To the casual observer, the pretty patterns popping off the handmade coats and capes of Natalie Tahhan signify nothing more than her well-honed talent for creating high-end womenswear.
In fact, each pattern preserves a piece of her Arab Palestinian culture. Tahhan is reviving and passing along forgotten stories through the medium of traditional garments built in a nontraditional way.
“The whole concept was based on my research into Palestinian embroidery. It’s actually a language. Each embroidery motif comes from a specific village and it means something,” said Tahhan during a tour of her home studio in Beit Hanina, an Arab neighborhood of northeast Jerusalem.
Tahhan’s “Prints of Palestine” collection incorporates visual motifs specific to Ramallah, Gaza, Jerusalem, Hebron and Jaffa, respectively, from about 1850 to 1950.
“In the old days, you could tell from a woman’s thobe, her garment, where she was from, whether she was married or unmarried, her social class, her interests, whether she came from a farming family or whether she came from the city,” she explained.
“A really big part of Palestinian culture in the old days was the groom would buy the fabric for the bride and give it to her six or seven months in advance, and she would embroider her whole trousseau with the help of her mother and sisters. It’s kind of a lost art.”
Tahhan, 38, established her brand in 2015 and spent the next nearly two years developing the embroidery patterns digitally, creating dressmaking patterns by hand, finding suppliers and seamstresses, and ironing out business logistics.
“We did about 100 pieces in total. I thought they’d sit in my closet for a few years but thankfully we sold out within three months after I released the collection in January 2017. It really took off in a way I didn’t expect,” she said.“People were very interested in the garments and the stories behind them.”
The coats and capes are made of 100% silk on the inside, satin on the outside. Each costs $500 plus shipping to the door.
“It’s not an everyday piece; it’s more a statement garment,” she said, holding up a Jaffa cape whose motif is the hills of Jerusalem because it was said that pilgrims could see those hills in the distance from the port city.
“I want the woman who buys the garment to really understand the thought process, and the rich heritage and history in the garment.”
Selling through social media
Tahhan didn’t take her collection to either physical or online stores.
“I did a photo shoot and put it up on Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp, and orders and inquiries started coming in. The new generation is going into ecommerce through social media,” she said.
“A lot of new free technologies help designers do this. I can send someone a link so they can pay by credit card. It’s much faster.”
The majority of Tahhan’s clients are in the Gulf region and the United States. She has also gotten orders from the UK, Singapore and Brazil.
“The majority of my clients are not Palestinian,” she said. “These are very light garments, easy to wear. I’ve digitalized hand embroidery into contemporary fashion that is much more wearable and works well in today’s world.”
In December, Tahhan was among featured Parisian-Palestinian design duos in a fashion show in the new city of Rawabi, the first planned city built for and by Palestinian Arabs, near Ramallah.
Sponsored by the Rawabi Foundation with the cooperation of the French Institute in Jerusalem, designers were paired up for two weeks in April to collaborate on a collection while in residence in Rawabi.
Tahhan and Cathy Amouroux decided to focus on the classic embroidery cross-stitch. “We laser-cut wood to create stamps of the crosses and hand-printed them on the fabric,” Tahhan explained.
In theory, they could commercialize the line. “The French Institute has no issue with us copyrighting the designs and moving forward with production on our own if we can.”
Blazing a new trail
Tahhan is blazing a new trail for female Palestinian fashion designers in Jerusalem.
“There aren’t many,” she said. “But making clothes used to be a prominent part of Palestinian life. I have tried to revive that and show that we can compete in the international market with clothing of a high quality and standard instead of working with NGOs and showcasing our work in bazaars.”
Born in Jerusalem to a Muslim family, Tahhan moved to Qatar at age eight and studied in a British school. She earned her BA in womenswear at the London College of Fashion of the University of the Arts. She then returned to Qatar and worked for three years as a merchandise designer for museums.
Her parents still live in Qatar and she visits frequently because it’s easier and faster to ship her orders from there. But she and her sister, an architect, prefer to live in Jerusalem.
“It would be much more convenient for me to be in the Gulf, but after three years of working there I felt as a Palestinian I couldn’t progress; I wasn’t treated equally in the workplace,” she said. “I love being in Jerusalem. I’ve always felt it is home.”
Unable to find a local Arab fabric supplier to fit her needs, she persuaded a business in the UAE to produce the printed fabrics. However, the two seamstresses she hired to finish the garments are Jerusalemites.
“I wanted to incorporate the whole ecosystem of Jerusalem into my garments as well as provide income to local women,” Tahhan explained.
It took some trial and error until she found women skilled enough to line up the patterns carefully at the seams so there’s no disruption, and to ensure each garment is exactly alike.