Low-fi Palestinian Fashion Collective Trashy Clothing Are Leading A New Wave
Shukri Lawrence doesn’t know when he’ll make it back to Palestine. Maybe winter, maybe not. All he knows for certain is that his temporary displacement in Jordan stands at eight months and counting and, weirdly, things have never been better.
In March he left his home in east Jerusalem for Iceland. The founder of Palestinian fashion label, Trashy Clothing, Lawrence planned to pick up the fall collection at Trashy’s Amman studio and jump on a plane to the Nordic island to show it to the world. Then the COVID-19 shutters came down and the world turned on its head. While Lawrence was stranded and unable to fly out of Queen Alia International, fellow Trashy co-creative director Omar Braika, and designer Reem Kawasmi were already in the air, en route to a show that would never happen. But from an unexpected setback came creation.
“Once we realised that we couldn’t showcase our collection, we began to think about how we could change and adapt,” says Lawrence, calling from Jordan, mid-GQ photoshoot. “We wondered just how we could turn this situation to our advantage, and how we could keep on creating. We basically refused to let the pandemic stop our vision for the year.”
The result was the world’s very first Cyber Fashion Week (CFW): six days of collections, augmented reality garments, wild avatars, and the visions of designers that had fallen foul of the pandemic aftershock. For a label born on the internet, the idea was fiercely on-brand for Trashy, and the more they talked, the bigger it became.
“We spoke to everybody we knew,” says Lawrence. “Designers, creatives, friends... friends of friends, everybody. Would they like to join us? How many people were in the same situation? Eventually the idea just grew. ‘Why don’t we include musicians, too?’ We wanted performance, the full fashion week experience... Zoom afterparties, everything! The plan became about repurposing what we loved about fashion week for a digital world. And we needed it, too. Everybody did. There we all were, trapped at home in these little bubbles. Suddenly, this was an exciting project for people to be involved in.”
The super-kitsch stylings of Trashy have been simmering under the surface since 2017. Made up of Lawrence and Braika (they “met over Instagram and instantly clicked”), Kawasmi, who knew Lawrence from high school, and Luai Al-Shuaibi, it’s one of a handful of Palestinian labels reclaiming the narrative through fashion when it comes to life in the Levant. But what began as an Instagram project – tees featuring Arabic writing on familiar Western slogans – grew into something else, something gloriously low-fi with collections of streetwear that blurred the lines between emerging label buzz and pure bootleg beauty.
“I wanted to create a world that would be accessible for anyone to express themselves in, no matter their age, identity or background…the physical world doesn’t offer opportunities for everyone.”
“Trashy didn’t come from a specific moment,” explains Lawrence. “It was a process of looking at the industry in the region. We felt that there were a lot of rules and traditions that can hold you back. So much so that we needed something coming from our part of the world that was almost an anti-fashion movement. We would take the traditional tools but use them to create our own message.
“Take the name, for example. No design wants to be called trashy, but we’re reclaiming the word – that’s a statement on its own. We’re trying to showcase our country’s fashion. Not in a traditional sense, but as who we are now. This fashion is coming completely from a Palestinian perspective.”
Once borders closed, Omar Braika taught himself 3D art in a matter of weeks – the plan was at lightspeed from the get-go. The Jordanian lockdown had come on March 20 and CFW was a living and breathing thing just nine days later – on the very day they would have been due to show in Iceland. The process was proving to be a revelation in more ways than one. Normally used to expressing himself in film and photography, the co-founder of CFW now had a way of visualising the ideas floating around his head instantly.
“I remember when I was younger, I saw the locations in video games I played as real life memories,” he says. “Now, there was a possibility to create the worlds we have in our heads and then open them to the public. That’s really how the aesthetics for CFW came about. We wanted to create a new world where people could freely express themselves in the mediums of fashion, art, performance and music. There would be no limits.”
Lockdown changed everything. And any unprepared fashion brand over-enamoured with in-store footfall was left digging through laptops for the folder marked ‘e-commerce’. But while the power of online shopping has long-since challenged the mall experience, the virus brought with it the power to hasten the inevitable. With much of the globe on lockdown, consumer patterns changed overnight, and the magic of discovery shifted even further from away from the department store to our Instagram feeds.
For brands like Trashy, the disruption to life was minimal. “Ours is very much a digital office,” explains Lawrence. “We’re rarely all in the same place at the same time, so we always have video calls to discuss topics, design collections and create moodboards. We didn’t have to adapt to a digital space in the pandemic – that’s how we’ve always worked.”
It’s a sentiment that’s echoed by Ramallah-based fashion cooperative BabyFist, too. “It’s interesting to me that while international fashion brands are navigating the restraints of working and presenting their work, this has been the norm for Palestinian fashion creatives long before COVID-19 ever came around,” says founder Yasmeen Mjalli.
Over the course of the ensuing weeks, the Trashy team worked day and night on their creation. They reached out to global designers they knew and loved and discovered that many of them, too, were in a state of disruption with no way of showing their work. Once they were involved, Braika would then work with them to see how they could create visuals to align with their brand aesthetic.
“Eventually we had 12 designers from around the world, so it wasn’t just one city, it was an international fashion week that could represent different cultures and experiences,” says Lawrence. “This is something that we really like to push within our brand. We want to represent ourselves, but also other designers who aim to showcase their own cultures, too.”
For Braika, it was the opportunity to create a platform that gave life to the utopian ideals of the brand itself. “I always wanted to create a world that would be accessible for anyone to express themselves in, no matter what their age, identity or background,” he says. “Sadly, the physical world we live in doesn’t offer opportunities for everyone. We wanted a world that would be more open to different perspectives. That’s why I felt that the digital world [of CFW] gave us the chance to create the things in our head that can be difficult to achieve in real life.”
