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Meet The Designer Who Is Reinventing Middle Eastern Tradition

And ignoring borders.

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Middle Eastern designers have enjoyed a well-deserved piece of the spotlight lately. Red carpet looks from veterans including Zuhair Murad and Elie Saab graced the shoulders of celebrities including Meryl Streep, Lea Michelle and Gabrielle Union at this year's Emmy Awards, while up-and-coming names like Nicolas Jebran and Ali Karoui have created stunning ensembles worn by models and actresses Winnie Harlow and Hend Sabry, respectively. There is a long list of emerging Middle Eastern labels making unique, high-end pieces that draw upon a rich heritage of craft and color, who are making the international fashion set clamor for their sartorial wares.
 
When Sasha Nassar presented her striking debut collection, titled "Personal Spring," at London Graduate Fashion Week in 2013, she was at the beginning of a fresh new wave of fashion ready to hit the international scene. Originally from Jaffa, Israel, Sasha has lived all over Europe where she's studied and worked in fashion. More recently she launched her eponymous label and has taken every opportunity to celebrate and spread Middle Eastern culture. For her SS18 range, many of the on-trend jumpsuits and dresses were made from keffiyeh, a traditional Palestinian fabric – and not only that but Sasha specifically sourced it from the last remaining factory to produce it in the country. Piqued by her unique designs, we caught up with her to discuss launching her own brand, the significance of working with authentic keffiyeh and the cultural importance of her clothing. 


Wheretoget: In a recent interview with the Telavivian, you said that you believe fashion is a way for the individual to truly express their liberty and diversity. Where does that belief come from for you?
Sasha Nassar: Since I express and allow myself to do whatever I want through my art, my clothes, my fashion, I believe that other designers [also] have this freedom. I really feel that I express myself through my clothes, and I do everything I want to do through my designs. Which makes me feels good for myself in a way, and I think it’s really important because there are so many designers, so many brands... for me it’s really important to find my path, my freedom to do whatever I want.

WTG: Tell us about your SS18 collection and working with keffiyeh fabric.  
SN: Actually, I think this collection was meaningful to me – every collection is, but with this one I [went through] a real journey to do it. I really traveled there, I visited this factory which was kind of emotional... I really took [the collection] to a place where I chose to do whatever I wanted with this traditional scarf [material], which is a Palestinian symbol. 

Most of the keffiyeh you buy, even in Jerusalem, is made in China. So it’s really the last factory [where you can purchase it authentically]. They [the factory] sell a lot to Europe, and it’s kind of in the middle of nowhere in Hebron. I met the owner of the factory, it was pretty exciting. When you enter, [they] have a lot of small Palestinian flags everywhere and there’s one employee that works there. 

WTG: Where did you get the idea to work with this fabric?
SN: I read an article about this factory, and in my collection for London Graduate Fashion Week [some] of the prints were inspired by keffiyeh. And actually [for a long time] I wanted to do a collection with this pattern [that referenced the fabric], but since everyone [was] doing it I felt like it [didn't] mean anything for me to do it. But then I found this factory, and I thought it [would] give some meaning to the clothes. 

So I went with my friend to Hebron – which was really fun because I’d never been [before], it was my first time. We spent one hour there and they do lots of [variations] of keffiyeh. They have a huge wall with all the keffiyeh they’ve ever made which is really, really cool. So I discovered the colorful keffiyeh, I had never seen it before and it looked amazing. 

WTG: Because the ones we usually see are with black or red embroidery? 
SN: Yes: black and white, because it’s [associated with] Arafat, or red and white, which I didn’t use in my collection because I felt everyone had used it. [Instead], you see bordeauxs and violets – I wanted really to take something from them that was different. And the black and white, I mean it’s beautiful so I wanted to use it anyway. 

It was complicated to bring the fabrics to Jaffa. They sent [it] to Bethlehem, then to Jerusalem, and I got it from Jerusalem. So it was pretty interesting, the process. And [Hebron] is only one hour from Tel Aviv, so it’s kind of a joke. 

WTG: What’s the response been to this collection?
SN: I launched it in the Amastan Paris hotel, and I exhibited the collection for ten days. I had people walking [along] the street coming in to ask [about it]. It’s not something that you see everyday, and I can understand that people would find it weird. But I got a lot of good responses, and people liked it. I wanted to show people the fabric in a different light because sometimes people can be closed [minded] for no reason, but actually people in Paris took it in a really good way I think. 

WTG: You spoke to Jdeed Magazine about with working with bigger fashion houses, and how you found that that wasn’t really the place where you could fully express your creativity. What would you change about the industry if you could?
SN: I don’t know what I would change, but I really think it is really important [to remember] that it’s only clothes and we should keep it fun. 

WTG: Can you talk more about how, as a designer, you grapple with politics and your art?
SN: Well, in the beginning I thought it was a political thing for me, but actually now I feel that it’s more cultural. I want to show my culture and history, and in the end it has nothing to do with politics. Every time I have an interview I [am asked] this question, and I don’t want to do politics. I want to do my art and my clothes and maybe it can look like it’s a bit political but it’s not. Not for me. Of course, I’m interested in what happens in my country, but I don’t think I should involve my clothes in it. It’s two separate things, and actually I’m not a political person. I can see the connection that people make, but it’s really to show the story of the culture.

WTG: You’ve been working to expand in France and internationally. Has anything been culturally different or surprising about reaching out to these markets?
SN: I didn’t [experience] anything surprising, but I think that these markets are super interested in Middle Eastern designers. That’s a good thing for me. They are pretty welcoming. I feel I have total freedom here which is kind of nice; [it's the] same thing in Jaffa. I think there’s now a cool, new generation of designers coming from Dubai, Lebanon, Palestine and they’re pretty welcoming. 

WTG: What advice would you give to young Middle Eastern designers who are interested in working in the fashion world?
SN: First, it’s really important to be yourself all the time, which sounds cliché, but it’s really important to know where you come from, and [to] keep your history and your culture with you. Because that’s what makes us different from the others. And we should keep creating and designing because we come from an amazing place which not only inspires us but it inspires a lot of people around the world. So I guess we’re kind of lucky to born there. We can go very far and reach every kind of goal we want. 

Dazzled by the luscious colors of keffiyeh? Contact Sasha to scoop up a one-of-a-kind piece of cultural expression from her SS18 range at Sashanassar.com or shop her previous collections here: 
1/5
Sasha Nassar Monica Printed Dress - $220
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2/5
Sasha Nassar Gabriella Long Dress - $160
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3/5
Sasha Nassar Phoebe Off The Shoulders - $130
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4/5
Sasha Nassar Waffa x Dress - $130
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5/5
Sasha Nassar Joanna Dress - $160
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Images courtesy of Sasha Nassar. 
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