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Abdel El Tayeb is forging a fantasy Black nation all of his own

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Off the back of his FTA prize, the up-and-coming designer reflects on grief, splintered identity, and interning at Bottega Veneta

Abdel El Tayeb has snuck off into a quiet corridor at Bottega Veneta’s headquarters, an unassuming office block plonked between the Fondazione Prada and a Carlsberg-branded restaurant on the outskirts of Milan. The up-and-coming designer has spent the past few months interning under Daniel Lee, the creative director accredited with resuscitating the heritage label before suddenly, and without explanation, resigning last week. “It’s kind of exciting,” El Tayeb says, “Matthieu (Blazy, the new head honcho) is cherished by the team and a lot of things are going to change in our way of working. It’s stressful too, though, because a collection needs to be pushed out in two weeks. It’s a big transitional moment.”

El Tayeb, however, is in a transitional moment all of his own. Having graduated in the crush of the pandemic, this month Naomi Campbell presented the designer with the Debut Talent prize at the Fashion Trust Arabia awards, along with €25,000 and a mentorship programme. “It was amazing because my work speaks to Africa, the Arabic world, and France, yet it has only ever been presented in Europe. I was so pleased because it was about valuing African craftsmanship and bringing it into the modern world.” Though Doha, where the ceremony was held, lacks many of the markers of modern society – Qatar’s anti-LGTBQ+ laws faced criticism during the week of the awards – it certainly looks futuristic. A bountiful, wipe-clean metropolis beamed in from some sci-fi franchise, which is quite literally, a world away from where El Tayeb grew up, in a rural toytown 45 minutes from the centre of Bordeaux. 

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“I had a pretty normal childhood. I was super shy, not at all sporty, and it’s a bit of a cliché but I just loved playing with my sister’s dolls,” he laughs, “I used to drag her into my room and dress her up in my mother’s clothes, too”. If a young Abdel wasn’t giving unsolicited styling advice, he was flicking through Fashion TV, watching backstage interviews from Dolce & Gabbana and Blumarine runways. “I could only do that because we had like a hundred different channels, my mum needed to keep up with all her Sudanese programmes”. For El Tayeb, there was never any doubt that he wouldn’t study fashion, even if his parents took some convincing. “Craftsmanship and working with your hands isn’t really considered aspirational in Sudan, so I lied and said that I wanted to be an architect, just so I could apply to art school.” Having witnessed their son volley between the prestigious Olivier de Serres in Paris and La Cambre in Belgium, however, it didn’t take long for them to change their mind. 

Family, or the notion of heritage, is central to El Tayeb’s worldbuilding, as he mines the slipstream of his frando-sudanese origins. His graduate collection, which scored him the FTA award, was crafted from the kind of prosaic items which Sudanese families use everyday, including tabag baskets, gufaf, and technicolour, woven plates. But, more specifically, it was an homage to his father, who passed away from a stroke during his final year in Paris. “He couldn’t speak or move for most of my studies, which is why I titled the collection My Nation Bears Your Name. The idea was that everything he gave to me – the energy to persevere, the values, and heritage he passed onto me – would live on in my work.” Grief, as anyone who has experienced it will know, tends to come at you sideways and catch the heart off guard, yet fashion has proved something of a tonic to El Tayeb. “Pushing my energy into work, and remembering my father in this way, helped me to comprehend what was happening.” 

The act of remembrance, catalysed by the pang of loss and a yearning for home traditions, seem to form the bedrock of El Tayeb Nation, the designer’s nascent brand. “I’m trying to create the image of a Black nation, which is full of positivity, lightness, and energy. One which elevates the culture of Sudan, because that’s not what I saw when I Googled the country as a child”. To this end, El Tayeb joins a new wave of diasporic designers, like Maximilian, Pyer Moss, or Thebe Magugu, who use fashion as a way to house the memories of their parents, grandparents, and beyond. In his final collection, that expansive lineage was metabolised through towering brancusi basket hats, shrunken, palm leaf-woven bibs, and tricolour “flag skirts” with billowing trains swept over the shoulder. Somewhere between a Giacometti and a Victoriana undercage, the El Tayeb silhouette comes swollen at the hips and belly, via medallion-festooned columns and glitching, striped peplum tops – as if to embody the very concept of a motherland. 

Perhaps that’s what drew Naomi, Pierpaolo Piccioli, and Virgil Abloh to El Tayeb Nation, even if its founding father says it’s because he was “the only nominee to design accessories”. Of course, the idea that talent alone might have bagged him the trophy is a daunting one and he refuses to even mention the names of other industry bigwigs who have since reached out in fear of “name dropping”. “I’m just going to take the time to digest all the opportunities I got through the FTA, continue learning from the craftsmanship at Bottega Veneta, and slowly build a team around me,” the designer concludes. “I’m excited. I’m really loving this moment. So much is possible and I can feel it with my fingertips.” And though he’s standing on the shore of a yet-to-be-discovered nation, staring up at its craggy rock face, he’s not remotely fazed, because as El Tayeb says, “when you are lost, you just go back to your roots.”