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Palestinian design struggles in a market dominated by ready-made clothes

Juicebox Gallery
June 11, 2014
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Section: [Main News] [Culture] [In Pictures] [Features]
Tags: [culture] [embroidery] [economy]

 “Palestinians don’t really know what fashion design means,” said Esra’ Al-Khateeb, a soon to be graduate student at the Fashion and Textile Institute (FTI) in Bethlehem.

The school is the only institute in the Palestinian territories that teaches fashion and textile design. Twenty-five students are currently enrolled in the two-year-long program, coming from different corners of the West Bank.

Al-Khateeb became interested in fashion when her grandmother taught her to sew as a child. According to Khouloud Khoury, one of the teachers at FTI, people like Al-Khateeb could be vital for the Palestinian textile industry. However, though the sector employs a vast number of people, most are obliged to sew ready-made clothes for Israeli factories.

“It’s a bit like in China or Turkey. It’s the local people who make the clothes, but the money goes to big factories who own the brands,” she said. “We would earn much more if we could do everything by ourselves.”

Even when the locals produce their own garments, they often copy the exact design of another model. Khoury thinks this is because there are not that many sources of inspiration available.

“There are not a lot of art exhibitions, and people are not used to visiting them. Also, life is hard in Palestine, and not everybody has the time to visit cultural events,” the teacher said.

Not only copying butterflies

It was against this background that the Danish House in Palestine, together with the Fashion and Textile Institute and the Dalia Association, organized a two-year-long project called Design in Context that just finished this May.

Sixteen participants, eight of them from FTI, gathered for monthly workshops and made field trips to factories in the West Bank.

One of the aims of the project was to give the Palestinians new methods for the creation process.

“Here, we only take a paper and start to draw,” said Al-Khateeb, one of the participants. But during the project, students created a huge wooden board, covered it with pictures, and used that as their inspiration.

According to Tine Winther, one of the two Danish designers that were part of the project through its entirety, thinking creatively was a big challenge for the participants.

One student, for example, saw a butterfly and wanted to copy the wings to her garment. To make the new designers’ ideas more developed and abstract, the organizers spent a lot of time sketching and blind-drawing with them.

“In Denmark we are used to do (sic) whatever we want, even drawing ugly things. In Palestine the students asked often whether something they did was right. But in design there is no right or wrong,” Winther said.

Inspiration from the Danish tree leaves

Four of the students had the opportunity to fill their sketchbooks with images from Denmark during a five-day trip last October. In addition to visiting the Royal Danish Art Academy’s School of Design, Winther and her Danish colleague took their students to see what the Nordic country is famous for: architecture and furniture design.

“We had to tell them 'yalla, yalla!’ all the time because they stopped to take photos at every corner,” Winther laughed. “One of them was fascinated by the red and orange leaves, typical for the Danish fall time.”

The students kept asking Winther what a traditional Danish dress looks like, but she realized she didn’t really know the answer.

“We do have some embroidery, but we don’t have the same tradition as in Palestine. It’s a bit sad actually”, the designer said.

The project made her willing to try cross-stiches also in her own work. “The colors that they use in Palestine are really inspiring.”

Mixing Palestinian and European design

Making Palestinian embroidery more accessible to buyers was another goal of Design in Context. Traditionally, clothes are decorated with a large amount of cross-stiches, which makes them heavy to use and expensive to produce.

During the project, students designed dresses with different placements of embroidery, using new colors for old patterns.

“The idea was not to change their esthetics but to challenge their perception of embroidery, without making it too Western either,” Winther said.

According to Khoury, while it is important to keep traditions, the students also make European-like clothes at FTI. Sometimes the two styles can be mixed, for example, by adding embroidery to modern shirts.

At the same time, the nature of the needlework is changing. Before, one could detect the woman’s village and marital status based on how her dress was embroidered. Now, the patterns can be changed and mixed more freely.

Yet the traditional dress keeps its ground.

 “At the wedding day, women wear a white dress. But at the party two days before, people want to use the Palestinian embroidered dress,” Khoury said.

“The occupation makes our income very low”

Even if the students further enhanced their skills during the project, working as a designer under military occupation is another challenge.

Setting up a private company is difficult, and the few factories that exist cannot employ many people. In general, there is a constant lack of funds for business development.

Also the Fashion and Textile Institute in Bethlehem is struggling with economic constraints. Khoury wishes the school could accept more students, buy better machines, and employ more staff, but it has not had sponsors to do so recently..

For example, the Institute is now preparing for its upcoming fashion show, which means that the teachers must find everything from a stage to models.

“We have talented people here, but no one can support us in Bethlehem,” Khoury said. “The occupation makes our income very low.”

According to a World Bank report from 2013, Palestinian GDP could grow by 35% if Israel lifted its restrictions on Area C, the 60% of the West Bank which falls under full Israeli military and civil control.

Israel limits the movement of goods and people in the West Bank through a system of checkpoints and roadblocks. The Palestinian Authority, which is running a large fiscal deficit at the moment, cannot collect taxes from the entire West Bank area, rendering a large portion of the Palestinian economy highly dependent on foreign aid.

Outside help might be coming soon for FTI, as it just started a new program named TEXMED Clusters, aimed at strengthening cooperation between textile and clothing industries in seven Mediterranean countries, including Palestine. The program’s budget, around 2 million Euros, has significant co-funding from the European Union.

As necessary as foreign investment is, it cannot resolve the structural limitations of the occupation. For instance, even getting proper materials can be tricky in the West Bank.

“You can see in the old textiles how they used to have quality materials, silk and so on, to work with. These are inaccessible nowadays,” Winther said.

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