House Style

18th September 2019

Goodwood’s heritage of sporting pursuits, speed and innovation inspired fashion designer Nabil Nayal’s stunning new collection of couture pieces.

Words by Nilgin Yusuf

Photography by Jon Nicholson

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“I REMEMBER THE SMELL OF OILS and cottons and how they would steam and make the fabrics. It’s very distinctive and if I smell it now, it sends me right back to being four years old in my father’s textile store.” Nabil Nayal (his full name, Nabil El-Nayal, means Noble Man or Prince) is recalling the family business – once located in a souk in Aleppo, Syria, that had been passed down from his grandfather. Nayal moved to the UK at 14, but Syria has had a formative influence on the fashion designer, who is now 34. He fondly recalls rolling over bales of fabric as a child and secretly snipping tiny samples from his favourite bolts of cloth that he would hide in his bedroom. “I was a young hoarder and would store these beloved scraps,” he confesses. “At one point, my dad was convinced we had mice because all this material kept disappearing.”

I was told not to limit myself but to produce the most dramatic pieces I could

Nabil Nayal with his couture pieces, photographed at Carnes Seat on the Goodwood Estate

Nabil Nayal with his couture pieces, photographed at Carnes Seat on the Goodwood Estate

When the original premises were bombed out of existence six years ago, the textile business ended up operating out of his old bedroom, long after Nayal had moved to England to become a fashion student at Manchester Metropolitan University. The fabric hoarder went on to develop a confident signature style, one that emphasised form and silhouette. He cites the late, great Italian designer Gianfranco Ferré, known for his architectural shirt-cutting, as a key influence and it is shirts that Nayal is perhaps best known for. When Nayal was shortlisted for the LVMH Prize in 2015, the late Karl Lagerfeld bought one of his white poplin shirts with a bonded and pleated collar for his muse, Amanda Harlech, declaring, “I love it! I love it! I love it!!”

Nayal is currently working on his ninth collection for London Fashion Week as well as an intriguing collaboration with Goodwood, which plays to his fascination with historical design. The forthcoming Spring/Summer 2020 collection sees a return to his Syrian heritage via Lord Byron and the New Romanticism of the 1980s. History has always been a key driver in the prize-winning work that Nayal has produced, which has garnered him countless awards from the Royal Society of Arts and the British Fashion Council.

Examining historical dress is key to Nayal’s research process and creative imagination; he relishes being in close proximity to authentic garments, uncovering the secrets of their craftsmanship. Intricate smocking and pleating are often recreated using modern technologies such as bonding or 3D-printing, but he feels there’s too much reliance on the internet and 2D imagery for fashion research: “The screen is a tool and shouldn’t be a guiding principle. Creativity is interdisciplinary; it’s about crossing into different spaces and having new conversations. Being able to touch clothes, to feel the weight of them and see the detail, excites me.”

I realised it was all about innovation... tradition and heritage, yes, but always innovation

Nayal’s desire for new conversations with the future and the past have seen him working with the School of Historical Dress in Lambeth, which gave the designer access to a rich collection of historical garments. His exploration of pieces from the late 18th and early 19th centuries took him to the chemise à la reine, which was a key element of his A/W 2019 collection. Before this, he was also a regular at the British Library, which is where he researched his 40,000word PhD on Elizabethan dress. “Not bad for someone who failed their English GCSE!” he jokes (and there aren’t many fashion designers who can put Dr in front of their name). It’s also where he presented his first London Fashion Week collection. Here, he pored over original texts from the courts of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I and some of these words made their way onto white lawn dresses, including the famous quotation, “I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a King, and a King of England too” – uttered by Elizabeth I when the Spanish invasion was imminent.

“Elizabeth I, as channelled by Cate Blanchett, is close to my ideal woman,” says Nayal. “She wasn’t afraid to challenge convention.” And that also holds true for many of the women who have chosen to wear his clothes, including artists, designers and curators. Notable patrons are Lady Gaga, Rihanna and the late Zaha Hadid. Nayal has done a great job of modernising the Elizabethan ruff, something that features on some of his shirts and which he wants to be worn in a contemporary, relaxed way. “My approach is about disruption as a generative principle in fashion design; it’s about transfiguring the different elements into a contemporary whole.”

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With Nayal’s fascination and respect for the past, the stars aligned when he was approached this year by the Duke of Richmond to create exclusive pieces inspired by the rich heritage of Goodwood. The estate is famous, of course, for its sporting pursuits, all of which have their own clothing codes and cultures, whether it’s motorsport, aviation, horse racing or golf. But Goodwood is also a highly social place, with race meetings, balls and parties integral to its yearly calendar. For centuries it has been a place where people would come together, dress up and have fun.

Nayal and the Duke were introduced by Sian Westerman of the British Fashion Council and Nayal was given an extensive tour around Goodwood house and the estate. Dazzled by the artefacts and artworks there, it was ultimately the concept of speed that spoke most powerfully to him. Over the past 26 years, Goodwood Festival of Speed has become a globally famous annual celebration of brilliance in the motoring and aviation worlds, with an emphasis not just on the design and aesthetics, but also on the dynamic technical capabilities of these brilliant machines.

“I realised it was all about innovation,” says Nayal. “Tradition and heritage, yes, but always innovation. I took speed as my theme and the concept of aerodynamics, which allows vehicles to travel through space more quickly. I wanted to prioritise function and performance over decoration. I looked at the importance of stripes in sportswear and how they can convey speed.” Three bespoke pieces: a full-length gown and train, a cocktail dress and a trouser suit, all made from silk zibeline – a luxurious and sculptural fabric – are combined with silk organza and cotton organdie. “The pieces look very classic from the front but the drama is all at the back of the garments,” he adds. This rearguard action gives a sense of turbulence and speed.

The past and the future combined – a winning Goodwood alchemy

Nabil Nayal’s Goodwood-inspired couture pieces were unveiled at Ladies Day on August 1 of this year, during the Qatar Goodwood Festival, and will now be exhibited at Goodwood, becoming part of the estate’s rich archive of treasures. “I’ve never had the chance to work on a couture project before so this was an amazing opportunity,” the designer says proudly. “I was told not to limit myself but to produce the most dramatic pieces I could.” There is a pleasing serendipity that Nayal’s work, much of which draws its inspiration from fashion archives, will itself be part of the estate’s archive for future generations to enjoy. The past and the future combined – a winning Goodwood alchemy.

This article was taken from the Autumn 2019 edition of the Goodwood Magazine.

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