Materials Matter: Innovation in Design from the MENA Region

Wearable tech has too often been consigned to accessories: watches, rings, bracelets, and the ubiquitous fitness tech. Now, it is time to apply some of that technology to actual garments, where the material itself becomes the innovation. On that front, there are some power moves coming from designers in the Middle Eastern North African Region (MENA), with labels like Bint Thani and Nabil Nayal leading the way. And now, the Dubai Design District (d3) that officially opened last year, will light the path for many more upcoming designers, not just in fashion, but in all artistic disciplines.

This focus on wearable tech and other fascinating advances in fashion is part of a week-long partnership involving NOT JUST A LABEL and Dubai Design District (d3) itself. Both are determined to bring the flourishing design talent in the MENA region, specifically Dubai, into the spotlight, where these talents so deservedly belong.  

One stand-out example of technical progress in material is 3D printing - an exciting new process of making three-dimensional solid objects from digital designs. It is a huge jump from the simple one-dimensional digital printing that designers like Mary Katrantzou and Peter Pilotto introduced so fashionably to the world seasons back. If one is looking for an analogy, consider this: digital vs 3D printing techniques in fabric are the equivalent of the book vs Kindle or an internal combustible engine (i.e. regular car) vs Tesla Model 3. In other words, it’s a recent and profound game changer.     

Many of these designers are millennials whose mother’s milk was a steady diet of smartphones and iPads rather than Lego and nerf guns. So no surprise that these young designers are harnessing the absolute latest tech advances and applying them to fashion. 

First on the scene in 3D printing was the Syrian-born designer Nabil El-Nayal, who started using 3D printing and scanning techniques in 2009 when it was unheard of in the fashion industry. In fact, so focussed is El-Nayal on tech in the fashion space, he is currently undertaking a research doctorate that specialises in technological materials and innovative design. El-Nayal is convinced that education is the first path to discovery, and has much to say on d3, Dubai’s design destination that is changing the way the world looks at the region.  El-Nayal comments that d3, especially with its emphasis on education through the involvements of organisations like FabLab and Fashion Forward Dubai (FFWD), is exactly what the region needs: 

“When I realised at a very early age that fashion was what I was born to do, my mom and I decided we need to leave Syria as, sadly, there weren’t any institutions there that I required to study and deepen my understanding of fashion.” 

“My siblings, one who is currently studying law and the other a doctor, had options for an education in Syria, but I didn't – Syria just didn't have that level of schools in fashion design. That’s why d3 is fantastic, because it means that budding designers can stay in the region, be educated on an international level and even build a business. That is exceptionally good news.” 

El-Nayal is a fabric pioneer on the constant prowl for new techniques and whose appetite for progress is endless - no surprise then his label, “Nabil Nayal” was short-listed for the 2015 LVMH prize in Paris. It was there while presenting his collection that he caught the attention of perhaps two of the most important people in fashion: Karl Lagerfeld and Kanye West, both who made a beeline to his stall. El-Nayal tells us how the music and fashion impresario Kanye West listened carefully to how El-Nayal wanted to make his mark and leave a legacy in fashion by pushing boundaries and innovating, especially in tech. He explains: 

“I am researching to understand how we currently use technology and figure out how to disrupt and challenge equipment to do things they were not designed to do,” he says: “I am always asking myself what I can do to push this piece of equipment to do different and progressive things. I want to create new thinking in fashion and pushing tech will always be at the core of it. It’s not about adding tech for tech’s sake, but to change and push forward the narrative of fashion.” 

It is not just fashion equipment that El-Nayal is experimenting with: he is also using machinery that is usually just the purview of architects, like the Artec Spider 3D scanner, and a 3D software called Rhino. With the use of these technologies, El-Nayal is carving out a new path and surely, somewhere, Zaha Hadid is applauding him right now.


El-Nayal has also created ground-breaking work in a new bonding and pleating technique, a breakthrough that was part of the many reasons he was selected for the 2015 LVMH prize short-list. No wonder then, when Lagerfeld viewed the collection, the maestro was left puzzled:  “How did you do that?”  he implored, touching the fabric with reverence. As a testament to El-Nayal’s success, Lagerfeld bought the shirt on sight for his muse, Amanda Harlech.

