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In conversation with: Ayham Hassan

Why this Palestinian designer needs our help getting into Central Saint Martins!

Armed with his heart in the right place, pockets filled with skilled sketches and a crystal-clear vision, aspiring Palestinian designer Ayham Hassan is ready to take his artistry to the next level at Central Saint Martins, one of this world’s most renowned fashion schools. But unfortunately, getting accepted does not automatically gaurantee getting in. The soaring tuition fees often raise a big barrier between a far-away dream and a possible reality. After having been rejected for countless sponsorships, it was Ayham’s friend and creative director Yasmeen Mjalli who pushed the creative to start a fundraiser. Over our Zoom call — live from our desks in Amsterdam and Ramallah — I discovered not only how meticulously skilled and historically (as well as culturally) aware the designer is, for he is also radiating innovativity and intellect. His conceptual designs carry multitudes, never ceasing to surprise himself and others. Not to mention, Ayham is most probably the biggest sweetheart I have ever encountered. Together, we had a long chat about the politics of fashion, traditional Palestinian fashion production, sustainability versus mass production, and the constant conflict between aspirations and limitations.

Hi Ayham, how’s your day been so far?

It’s been okay, but filled with a lot of final projects and deadlines! The weather is nice though!

Do you remember the first moment(s) where you realised you wanted to become a fashion designer?

I always liked fashion, but at first I didn’t know exactly what ‘fashion’ meant. The first significant moments I recall are Lady Gaga music videos, The Devil Wears Prada, and Alexander McQueen’s work. I was so curious about how he could create these amazing silhouettes. Over time, I observed that McQueen was not a standard designer. The industry rejected him at first because his work was out of this world! His work is all about theatre and movement, which are one of the most important aspects of my designs. He definitely influenced me in that sense! I like to visualize how the sketch is going to be on a model that is moving. Actually, I am usually the one moving to the songs on my headphones. This helps me to visualize the texture, the movements, and how people would react to the moving garment.

Your vision goes beyond ‘just clothes’. When you work, all the senses are combined. Your sketches and designs are predominantly inspired by traditional Palestinian clothing. Could you talk us through that research process?

Absolutely. It’s one of my favourite collections! I once got accepted to a fashion course on the reimagination of the thobe. There, they offered an art project where I also met other Palestinian designers that were revisualizing the Palestinian costume. I had a book on Palestinian costumes gifted by my teacher Omar Joseph Nasser Khoury about the connection between silhouettes and Palestinian social life throughout time. I started exploring silhouettes and how each colour symbolised something different. A lot of science and textures come to play! Every detail was significant for Palestinian life, especially for the women. They would wear embroidery inspired by their landscapes and statuses. For example, one could notice if a woman was married by the colour on the bottom of her dress. A one-month newlywed woman would wear this traditional headpiece with coins, extremely beautiful with lots of colours and textures.

The costumes are almost like a notebook! I used to be inspired by the glamourous fashion – you know, Alexander McQueen, Galliano, Lady Gaga – but then I started exploring the roots of Palestinian costumes and how people used fashion to express themselves socially and politically. I once went to an exhibition near Ramallah with amazing archived Palestinian dresses. From both the outside and inside, you can see the perfectionism behind the making. You can notice the time period immediately!

It’s a super-rich culture so visually reflected in the clothes! 

Nowadays, Palestinian embroidery is used in a commercial way. It has lost its richness. During my own research and design process, once I finally saw the whole thing come together, I realized it had an orientalist feeling to it. I am always asking myself, “Am I contributing to how people see the Palestinian costume from a different perspective, or from a colonialist perspective?” and “how am I participating as a designer in this process?”. I wanted to research how the fashion archiving in Palestine works, and how I can contribute to it. It’s particularly interesting to view the secular production of knowledge is in an occupied, colonized country.

