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Interview

politics is inherent in fashion

From the keffiyeh to the hoodie, Sylwia Nazzal explores resistance clothing through Palestinian photography.

Words by:

Alia Allana

June 3, 2024

Politics. It permeates through all of life, from your mobile screens to the street. It also makes its way into your wardrobes, as a patch on your jacket or a disfigured sleeve—and yet a garment is almost always viewed with frivolity. It’s just a dress, they say. Palestinian designer Sylwia Nazzal is here to challenge that conception, her designs exist to address power. Nazzal goes beyond the keffiyeh, a staple of resistance clothing, and looks deeper into the daily brutality Palestinians are subjected to. Nazzal’s collections are inspired by photographs of soldiers and their brash mistreatment of civilians, and address a world that is at once appalled and sensitised by this excess of images. In her worldview, resistance clothing is seen in everyday wear, where something as ubiquitous as the hoodie can carry meaning and challenge power dynamics. An edited excerpt of the interview follows. 

IS FASHION POLITICAL?

Fashion isn’t solely political but politics is inherent in fashion. Historically fashion reflects society but this doesn’t apply to the way I approach fashion. I don’t see how it can be political or wearable; I look at it as art. I’m an artist and my medium is fashion and sewing. Often, people expect—even from my brand—for the clothes to be functional and wearable. But every aspect of everything I create stems from the fact that I want to be an artist. 

WHAT MAKES A GARMENT POWERFUL?

Context is a huge thing. You can put a t-shirt with a rip in it and the context can be something very intense like, say, sexual assault—and all of a sudden the garment has a completely different meaning. I think context plays a huge impact on how we view dress, or a collection or a clothing item.

Look Book

On Your Sleeve

What Should Have Been Home is Nazzal's collection that bridges fashion and politics. It is a careful study of culture, heritage and the resistance towards its erasure.

Images from Nazzal's collections illustrate how the designer draws inspiration from traditional garments as well as modern photography that depicts military brutiality upon everyday civilians.
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CAN CLOTHING THEREFORE BE A FORM OF REBELLION?

100%. It’s reflected a lot in history, even the keffiyeh and its print is a huge form of rebellion. It’s just a scarf but it can be banned and often be associated with terrorism. When you resist by simply using a traditional scarf, it also yields very disgusting and derogatory terms. Aside from the garment as resistance, tradition and culture is a huge form of resistance especially when people are trying to take that away with you.

HOW DID YOU COME UP WITH THE IDEA OF USING IMAGES OF AGGRESSION TO CREATE A COLLECTION?

I started the collection in 2022 and finished it in May 2023. This was before the world started to understand what was happening in Palestine and I’ve always been very political with my work. Prior to this, I had once taken a garment that was originally a tent and reworked it into a jacket to represent refugees. This sparked a huge inspiration for me to go into more political fashion. 

When I studied fashion design, I noticed a lot of people referencing runway shows and I never understood why you would want to recreate something from the inspiration that’s already there. Naturally it might overlap and I never found that inspiring. I’ve always found people and culture inspiring. So, while developing this collection, I was looking at Palestinian resistance at first. I also wanted to look at traditional clothing because I see resistance in two forms.

Fashion is at once ornamentation as it communication where a hoodie can transcend style and become a form of rebellion.

WHAT IS RESISTANCE FASHION TO YOU?

I see resistance as the maintenance of tradition and then resistance as actually resisting the occupation. When I was looking into cultural and traditional garments, I could not solely look at a traditional garment as a reference and ignore the genocide that we’re going through. 

During this process, I realised that our culture and the beautiful traditions we have are a form of resistance that have so much meaning, age, depth and history. But I can’t solely look at this when I am faced with this huge contradiction of someone actually trying to erase our culture. That’s why I decided to go into looking at these images. I can’t look at Palestine without also acknowledging all the monstrosities that are happening. 

THE POLICE AND MILITARY ARE THE FACE OF THIS AND VERY FEW GARMENTS POSSESS THE POWER A MILITARY GARMENT HAS. MANY DESIGNERS HAVE INCORPORATED THIS INTO THEIR COLLECTIONS AND IS A REGULAR FEATURE IN THE IMAGES YOU STUDY FOR YOUR COLLECTION. DID YOU CONSIDER LOOKING INTO THIS?

The archetype of a military dress is so versatile and there is so much you can do with it. I understand why so many collections are based around it because the garment itself has so many pockets, shapes and sharp shoulders.  It possesses so much masculinity that you can demasculinise in a collection which is quite interesting. Personally, I can’t help but look towards it and think of the IOF (Israel Offensive Force). I see the soldiers and can’t help but look at them with disgust. I see this uniform as something to not be proud of at all but something that literally commits genocide. 

HOW DID YOU THEN APPROACH THE IMAGES?

With the photos I had, there’s a lot of military garments combined with people being arrested. I think it’s such a juxtaposition – to look at a garment like that mixed with an everyday dress. There is a photo of an old man hunched over, who can barely walk in a jacket or scarf over his head and regular trousers and a cane. You see two military guys holding him back as though he can escape from them. It’s a huge juxtaposition of what it means to be in resistance.

