of my PhD project. Elizabethan Dress and contemporary sportswear technology were set up to form a deliberate clash in fashion cultures: the past and the future. This was explored further and more sophisticated clashes were developed, which then resulted in the collections seen in Elizabethan Sportswear. In other words, it’s unlikely that you will ever see me do jogging bottoms or other literal interpretations of sportswear.
You have stated before that you make clothes so that people can eventually wear them, otherwise, you would be working in a museum, for example. However, many of your pieces seem like works of art, some might find them too precious to even wear. What would you say to those who are too afraid of tainting your work?
What people perceive to be art is subjective; some people would hang a piece of garbage on the wall and consider it art. I would say that it’s more about appreciating and respecting the integrity of garments. Understanding that garments are made by craftspeople, designers who have developed them not to be worn and then discarded, but to be worn and loved, whether that be an everyday t-shirt or an epic dress.
Other than lady Amanda Harlech and other living legends who have worn your creations, (and past and present British royals who you have admiration for), who do you envision wearing your clothes?
Your work is quite unique, however, which designer contemporaries of yours would you say inspire you?
I work with generic garments, specifically and most importantly, the classic white shirt, which is used as a creative starting point of every collection. My process involves a lot of self-referencing of previous works, which I then disrupt through collage. Although I respect other designers such as the late Gianfranco Ferré, I have to be honest and say I don’t turn to other contemporary designers for any form of inspiration.
Why did you decide to undertake a research doctorate after getting an undergraduate and graduate’s degree? Weren’t you tired of the academic life?
I love to research and my research before the PhD happened to fit a PhD model. And so in a way, undertaking the research doctorate gave me an excuse to immerse myself in 16th-century artefacts that I found in museums around the world. It was the hardest thing I have ever done, but extremely rewarding. Plus, I have always wanted to see the title ‘Dr’ on letters addressed to me!
After you graduate, what are your plans when it comes to your brand?
We have just received the Fashion Trust with financial support along with the mentoring, so we are aiming to grow the brand. Now that I have finished my PhD, I will be able to dedicate all of my time to the collections and look at expanding to pre or menswear at some point soon.
What do you see the future of fashion evolving into in the next few years?
I hope we will appreciate the importance of sustainability. Whilst this has been a huge topic for a long time, I feel like it’s been perceived as ‘uncool’ – surely that has to change.