Finding yourself in that liminal in-between-space, just by creating, you start to make sense of it all as you refer back in time! There’s also a huge difference between making something by hand versus modern-day mass production … 

It was interesting to explore what fashion means in an occupied country. I have always been interested in fabrics, from how they are made to where they come from. I discovered that a lot of Palestinian costumes used to be handmade in Palestine. We used to have a textile industry, and the moment we got occupied by Britain in 1910-1920, that industry stopped and grew more commercialized and globalized. We lost these amazing rich textiles – 100% silk, 100% cotton, 100% hand-died materials – that I can’t find anywhere now!

So, in a way, you are bringing this beautiful craft back! 

Palestinian clothing has always predominantly been produced and woven by women for women, so that also motivated me to go into womenswear. It’s a whole philosophy how the designer, as the maker of the clothes, can produce something of quality and high-end, without wasting anything.

You are weaving your personality into the clothes! Fashion can often be very tied to the cultural developments around us. How do you position yourself between your identity as a designer and your social environment? 

When I first realised I wanted to study fashion, I was mostly interested in the superficial part. You know, the films, the magazines, the trendy glamour… But as I found out more about this industry and the bad influence it has on the environment, the more I started to hate it! It’s an industry with many political, social, economic and cultural aspects. It’s hard to be in an industry that doesn’t care about people. Right now, I can’t express myself the way I want to, I can’t entirely have my own aesthetic because of how Palestinian society developed. I lost something that was very rich and significant to my people and landscape. Because of the British, and then Israeli occupation, it become very difficult to import and export materials.

In a perfect world, I imagine Palestine to be a very different country to what it is right now, with a very rich culture that you can see every day. That’s why it’s called Palestinian costumes, not fashion, because the clothing was produced for a certain time. A culture you can add to and explore, a culture that has both masculine and feminine fabrics and elements. It’s very frustrating to me. I can’t find that on the street! Why did we stop wearing this?

Even in the fashion industry, you are continuously confronted with political issues. Sustainability is also a big part of your work, for example.  

I feel like people understand sustainability in different ways. For me, it’s about the cycle of production. “How are the products made, where are they made, have the workers been exploited or not?” When we still had handmade Palestinian costumes and self-made fabrics, we were more self-sufficient. It probably used to be easier to trace back whether everything was ethically produced. Imagine having that kind of access!

Your patterns are so detailed and rich! Where did you learn all these techniques?

I started sketching when I was thirteen years old. I taught it myself, it was the first thing that gave me an identity as a designer. During my design process, I get very maximalist, so sketches aren’t enough! I always have materials, colours, smells, textures and songs to listen to around me. As a very visual person – living in the digital age of image – I also started to learn photoshop. I love collaging and mood boards!

This is also why I applied to Central Saint Martins. I find Central Saint Martins very suitable: there’s many facilities, nationalities and all kinds of musea around. I’m also very excited to work with people from different cultures. On a technical level, I find CSM very artistic and experimental, and I want to experiment more so I can articulate my ideas and step more out of my comfort zone.

How has the support so far made you feel?

So overwhelming! I’m so happy and grateful… I still can’t process everything. I get lots of messages and support from strangers that see something in me. I am very happy I did it this way, because I got a lot of rejection from sponsorships. Being crowdfunded by people is a very beautiful thing. It’s a collective effort!

You have a lot to offer and exchange! I can tell you use history as a big source of inspiration, and step-by-step, you are weaving this into your collections.

My past is always related to my present. Everything I find in my research, I try and connect to the public spaces today and how we express our individuality. There is something missing in our culture, this richness and cultural context, especially in fashion. Adding Wi-Fi and pop music to the mix, you really have to figure out where you are in the middle of this mess.

I also recently saw Louis Vuitton use a Palestinian headscarf with their brand on it, and it felt like cultural appropriation to me. The same goes for Black, Asian and African history. You can find all these influences, but they are always used in a wrong way.

Absolutely. But with so much cruelty around you, perhaps fashion has the potential to express and experience beauty in daily life, albeit in the little things. Your clothing is more than just fashion!

Right! It plays on the emotional and physical part of the body. I don’t want my clothes to end up a museum, I want to see them moving around and observe how others play with them. It’s always about the humans in the end!

Help Ayham get to Central Saint Martins here!

Words by Brechtje Polman