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The Palestinian fashion student crowdfunding to get to Saint Martins

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After securing a place on the revered school’s womenswear course, Ayham Hassan is trying to raise the money to actually take it up this September

The first time Ayham Hassan realised the power of fashion was when he was 13. At home in Ramallah, whiling away some time on YouTube, his attention was captured by Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” video, and more particularly, the towering, sculptural armadillo heels she stomped about in. “I did some research and found out they were by Alexander McQueen,” Hassan reveals. “I watched a few of his shows and straight away I was obsessed with the theatrics and the excitement and the movement. I soon realised fashion was something I wanted to be part of.” 

After finishing high school, the young Palestinian creative enrolled on a design course at Birzeit University, although, he admits, he didn’t necessarily see a career in fashion looming. “In our society, no one really does that,” he says. “The fashion scene in Palestine is very small and raw, and going into that industry isn’t really a thing.” Having spent a couple of terms studying furniture, product, and graphic design, he eventually met Omar Joseph Nasser Khoury, a teacher who had studied at the London College of Fashion. Recognising Hassan’s talent, Khoury encouraged his student to pull together a portfolio and urged him to apply for a fashion course at Central Saint Martins.

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In the months that followed, Hassan got serious about getting into the London school. Inspired not just by McQueen, but also anti-establishment avant-gardists including Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto, and John Galliano, the designer looked to his day-to-day life and experiences to conceptualise powerful collections rich with narrative. A flick through his portfolio reveals one offering, named Pose for Inspection, which draws on the way clothing acts as camouflage for those living in Palestine, and could mean life or death depending on whether you’re perceived as a threat by the Israeli military. 

Shroudlike pieces offer only a glimpse of the person concealed inside, while further poignancy is added through embellishment crafted using the tools of Hassan’s trade – namely scissors and sewing needles, which he and his friends are prohibited from carrying through checkpoints dotted around Ramallah. “I found my voice in fashion, and I want to use it to express myself and what’s going on around me,” he says. Further inspiration comes from the apocalyptic landscape depicted in Mad Max, as well as his little brother’s X-rayed teeth.

Sustainability is also a big focus for Hassan. Due to restrictions on imports and exports in Palestine, decent fabric and materials aren’t always easy to come by, meaning the designer is making the best of what’s available. Rusty nails collected from the debris surrounding occupation-demolished houses are used to create prints that fan out across silk and satin gowns, while working with mushroom-derived material mycelium is high on his agenda – although his mum’s not too happy about that one. “She was like ‘Don’t leave that in here, it smells weird!’” he laughs, recounting the moment he began growing it on the kitchen windowsill.

Unsurprisingly, given the passion that radiates from Hassan when he talks about his work, and the strength of the ideas and sketches that fill his portfolio, scoring a place at Saint Martins was a breeze. Instead of offering him a spot on the foundation course he had applied for, the school skipped him straight onto its BA womenswear course, which he’s due to start in September 2021. 

Actually getting there is an issue, however. Like many both at home and internationally, Hassan is locked out of the next step of his education due to astronomical fees, and without the means to fund his place, his chance of studying at the revered school could well pass him by. “To begin with, my goal was just to get a place,” he says. “Now I’m having to think about how I’m actually going to manage to get there, because it’s a really, really expensive school.” 

As well as reaching out to an endless list of potential sponsors, Hassan’s friend and fellow designer Yasmeen Mjalli convinced him to set up a gofundme to get him to London. Right now, of the $52,000 he needs to raise, donations stand at just under $2,000, with three months to go until term starts. “I have a long way to go before I hit my goal,” he reveals – but given the determination he’s shown so far, it’s not hard to imagine he’ll somehow see his plan through yet. 

To help this young talent towards his place at Saint Martins, head here to donate and share, and get to know him below.

Hey Ayham! First of all, can you tell me a little about how you first became interested in fashion, or perhaps a moment that you become aware of its power? 