Another designer taking great strides in 3D design is Khulood Thani, A Dubai-born designer whose label “Bint Thani” is stocked on NJAL for the admirable purpose of giving emerging designers a plinth to promote themselves, and place to conduct their business. In fact, NJAL specially commissioned Bint Thani to design a 3D dress for last year’s “Meet d3” summit, a multi-sensory three-day event where the founders of d3 introduced itself to the world. When Khulood was commissioned, the natural first step she took was to call upon the architect Amer Aldour of Inter | Act. This is no surprise: as Zaha Hadid’s legacy has proven, fashion and architecture are two peas in a pod, and becoming increasingly so.  

The two combined forces on this one-of-a-kind dress which was displayed at NJAL’s pop-up pavilion in Meet d3, which saw over 21,000 people attend. The partnership proved that d3, with its myriad of creators, from fashion to furniture designers from architects to chefs, can redefine the spirit of collaboration, where limits in each field can be vastly expanded. In this sense d3 is truly unique – an ecosystem where all fields are open to each-other and can work in a true spirit of collaboration, with a constant exchange of ideas. In this kind of cross-germinating workplace that d3 provides, the possibilities for progress in design are unlimited. Khulood is the first to admit that creating that dress was a challenging yet rewarding experience.  

She explains: “It became about finding ways to make the dress more flexible, and what would go with the flow of the body by reworking on the pattern of the dress itself, and creating 3D-printed networks underneath the dress. We still look at this dress as an experimental one and we know that it's a viral site of knowledge and development.” 

Her sentiments resonate: this is where d3 will really make its mark by nurturing designers from a cross-section of all artistic fields. With educational organisations, business/tech advisors, a “smart” workplace/retail space all in situ, evolution and breakthroughs will unfold. Ideas, concepts and prototypes can be transformed into sellable products – and that is the very definition of progress.   

Morocco’s JNOUN is another excellent example of how MENA designers are applying tech in an astounding way. The label, founded by two Moroccan sisters, Zahra and Meriem Bennani, (who are also stocked at NJAL), were determined to take digital printing to a new frontier. Explains Zahra:

“We were told it was impossible to put digital prints on anything else than man-made fabrics, like polyester. This is apparently so because natural fibres actually “drink up” the digital print and so it doesn't “take”.  But we wanted to work with only cotton and linens, so we set about to make it happen. We had more than 100 samples in ten different digital print technologies and drove ourselves crazy to see if we could re-invent the rules through practice.”  

The sisters did just that, and displayed their innovation in their first collection “Project One”.  In this collection, inspired by the Moroccan landscape, most of the work proved their theory: that indeed, digital patterns can be successfully printed on natural fabrics. Through hard work and an unquenchable quest for innovation, these sisters cracked that code when everyone told them it was impossible to do so.     

Continues Zahra:  “When we were researching digital printing on natural fabrics, we realised that no one else had been able to do achieve that. Although we recognise it is a pretty sweeping statement, so far, we haven’t seen anyone else succeed in it. We just wanted to re-construct that code, and we think we have. And to do it right in Rabat was amazing, even unthinkable a few years back.”  NJAL was also one of the first e-tailers to stock that collection, and it is this kind of forward thinking and commitment to the future of design that NJAL and d3 are geared towards. Says NJAL's founder, Stefan Siegel:  “We have been linking the storytelling of these designers for some time now within the MENA region with the products they sell. The value of a product of being “made in” a MENA country other than the usual luxury cities like Paris and Milan consists of building up a relationship between designer and customer.  And that is part of our ethos for the NJAL”. 

It is this kind of innovation that causes Sophie Hackford, Director of WIRED Consulting and Education, to estimate that technological progression…“in the next 20 years will be equivalent to the previous 200,000.” And that tech will not be confined to just Europe and the US.  

In fact, El-Nayal yearns for the conflict to simmer down in Syria, as he would love to go back and mentor young designers, a chance that he as a starting designer never received. “Syria is my flesh and blood. A lot of what I create is inspired from the deep history of my native country”, he says, whose past collections were partly a tribute to the Qajar’s: 

“I wanted to show that Syria has a rich, civilised, ancient culture with a story that should be told and never forgotten. To me, it is amazing that something like d3 exists, so we can keep, educate and nurture the talent at home - or at least in the region.  It seemed like a dream, and now it is wonderful to know it is becoming reality.”