Fashion is tough and if you can show you can get through a situation like this, surely it shows you’re able to conquer anything that’s thrown at you. Right?
MA Womenswear course leader, Nabil El-Nayal splits his work life between teaching at LCF and managing his own fashion label. We caught up with Nabil to find out how he has been spending the last few months in lockdown and how he secured the BFC Foundation Covid Crisis Fund.
How are you finding remote teaching?
It's certainly been challenging! Like my students, I'm a practice-based designer and it's certainly been interesting testing out what works and what doesn't. My team and my students have had to tackle this head-on and at the beginning it was quite difficult but on the whole everyone has adapted really well. In fact, we've actually found that the creative output has in some ways been better because of all of this. They’re finding new ways of working and problem solving - they’re not allowed to use sewing machines for example so it’s been about encouraging them to think of new ways around this. Finding new ways to 'see' practice. Some students that aren’t usually very technical are now creating digital portfolios and it’s borderline groundbreaking at times.
Yes, completely agree. Some of the content we’ve been receiving on social media is incredible and everyone is really pulling together at this time.
In terms of their current project, we’ve restructured the model to reflect the pandemic because I wanted to make sure the unit was acknowledging the situation and what we’re all going through. These students are the next generation of designers after Covid so in a way it defines what they want to do in light of the current circumstances. Adaptability and agility is crucial and Covid has taught us that we need to be ready for anything. We've had discussions about moving away from traditional wholesale models and pivoting towards B2C and e-commerce. It's about putting more power in the hands of the designer. We’ve had some really great guest speakers to come in and discuss various things surrounding potential opportunities for their businesses in light of Covid. I think this is something the students will be really happy with once it’s finished, although I know how hard it can be to visualise that when you’re in the middle of it. I can see what they’re doing and overall its really strong.
That’s really positive. What have you been up to?
I’ve been working almost 7 days a week! My family are saying “oh you must be quite quiet at the minute?” and I’m thinking no way, I’m busier than ever! I’m busy with the teaching side of things but also with my business also. It's been really challenging recently - not just fro me but for everyone in the industry. We went to market in Paris and showed at the LONDON show ROOMS and secured some huge orders worldwide but then the orders were cancelled because of the pandemic. It was hard but we didn’t feel alone as it was and is happening to everyone. Like many designers, there was a danger we'd fall through the cracks because the government is there to support the majority but that support only goes so far and many are overlooked. At the beginning, it was about trying to understand what the government was able to offer in ways of financial support - and it wasn't looking good. But then the BFC announced that they were combining all of their funding to platforms like NewGen, Fashion Trust etc. and put it all into one pot for the Covid Fund. We were briefed about it and the assessment criteria.
Did you have to apply?
Yes and it was rigorous! It was really rough and we had to get to grips with the financial state of the business in a really short space of time working with our accountants who were operating a skeleton staff! We got the application in 20 minutes before the deadline! It was quite intense. I think over 200 people applied and 37 designers were selected. I can’t disclose the amount we received but it will go a long way to help us during the next few months. The Gender Neutral show is coming up in June and I think it's an opportunity for many designers to share what they have been up to, how they've handled the crisis and it's also an opportunity to really connect and engage with their audience. We are working on a video at the moment, which will be shown on schedule. Will there be an appetite for Mens and Womenswear soon? Who knows. From my perspective, I’m looking to engage with my followers and want them to get involved in our new collection. I've always been really passionate about the value or fashion education and I've had meetings with the BFC and the British Library to discuss ideas for Fashion Week in June and longer term also.
With the fund, are you hoping it will keep you on the straight or are you hoping to create something magical with it?
It’s not enough to just keep going. there's this feeling that for a lot of designers that it's now or never. The fashion industry needs to change and the current situation is the perfect opportunity to re-assess. Working with such amazing young creatives at LCF really does push your own limits of what you think is possible. I’ve learnt a lot from how the students have tackled the new brief, which we renamed as ‘The New Normal’. Fir this brief, they're challenged to really understand their new customer and purchasing behaviours right now and in the future post Covid. Seeing what they’ve done in their projects and how they’re responded has been truly inspiring for me. You’ve got to get ahead of the game and I think as Creative Practitioners we’re used to be confronted with challenges. This is one of the biggest challenges the fashion industry has ever faced. My idea is no longer to keep us going but finding new ways of working and new definitions for fashion.
We’ve been in lockdown and it can be hard for students to keep motivated especially those who are perhaps living alone or living in a country away from home. How have you been keeping motivated or do you have any advice?
For me it’s very natural to be confronted with a challenge. I’m always trying to problem solve. We’re being faced with our own challenges throughout this. I’m lucky enough to have a sewing machine in my house but I don’t have access to my freelancers. What I can do as a designer is plan and work with what I’ve got. My dad was in Syria last year and he brought back some amazing fabrics and all that is in my studio downstairs. I’ve been looking through my back catalogue of design work and seeing how I can apply that to today. I’m always very used to getting up and getting on and I think most designers are and aren’t scared. We can’t help but see a challenge as an opportunity. For me, this has been an opportunity for reflection and a chance for me to look at my heritage and see how I can use that in a new way going forward.
Any tips/words of advice for small business or recent graduates?
Recent graduates are already out there and it's going to be really difficult I'm sure. I’m still mentoring some of our recent MA 2020 graduates and trying to check in and see how they’re getting on. It’s been really important to keep in touch. They’re still really keen and no matter what, they still want to make it happen. Despite the odds being stacked up against them, they just want to work and make it happen which testifies their determination. I've been blown away with the press they've received - Joao Maraschin, Olivia Rubens and Stephanie Moscall-varey have done particularly well. I think for smaller businesses, it can be a good time to pause. If you haven’t pumped loads of money into it yet, there is less risk so I would say if you can pause, you should. Rather than trying to battle this, pick your battles wisely and come back to it if you can. If you're already in it and can't get out of it, then you're not alone and I really believe in what Candice Fragis (Fashion Consultant) said when she came in to see my students, which was "success will rely on your ability to cultivate a strong sense of community and to maintain an authentic voice in the industry". As creatives, we want to be communicating our ideas always but you can find other ways to do that. Now more than ever, really engage with your audience who are already invested in what you do. Get to know your customer and exactly what they want and what they need and if you know that, you’ll be in a really string position now and in the future.