Ayham Hassan: So it all started when I was about 13 years old and saw the video for “Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga, which I loved. Something that stood out were these incredible armadillo heels, so I started doing some research and found out they were by Alexander McQueen, whose work was just so beautiful to me. I didn’t really know much about fashion design growing up, but I was always sketching and styling Barbies when I was young. But then I discovered McQueen and started watching his shows, and straight away I was obsessed with all the theatrics and the excitement and the movement. That’s when I started learning about the fashion world, and realised it was something I wanted to be part of. Lee (McQueen) has had a huge influence on me. 

An iconic music video, and designer. And so you went on to enrol at Birzeit University, where you’re currently studying. What’s that been like? 

Ayham Hassan: I didn’t really know for sure that I wanted to study fashion design, because in our society, no one really does that! I don’t know anyone who studied fashion design – the fashion scene in Palestine is very small and raw. So I never really decided that my career was going to be in fashion, I was going to study fashion, or that I was going to live my life exploring and creating fashion – it just wasn’t really a thing. I came to Birzeit to study marketing first of all, which I majored in for one year, and then I transferred to a general design course which covered product, graphic, furniture – basically the fundamentals of design. And then, on this course, I met a teacher who had gone to London College of Fashion, and I knew I was in the right place. It was him, as well as my friend Yasmeen Mjalli and mentor Keanoush Da Rosa, who encouraged me to apply to Central Saint Martins. 

And you were immediately accepted on to the BA womenswear course, despite applying for the foundation, right? I think that really speaks to the strength of your work.

Ayham Hassan: Yes! I would have been so happy to do the foundation course, but I was even happier to be going straight on to the BA course. I found out in late March that I had been accepted and it still hasn’t sunk in – I can’t believe it, I know how hard it is to get in. To begin with, my goal was just to get a place, but now I’m having to think about how I’m actually going to get there, because it’s a really, really expensive school. And that’s why Yasmeen set up the gofundme, to try to figure that next step out. 

“I think I found my voice in fashion, and I want to use it to express myself and what’s going on around me. Fashion has a very important role in deconstructing controversial issues and the power to inform and influence people” – Ayham Hassan

Can you talk me through the creative scene in Palestine? What’s your community like, and the people you surround yourself with? 

Ayham Hassan: As I mentioned, our fashion scene is still very raw, but we have a lot of artists. Art is very important to Palestinians – it’s part of our protest, our efforts to reclaim our land, to reclaim our cause. But what goes on here is a big influence on those creating – for me, my biggest inspirations are things I see in my everyday life, in public spaces, on the news. 

That’s evident in a lot of your designs – for example, one collection features prints created using rusty nails found in debris, while another was inspired by a woman being killed at a checkpoint by Israeli soldiers. Why is it important to you to channel or draw influence from what’s going on in Palestine and turn this into art? 

Ayham Hassan: I think I found my voice in fashion, and I want to use it to express myself and what’s going on around me. Fashion has a very important role in deconstructing controversial issues and the power to inform and influence people. So yes, I work what’s going on (in Palestine) into my work, for example, by using the nails I found to make prints. I’m also always thinking about the part fashion plays and how important it is in Palestinian life – what you wear might suggest you are a criminal or a threat to the Isreali soldiers and see you get killed, or otherwise they might see you as a peaceful person and you might be saved. Fashion can be camouflage, but it can also help you explore and express your identity. It has helped me discover myself and my voice, understand who I am, who I want to be, and how I want to change the world. 

Do you ever feel able to express yourself freely through fashion right now? Or is it a case of camouflaging yourself to avoid invoking violence – and if so, what impact does this have on your creativity? 

Ayham Hassan: This is a big part of why I want to come to Saint Martins, because here, it’s not possible for me to express myself fully – thanks to both society and the occupation. By studying fashion, I’m doing something that is considered here to be very feminine, and while I do have a masculine and feminine side, I wanted to go into womenswear because I relate more to women – especially in Palestine, because it’s the women who work in embroidery and making fabrics and those kind of traditional skills. 

