Made in Jerusalem: Natalie Tahhan’s Embroidered Fashion

Natalie Tahhan's Spring/Summer 2015 fashion show in East Jerusalem. (Natalie Tahhan)

“What we wear on a daily basis communicates our personalities, our interests, and even how we feel; and I’ve always been inspired by fashion as an individual sense of expression,” Natalie Tahhan of the eponymous fashion brand remarked in a recent talk with Palestine Square.

The Jerusalem-born Tahhan is currently in between her native city (where her clothing is manufactured) and Doha (where she mainly resides and her fashion label is based) designing the upcoming Autumn/Winter 2016 collection for her luxury womenswear brand. Tahhan is not the first Palestinian to work in modern fashion, but her incorporation of Palestinian embroidery into her designs has made her one of today’s most emblematic Palestinian fashion designers. Tahhan related that from a background with a rich cultural history, she found herself drawn to what she described as the “communicative language” of 19th century Palestinian embroidery.

After considerable experience in both the United Kingdom and Middle East design scenes, last year the London College of Fashion graduate decided to venture out on her own with a fashion label inspired by her Palestinian heritage. “The concept is to weave traditional Palestinian elements of intricate hand-sewn embroidery into contemporary designs,” Tahhan said, adding that hers was “the first brand of its kind to bring international fashion expertise to Jerusalem.” While she points out that she is attuned to the “international fashion street style scene,” and tailors her outfits accordingly, it is the “aesthetic language” of embroidery that inspires her work.

“I continuously look back at the art form and discover new and wonderful aspects about it each time,” Tahhan says. Her contemporary reimagining of the traditional styles and patterns not only serves to present “the intricate art … in a way that hasn’t previously been done,” but also to keep alive a declining tradition. “Unfortunately the practice no longer exists on a large scale in our homes and is no longer passed down from mother to child,” Tahhan laments. Palestinian villages and towns used to be famous for their individually distinctive embroidery patterns and while there is a burgeoning Palestinian fashion scene headed by a few independent designers in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank, the burden of preserving those traditional embroidered garments falls mainly to the Palestinian diaspora.

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An early 20th century Félix Bonfils portrait of two young girls from Bethlehem. Each region in Palestine has its distinctive embroidery patterns and style for adorning women’s clothing. The headdress often has coins sewn into it. (Before Their Diaspora)

Across the world, Palestinians are “creating beautiful garments and celebrating our culture,” Tahhan says. She believes that Palestinian designers, unencumbered by the restrictions of Israeli occupation and with greater access to investment capital in the diaspora, could inspire a renaissance for Palestine’s garment industry. And she hopes that her decision to base her sewing workshop in Jerusalem will “encourage other Palestinian designers to manufacture locally despite the hardships.” Her travels in Palestine have brought her into contact with many skilled fashion designers who are unable to find work due to a shortage of opportunities.

I ask if there’s a political dimension to her work, the dreaded question to which Palestinian artists are often subjected. “I don’t see my fashion or design ethos as political,” Tahhan responds with certainty. “Our core ethos is to continuously preserve and promote Palestinian identity by highlighting the beautiful and culturally rich elements of Palestinian heritage through contemporary fashion. At the end of the day, it is an expression of design and art.”

Natalie Tahhan is of course still a young brand, but the designer relates that she’s already witnessed enormous local and international interest in her work from clients “who really appreciate our work ethic.” Tahhan cannot hide her excitement about sharing her latest designs with even more people around the world. “I would love to see Natalie Tahhan develop and flourish into an intentional brand, and be recognized for its quality and craftsmanship,” she says.

The upcoming collection will be available online for worldwide shipment and at select boutiques in Qatar and neighboring Gulf countries.

By Khelil Bouarrouj

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