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‘Fashion Is Inherently Political’: The Woman Mixing Palestinian Design With Sustainable Clothing

Yasmeen Mjalli works with women’s collectives to create clothes that use traditional craftwork to tell stories of Palestinian life under Israeli occupation.
Yasmeen Mjalli works with women’s collectives to create clothes that use traditional craftwork to tell stories of Palestinian life under Israeli occupation.
Yasmeen Mjalli works with women’s collectives to create clothes that use traditional craftwork to tell stories of Palestinian life under Israeli occupation. (Getty Images)

Yasmeen Mjalli, the founder and creative director of Nöl Collective, has never met the women who weave the Majdalawi fabric she uses in her collections. It is a notable exception to the close, in-person relationships she has cultivated with her suppliers. Despite living in Ramallah, a city only about 50km from Gaza, communication with the women who live within this besieged coastal strip takes place solely over WhatsApp. Gaza is described by humanitarians as an “open-air prison” – Israeli laws mean Gazans are rarely allowed out of the city, and other Palestinians who live in the West Bank are even less likely to be allowed in.

Majdalawi fabric, which is woven using a single treadle loom [a foot-operated machine], originates from the Palestinian village of al-Majdal Asqalan. The village was occupied by Israeli forces in 1948, its inhabitants were made refugees, and the centuries-old practice would have died out if not for a cultural preservation project that set up a handful of studios in Gaza in the 90s. These artisans are two of the local women’s cooperatives that Nöl Collective works with to create sustainable, stylish clothes that blend traditional Palestinian designs with modern, fashionable cuts that wouldn’t look out of place in a Scandinavian storefront.

Nol, which means “loom” in Arabic, was born out of the ashes of a previous project which was also founded out of a desire for community, following Mjalli’s experiences of sexual harassment. In 2017, she began hosting support workshops for women who had experienced abuse, as well as selling T-shirts with feminist slogans such as “not your habibti” – habibti means “my love” – through Instagram. After a couple of years, a thorny question arose: how feminist could the initiative be if they knew nothing about who had made the T-shirts, where the fabric had come from, or how much the garment workers — 80 percent of whom are women — are being paid?

“Fashion is inherently political, whether or not it’s being produced in Palestine,” Mjalli tells me over the phone from London, where the lookbook for the latest collection was shot by Greg C Holland of SkatePal, a not-for-profit organisation supporting young people in Palestine. “This generation is more open to that idea because it’s inextricably connected with climate change, but how can we take that one step further – how it intersects with women, or with labour conditions, or with economic frameworks,” she says. “The goal is to have customers thinking about fashion in an intersectional framework, to realise there is more than one element to this.”

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The clothes themselves are made using indigenous natural dyes and finished with traditional designs such as tatreez, the Unesco-recognised art of Palestinian embroidery, which began as a way for women to signal their marital status or regional origin but became a political symbol of resistance and displacement following the Nakba (the mass displacement and dispossession of Palestinians during the Arab-Israeli war) in 1948. When the Palestinian flag was banned in 1980, women began embroidering the colours into their dresses in defiance. Today, it remains largely a women’s craft, passed down from mother to daughter, despite attempts at commercialisation and appropriation by Israeli designers.

The latest collection features bright pops of colour amid soft greens and neutrals: slouchy cotton twill cargo pants made in Askar refugee camp, on the outskirts of the West Bank city of Nablus; vibrant hand-woven wool shoulder bags made by mothers and daughters in al Khalil (Hebron); and hand-embroidered tank tops made in a solar-powered workshop in Bethlehem. Preces start at around $48 or £37.

With the exception of the weavers in Gaza, Mjalli doesn’t work with anyone unless she has met them in person and learned about their work first-hand. She counts all the tailors, producers, embroiderers and weavers who create Nöl’s clothes as friends; they eat meals together and share gifts at Eid.

To create the garments, Mjalli partners directly with local women’s cooperatives, family-run sewing workshops, and artisans, keeping production hyper-local and traceable. In the absence of a centralised directory, she relies on word of mouth for introduction to the women she works with, with relationships being forged over the course of years. The process is synergetic. “It’s a production-oriented design process; sometimes it’s collaborative, and sometimes it’s absolutely just [the women] telling me: ‘This is what you designed, and we like this better,’” she says with a laugh. “It is driven by what they’re able to do and what they want to do.”

The production process is inextricably tied to the realities of Palestinian life under Israeli occupation. On the day of our call, three Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces during a raid on the city of Nablus, near one of the sewing workshops Nöl works with. “I’ve worked with tailors whose nephews had been murdered, or women whose daughters had fiances murdered,” says Mjalli in a matter-of-fact tone. “These are the realities that we’re facing.”

Earlier, her mother had called to let her know that the checkpoint she was planning to cross the following day to pick up some finished pieces from the Nablus workshop had been closed. “There’s a shooting, immediately the checkpoint closes, blockades go up, and suddenly what would be an hour and a half drive is three or four hours — if you’re lucky and the border even opens at all,” she sighs.

Naturally, this can affect shipping, and many garments are available only for pre-order with an estimated shipping date that is often subject to change, depending on what is happening on the ground. “Our customer [base] is very diverse — it’s not just Arabs, it’s not just the Palestinian diaspora. It’s actually mostly non-Arabs in the US and UK, which is incredible,” says Mjalli. “We’ve been able to foster such a unique community of people who are now engaging in consumerism in a way that I think they’re not really getting to do with any other brands.” For many, it has been a lesson in both the logistics of slow fashion and the realities of life in occupied Palestine.

Ultimately, Mjalli’s intention is, perhaps surprisingly, for Nöl Collective to eventually stop making clothes. “The goal is to keep storytelling more than anything else,” she says. “I think that, up until now, fashion, and the garments, have been the medium through which we’re telling our stories about the Palestinian people, about the land, about sustainability and what that looks like for non-western people especially. The people we work with have so much more support from the community that we’ve built in terms of transparency and building connections. Hopefully, we can move on to storytelling in other mediums — there’s only so many sweatshirts that I feel comfortable trying to sell.”

By Niloufar Haidari

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