(photo credit: Ruth Eglash)
'My main goal is to change what people are wearing here," says Bethlehem-based fashion designer Khawla Abu Sada, as we sit down together in her Beit Sahur home, to discuss clothes, culture and the fashion world's glamour and glitz.
It's less than a month before Christmas and Abu Sada is extremely excited about a new order that has just come in.
"A young woman wants me to create some shirts for her to wear over the Christmas holiday," exclaims the 31-year-old fellow Christian, who has run her own dressmaking company for a little more than a year.
While she is obviously excited at the money this business transaction will bring, for Abu Sada, whose goal is to one day create a fully-fledged fashion house in her home town, the fact that young Palestinian women are finally showing a general interest in fashion and specifically in her unique designs is exhilarating.
"Only now [Palestinian] women are beginning to understand that they should wear something no one has," says Abu Sada. "Most of the clothes available here are of a low quality. Garments come from the Far East and it is the shop owners who decide what is in fashion; there is no variety."
According to Abu Sada, who held her first serious fashion show to great accolades two months ago in Ramallah, young Palestinian women are suddenly becoming interested in fashion and have a renewed desire to look beautiful. But, she says, there are simply not the resources or options here for them to do so.
"Women here like to wear and buy expensive clothes," observes the mother of two, whose husband, Fadi, founded and runs the successful Palestinian News Network. "They want to follow fashion but they never actually consider their body shape.
"Sometimes I see girls walking down the street here wearing clothes that they think are fashionable, but that do not really suit them, and I just want to stop them and ask them, 'Why are you wearing that?'"
As well as her peers' confusion over what clothes they should be wearing, she also says that there is very little outlet here for her creative designs.
"Everything is closed here; it's hard for me to get the word out and most of those around here do not have a lot of money," she laments, adding brightly "For me, Israel is almost like part of Europe. It's the gateway to the West. Whenever I can get a pass into Israel, like at Christmas or Easter, I like to go and see what colors people are wearing because it's reflective of what is happening in Europe. In Palestine, we only get those colors five years later."
Her colorful show in Ramallah showcased her latest collection, flowing silky fabrics with a rush of traditional Arab embellishments marked the evening gowns, which were accompanied on the catwalk by a series of ultramodern wedding dresses and chic women's suits, reminiscent of current European trends.
While Abu Sada is clearly proud of her Western designs, it is the ethnic beauty of her culture that she hopes to embody more than anything else. During the creation process, she paid hundreds of dollars to borrow a handmade Beduin dress from a local museum to use as a muse for the intricate embroidery enhancements on her designs.
"I want to show off my culture, but I also want to modernize it. That's why I choose different fabrics and colors that can blend together," she says.
TRAINED AT the Fashion and Textile Institute in Beit Sahur, the only such institute in the Palestinian Authority, Abu Sada compounded her interest in fashion with international fashion training fellowships in Madrid and Rome.
However, a life in the fashion world was not a natural progression for Abu Sada, who confesses that she was "a tomboy."
She also says that growing up in Bethlehem in the shadow of the first intifada left only "a slim chance that I would become interested in clothes."
After her father was arrested by the Israeli authorities during the late 1980s, Abu Sada says she was forced to assist her mother in raising her four siblings.
"[My mother] worked so hard to feed us," she recalls. "If we had dreams for the future we were not allowed to show them. We had to concentrate instead on the daily difficulties we faced."
However, she does remember with a smile how, whenever she had free time, she would draw and play with colors.
"My sister is an artist and I was always watching her to see what she was doing. That is basically why I decided to start studying textile design," she says.
During her studies at the institute, Abu Sada earned a two-month scholarship to study design in a textile factory in the Spanish capital. "It was then that I really started to dream about working in fashion and meeting some of the big international designers," she comments.
After returning from her foray in Madrid, where she got to work with some of Spain's top creators, Abu Sada tried not to become frustrated with the lack of opportunities in her home town. "Of course I wanted to work in a similar type of factory here, but there were no such opportunities here," she says. Instead, she worked designing towels in a local factory.
Then, after a short stint teaching art and design to children, Abu Sada was called back to the textile institute to teach. She spent seven years working at the college before she decided to take a chance and open up her own business.
"I loved being a teacher and finding students who liked art and could draw," she smiles, adding that it was simply not quite fulfilling enough.
WHILE ABU Sada remains optimistic that there is the chance of a successful fashion career within the Palestinian Authority, Ramallah-based fashionista Sally Attari is far more wary of the clothing options for young Palestinian women.
"There is no hope for anyone with talent to stay here," declares the 24-year-old, who works for the Geneva Peace Initiative and has a coveted all-encompassing pass to enter into Israel.
"My friends in Ramallah are all jealous that I can enter into Israel and go shopping in Jerusalem," she says. "The Jerusalem Mall just has many more options than the shops in Ramallah."
Attari, who lived in Toronto for a time, describes the fashion scene in Ramallah as "crazy." "There is this movement here right now and everyone wants to look like a movie star or look like a model from the cover from a magazine," she says. "It's become part of society and there is pressure to wear really nice and expensive outfits."
However, says Attari, "We just cannot find these kinds of clothes in Ramallah. We don't have shops like Zara and the [Israeli chain] Renuar is not the real one, like in Israel."
Regarding local designers, Attari emphasizes again that for them to be considered successful, they must leave the PA and head to Europe or the US. She points to Los Angeles-based Palestinian designer Rami Kashou, who was featured on the reality TV series Project Runway and whose designs are popular among celebrities, as about the only local who made it big. He is a big inspiration to local designers.
"My main problem is that the local designers are too traditional," observes Attari. "They have no idea what the youth here want and they don't ask us. Also, a lot of what they design is simply not wearable."
Attari includes in her analysis the dresses and other designs showcased in Abu Sada's Ramallah fashion show last October.
"I know that in places like Jenin and Nablus the people are more conservative, but here in Ramallah it's completely the opposite," continues Attari, who describes herself as Muslim but secular. "People in Ramallah are much more open to the West. If you went to a nightclub in Ramallah, you would not believe what the people are wearing; its much more similar to Tel Aviv."
While Abu Sada tries to embrace the average woman when creating her clothing, she is also aware of the contrasting demands of younger Palestinian women and those who are more traditional.
"Of course I want to change the styles, but I don't want to destroy old things," she observes. "When I am designing a wedding dress or a dress for a hina, it is also important to highlight our tradition and show off our culture."