The more you examine the creative industry in the Levant and wider Middle East, the more you start to notice a pattern. While the clothes might be the tool, the subtext is often change. This is a will and desire for a more tolerant world by design. Of course, what you wear and social change has always been inherently connected, but in 2020, you feel that the industry has lost sight of the power it can wield for good, mired in a swirl of fast fashion, negligent waste practices and unethical production methods. When it comes to creatives in the Middle East, there’s a inextricable beauty in the swell of creation that’s happening.
“When people wear a T-shirt, it’s present in that time and space. To me, creating a fashion item felt like the smartest way to spark change in any community.”
Christina Tadros is one of the 12 designers that participated in the inaugural CFW. Her Jordanian brand, Elvaux, aims to dispel the myth of Orientalism, helping to reclaim the narrative in favour of true Arab realities.
“I remember when I was growing up watching news headlines about the ‘chaos’ in the Arab region,” says Tadros. “The spin used by Western media felt very different to my own reality of being an Arab in the Levant. More than that, I began to realise that the narrative put forward by the media wasn’t just limited to the West. It had actually been internalised by us. That’s what drove me to dig deeper.
“By wearing one of my T-shirts, people will ask, ‘What does this mean?’” says Tadros, whose tops feature imagery intended to spark debate. “The aim is to heal and reconcile colonial attitudes in the Arab world, and to dismantle the Western dogma toward Arabs. It’s difficult to reach the masses when you say: ‘Hi, I wrote an essay about socio-political issues in the Arab world, please read it.’ But when people wear a T-shirt, it’s present in that time and space. To me, creating a fashion item felt like the smartest way to spark change in any community.”
Along with igniting conversation and dispelling tired stereotypes, the fashion industry in the region reflects its unique present-day environment, too. When it comes to creation under occupation, Mjalli knows all too well the difficulties Palestinian creatives face on a daily basis.
“In Palestine, even just building an e-commerce platform which accepts payments from international customers is incredibly difficult, as most platforms and payment gateways don’t operate in Palestine,” she says. “Even if we organised fashion events or shows, most international attendees could be sent back at the border for supporting Palestine. Fabric is incredibly difficult to import, and even certain colours are banned by Israel because they’re associated with resistance. Many designers have Gaza or West Bank IDs which means that leaving Palestine is extremely difficult and expensive.
“To put on a spin on the infamous question, ‘Why have there been no great Palestinian artists?’ The question shouldn’t imply that there are no great Palestinian artists at all, but rather that there are institutional barriers in the West which exclude and even erase those great Palestinian artists.”
With the political landscape – and the restriction it brings – never far from the surface in Palestine, it begs the question of whether the clothes are ever simply a by-product of the message. For Lawrence and Trashy, it depends on the concept. In the brand’s debut at Berlin Fashion Week, it built a wall on the runway so that only part of the audience could see the collection. The clothes tied into the theme, but this was pure performance art on the notion of privilege.
For Mjalli, fashion is unequivocally the vessel. “Clothing is certainly not central to the message but is rather the means through which the message itself is presented. I don’t believe that it’s possible to create anything apolitical,” she says. “The fact is that we’re all creating within the context of injustice, and our work – even the creative process itself – is inherently political. It’s certainly possible to place fashion at the centre of one’s work and to place the politics second, but it is always there nonetheless.”
In the aftermath of CFW, work continued as normal for the Lawrence and the Trashy team. A collaboration is set to drop this month with the wildly talented Iranian designer Hushidar Mortezaie (“he was a cool club kid in the ’80s and has a very unique perception of what clothing in Iran could look like”). And of course, they still want to show the collection from Iceland that never was. But CFW has made a mark. It nudged the global gatekeepers to respond to creativity coming out of Palestine, and column inches around the world offered hope of a wider recognition for what’s happening here and now.
Cyber Fashion Week had also reached out to a global community, helping brands that rely on creativity for their livelihood by giving them an opportunity to showcase their work at a time when revenue has ground to a halt. “Cyber Fashion Week happened during a period where most countries were under a lockdown, which halted our production facility and the pop-ups that we had planned,” says Ashay Bhave, founder of Dubai-based vegan sneaker brand Thaely. “The filter we made for CFW allowed potential buyers to experience our sneakers in the real world, using augmented reality. It probably didn’t replace a physical display, but it gave customers something to look forward to.”
More than that, with a plan for CFW to show three times per year, it has not only become part of the Trashy story, but also offered a new take on best practise.
“I used to sketch designs and then have to search for fabrics to produce samples,” explains Braika. “But now that we have discovered new ways to produce samples digitally, with no need for physical materials, we’ve changed our whole creation process. It’s a great new sustainable approach to fashion.”
While the work being done here on a daily basis often goes unnoticed, the creatives in the Middle East simply carry on creating. And despite what seems an ever-present backdrop of political unrest, there’s very real hope that events such as CFW will continue to raise the profile of the region’s creatives – those grinding for global attention until a truer reality of life in the region is understood.
As for Lawrence, well, you’ll still find him in Jordan: working, designing and waiting for the right time to return home. He lives there, too... in his studio that is, and he wouldn’t have it any other way. Without the work, he’s lost, he’ll tell you. So, he keeps it around him at all times, aiming for change and better times, refusing to switch off the light.
Photography: Omar Braika
Creative Direction: Shukri Lawrence
Grooming: Nour Alsalem
Models: Marwan Barakat, Petra Mubarak, Jad Aqrabawi
Team members: Shukri Lawrence, Omar Braika, Reem Kawasmi, Luai Al-Shuaibi
Tailor: Anas Qattan
All looks by: TRASHY CLOTHING