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Weaving the way into the Palestinian fashion industry

Celebrating the resilience, patience and perseverance of every woman that has fought and struggled to succeed and survive in or out of Palestine, Untha is an upcoming fashion collection which was showcased in Jerusalem in June.

Untha, which means female in Arabic, is a tribute to Palestinian women who have for decades carried the Palestinian identity under occupation.

Natalie Tahhan is the fashion designer behind Untha, she first created a brand which carries her name. It was the first of its kind to bring international fashion expertise to Jerusalem, offering luxurious high-end womenswear. The concept is to weave traditional Palestinian elements of intricate hand sewn embroidery and print into contemporary designs, to create exclusive pieces marked by elegance and innovation.

Fashion has always fascinated Tahhan. Even as a child, she filled endless sketchbooks with designs, colour and anything that she was drawn to. Having completed a degree in womenswear from the London College of Fashion, she continued to pursue her passion by collaborating and working with various design companies across the UK and the Middle East.

Tahhan says: “I’ve always been inspired by fashion as an individual sense of expression. What we wear on a daily basis communicates our personalities, our interests and even how we feel and I find that immensely interesting. Coming from a background with a rich cultural history I was definitely inspired by the historical expressionism of 19th century Palestinian embroidery, as it was a communicative language in itself.”

With the guiding hand of Al-Mortaqa Foundation, a women’s organisation in Jerusalem, and the creation of Untha, Tahhan was able to practice her love for art and design. “Untha by Natalie Tahhan is my latest visual brainchild, and my most significant creation to date as it is close to home. Having been designed, produced and showcased in Jerusalem, Untha by Natalie Tahhan is the ultimate expression of contemporary Palestinian fashion.”

Having obtained funding from the Community Resilience and Development Programme for East Jerusalem (CRDP), Al-Mortaqa Foundation was able to provide Tahhan with a platform to create her line, offering a fully equipped fashion studio and a vibrant team. The end result was Untha’s Spring/Summer 2015 collection that was inspired by florals which is heavily incorporated into all the exclusive prints and Palestinian embroidery motifs. Tahhan felt it was important to create something contemporary that celebrated and highlighted the intricate art of Palestinian embroidery and present it in a new way.

The element of Palestinian hand sewn embroidery is very close to Tahhan’s heart: “I feel it is a dying art in this day and age. The practice no longer exists on a large scale in our homes and is no longer passed down from mother to child, and so I feel it’s important to preserve and showcase the beauty of it.”

The difficulty has been in finding the right skilled people to produce the embroidery for the collection. Luckily, the team has had a very positive reaction to the collection. “At the end of the day it is an expression of design and art, and society tends to celebrate that rather than reject it based on orientalist outlooks of Arab society.”

Palestine, like many other countries in the region, is fighting to keep its identity and maintain national unity which is why throughout the design and production of the collection, the team behind Untha were adamant on creating something in Jerusalem. The Arab-Palestinian community in Jerusalem is almost always overlooked in the face of the larger and more vocal community of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. As such, there is difficulty in preserving identity and place within Palestine. “Untha was an opportunity for us and for Jerusalem to shine through a different light than what the international community is used to.”

Any project or initiative is bound to encounter problems but if it is in Palestine then these obstacles are likely to be doubled. Palestinians living in the West Bank require permits to enter Jerusalem, which are often difficult to obtain. Tahhan faced problems trying to obtain work permits for sewing specialists to travel from the West Bank and work in her Jerusalem studio. This set back the production line and caused problems.

“Sometimes the simplest of things are difficult to do in the political environment we live in.  However, my work hasn’t personally affected me negatively as I am always trying to focus on the positive side of things,” she explains. Tahhan strongly believes that “our strength should lie within what we achieve, and I believe that in itself holds a sense of resilience.”

Although she has had showcased her designs in London and Dubai, her latest Spring/Summer 2015 collection for Untha is the closest to Tahhan’s heart. “It was truly a labour of love, and being able to achieve it all here in Jerusalem meant a great deal to me.”

“We’ve had a lot of support and requests from clients abroad and so, it would be great to be able to showcase our next collection to a wider audience,” she says. Work on the Autumn/Winter 2015 collection is already underway. The collection involves a lot of print and embroidery, this time the focus is on different Palestinian design elements inspired by the Ottoman period.

She hopes this line develops and flourishes into an international brand, recognised for its quality and craftsmanship. “Hopefully it can encourage other Arab designers to manufacture locally despite the hardships because ultimately it is for our own benefit.”

Follow Natalie Tahhan on Facebook and Instagram to stay in touch with the latest on Untha fashion.

Untha Spring/Summer 2015.
Designed by: Natalie Tahhan
Photography: Hala Studio
Hair & Makeup: Jamil Samara
Model: Nour Bakri
All other images:
Photo credit: Zena Al Tahhan

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