Shop the Look (3)
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DESPITE THIS, DO YOU FEEL THAT FASHION IS MERE SYMBOLISM OR CAN IT YIELD CHANGE? DESIGN IS QUITE AMBIGUOUS BUT THE REALITY IS VERY GRIPPING AND REAL.

To all of the questions, yes. They can be all of these things, and simultaneously. Sometimes it is actual and not symbolic. In one of my garments, I reference a boy whose jacket is tied around his neck. I created a garment referencing something tied around someone's neck and just turned it into a puffer instead of sweatshirt material. In a way, this symbolises that image, which in turn symbolises the occupation and resistance with deep meanings behind it. 

HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN DOING THIS?

Four years; but my brand is two months old. I graduated university last year and I wanted to look for a job in fashion. I wasn’t receiving any offers or applications. My whole portfolio is political and very intense, very graphic. I understood how someone might appreciate my work but know that it's not a fit for their brand or actually despise my work. 

I definitely knew that I was not getting a job offer and I had a lot of talks with companies that ended up rejecting me because I was political. I was mainly applying in France to as many fashion brands as I could because it is a hub of fashion. I had some people tell me that we’re not going to accept you because you are pro-Palestine.

THEN YOU WENT VIRAL.

When 7 October happened, by coincidence I posted an image on Twitter that featured the lining of my jackets titled An Incomplete List of Palestinians Killed in 2022. It went viral. I was so shocked because my work was seen and it was such a powerful day. I thought that if working for others in fashion wasn’t working for me, maybe I just needed to do my own thing. Maybe if nobody can accept a political brand or designer, I need to just become one. 

So I started posting more about my brand and in February I decided to start posting the collection. I wasn’t going to sell hoodies but I ended up needing to because I was getting so many offers from people who wanted to buy them. People were taking my brand seriously before I was. 

HOW DID THE INCOMPLETE LIST COME ABOUT?

I started it in 2022 and I completed it in January 2023. I did it because I felt like I was creating all these powerful garments and felt the need to reference those martyred and highlight them, to actually do something beautiful for them. And now there is a whole new list since 7 October. It was a giant roll of names and I thought, this is insane. I thought to hang it up and take a photo before I turn it into clothes and that one photo became viral. 

THEN THE HOODIES CAME ABOUT. HASN’T THE SIMPLE UBIQUITOUS HOODIE COME SUCH A LONG WAY AS A RESISTANCE GARMENT FROM CHILDREN IN KASHMIR TO PALESTINE WEARING THEM WHILE PELTING STONES? IT FORMS A CRUCIAL PART OF YOUR COLLECTION. 

Yes, they definitely have. When I was making the collection, I knew every piece had to have power behind it. I was creating pieces as a statement and wanted the garments to be so big because I feel that people always ignore Palestine. I just wanted to be in everyone’s face with my design for the hoodies. I want the shape itself to be a symbol at a time when a lot of people asked me, “Why don’t you add a print or add Free Palestine?” and I was like “No.” 

I want the garment itself to speak volumes because when I created it, every step of the process was about making something that looked like resistance—like the Hijab hoodie. I wanted the wearer to feel the power of it. Part of it pulls on your head and that kind of reminds you that you are being pulled back which references the image of a man being pulled by the Occupation Forces. I wanted everything to have a feeling; when you wear it you know it’s about the resistance.

An image of the Incomplete List of Palestinians Killed in 2022 that Nazzal uses to line her garments.
Nazzal's garments are an expression of herself an artist. Fashion is therefore a medium and the aim of the design is to communicate power.
Shop the Look (3)
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YOUR COLLECTION ALSO VALUES IMAGES IN A SOCIAL MEDIA WORLD WHERE IMAGES HOLD LESS AND LESS VALUE.

We’re over-saturated with images and I think of myself holding these images. Maybe this takes people away from the images they see everyday and focuses on the specific thing.

THEN THERE WAS THE SAINT LEVANT MOMENT, THAT TRANSLATES AS FASHION AS A FORM OF POLITICAL COMMENTARY.

It can definitely be commentary. How you want to look at it and especially how you want to wear it. The Saint Levant moment was an amazing experience for me because I never get to see my work on someone else other than the models I curate. For me to see it on stage like that was so special and it made me realise that I do want to work with celebrities, that I do want them to make statements with my big garments that aren’t wearable. It was very special for sure. 

MY LAST QUESTION IS ON THE COMMODIFICATION OF FASHION. BIG GARMENTS OFTEN MADE FOR THE RUNWAY CAN BE POLITICAL BUT DON’T RESULT IN REVENUE. HOW DO YOU TAKE YOUR ART TO MORE PEOPLE WITHOUT THE COMMODIFICATION OF ART?

Because my images are so intensely political and reference people going through genocide, it is in some sense impossible to mass produce. Of course you need to make money but I’ve never felt I need to go too commercial. 

I feel that the hoodies are really wearable. I also wanted the hoodies to be special because they are sewn by Palestinian refugee women in Amman. The shape is very different, the amount of metres of fabric is very unique to the garment and I wanted to create something that was commercial but also possessed an artistic statement. I want more people to wear it because I want it to have its own form of resistance in the act of wearing it.

Alia Allana

Alia Allana is the chief reporter at Object.

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