The interviewers from Saint Martins asked me why I chose the school for their first question – that first question was to make me express myself as much as I could. So I told them that here, I can’t express myself the way I want. Say I wanted to wear a knitted sweater with lots of colours, or dye my hair blonde, or wear heels – which I love, by the way – here, I just couldn’t. The same goes for the clothes I want to make.

Do you have a favourite McQueen collection? And are there any other designers you look up to or find inspiring? 

Ayham Hassan: I love McQueen’s AW09 collection (Horn of Plenty), and also Voss (SS01). I love how he gave the middle finger to the industry, and his amazing silhouettes. I am obsessed with his bumsters, they have to be my favourite look. 

I also feel a big connection with the anti-fashion movement of the 80s and 90s, and the way designers like Rei Kawakubo, Issey Miyake, and Yohji Yamamoto rebelled against the industry. I love how avant-garde their collections are, the out-of-this-world silhouettes, and how they always have something to communicate with their clothes – from the environment, to politics, to identity. The more I learn about the fashion industry, the more I understand it has the power to change. 

“I feel a big connection with the anti-fashion movement of the 80s and 90s, and the way designers like Rei Kawakubo, Issey Miyake, and Yohji Yamamoto rebelled against the industry. I love how avant-garde their collections are, the out-of-this-world silhouettes, and how they always have something to communicate with their clothes” – Ayham Hassan

And what kind of impact do you hope to have on fashion? 

Ayham Hassan: I hope one day that people are as inspired by my own work as I was when I saw those McQueen shoes in Lady Gaga’s music video – and that people in Palestine and the Middle East might see themselves going into fashion because of my work. I hope that the Palestinian fashion scene will grow, and that more people will become interested in our artisans and skills, and learn about our cultural traditions and costumes. I like to think that I will influence and inspire people, and offer them comfort through fashion, in the same way I have found comfort in it – for me, fashion has allowed me to envision a new normal for the world, without war or the occupation of Palestine.

Your work really utilises recycled and reappropriated materials, and you are very focused on creating in a sustainable way. Can you tell me a bit about working with mycelium, for example? 

Ayham Hassan: Yes, of course, it’s so important to me to work sustainably. My teacher, who studied at LCF, really influenced me in this too – he opened my eyes to the fact that, because we are living in Palestine and fabrics are limited due to the lack of movement, we have to be looking to our environment and utilising what we find. So when I start sketching out my collection, I’m thinking of the whole cycle of production and what its impact is going to be environmentally, socially, politically. I want to always develop, rather than destroy. 

Mycelium I started working with a while back, when one of our projects was to use agricultural waste as inspiration or actually physically. It was so hard to find anyone making this material, so I decided to do it myself. I’m still trying to develop, develop, develop it more so I can make vegan leather. I love incorporating new textures and materials into my work, so I am excited to have something like mycelium to play with – a new colour, a new smell even. 

It’s interesting that you’re even thinking about smell when it comes to your collections – I’m keen to know, what does mycelium actually smell like? 

Ayham Hassan: It smells kind of like when you leave a loaf of bread out for too long and it starts going mouldy – it’s a pretty musty smell. Actually I was growing it in my kitchen, and my mother was like ‘Don’t leave that in here, it smells weird!’ (laughs) But actually, I quite like the smell – it’s pretty unique.  

Last question – that’s kind of a big one. How do you see your fashion career developing? Where would you like it to take you? 

Ayham Hassan: I’m really excited to continue studying and experimenting for a few years – hopefully at Saint Martins. After that, I’d love to work for someone like Margiela, before maybe starting my own thing back in Palestine – I’d love to bring together a collective and start a studio, working with biologists and chemists to really experiment with fashion and new tech, and growing the fashion industry here. 

To donate and share Ayham’s gofundme, head here.