When Karl Lagerfeld first saw a white shirt by a young designer in Paris—part of an Autumn Winter ‘15 collection that was shortlisted for the LVMH Prize—he paused for a while. Taking in the structured pleated collar, seemingly starched and ignorant of gravity, he asked, “How did you do this?” And then exclaimed “I love it! I love it! I love it!”


Lagerfeld purchased it on the spot for his muse, friend and collaborator, Lady Amanda Harlech. He later shot it on Jerry Hall for the 100th issue of V Magazine.


Tonight’s Met Gala, hosted by Vogue’s Anna Wintour, marks the opening of Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology (the Costume Institute’s annual exhibition explores how designers reconcile the handmade and the machine-made in the creation of luxury fashion.) Syrian-born Nabil El-Nayal is a case in point. As a designer, El-Nayal is somewhere between a historian and scientist. His process “disrupts” traditional craftsmanship with cutting-edge technologies. In the case of the Karl shirt (as the style is now affectionately known), Elizabethan pleating is bonded, recalling something between a 15th-century ruff and modern sportswear.


“I have a longstanding fascination with the classic white shirt,” says thirty-year-old El-Nayal, who now calls London home. “It’s one of those generic garments that is as relevant today as it was when it existed as the smock-shirt back in the 16th-century.” But the designer’s version is unlike any other—Lagerfeld’s enthusiasm is proof of that. El-Nayal’s unique aesthetic is best described by his own phrase, ‘Elizabethan Sportswear’. “At Nabil Nayal we see technology as a form of craft; sometimes there is a heavy emphasis on sportswear technology, other times there is a bigger focus on historical construction.”


While still a student at the Royal College of Art (he was awarded a scholarship), El-Nayal became the first fashion designer in the world to utilize 3D printing. This season, he turns his attention to smocking, a technique developed in the Middle Ages to allow fabric to stretch, long before the birth of elastic. “I have embraced 16th-century smocking techniques and fused this with contemporary sportswear finishings.” He adds, “It’s all done by hand in England—each piece takes several hours to construct.”

The ‘hand/machine conundrum’ is at the heart of Manus x Machina. “I guess within today’s fashion landscape, the notion of ‘made by hand’ has luxury connotations when we are faced with mass-produced clothes that have no soul,” muses Nabil. But the designer refuses to distinguish between manus and machina, hand and machine. “For me technology is a tool, an extension of the needle and thread” he argues.


Andrew Bolton, curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute would likely agree. Debunking the myth that handmade garments posses more value than those made by machines, the exhibition reveals numerous examples of couture and avant-garde clothing. A sparkling, scuba knit and silk wedding ensemble by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel (featuring a spectacular machine sewn train) makes the point. Still, the basic principals cannot be ignored, “I would be unable to design if I didn’t have at least a basic grounding in cut, construction and drape,” Nabil says. “You have to understand how to make before you can design.”


Just as I submitted the first draft of this article, I received an email from Nabil, who was away in Italy researching for his PhD. Returning from a visit to the Museo del Tessuto archive in Prato, he described a 16th-century shirt composed of linen and silk embroidery. “This particular garment celebrated the new technology of its time: smocking and weaving,” he wrote.

The comment was apt, not least because—created 500 years later—it’s the same way one would describe his own pieces: celebrations of new technology. “I use bonding machinery that is more time-consuming and specialized than hand-sewing!"


Thinking about the importance of the machine in his process, I was reminded of Lagerfeld's wedding ensemble. I ask Nabil for his thoughts on machine-made couture. “I think it is time to redefine couture for the 21st-century" he writes. "It needs to reflect the times we are in.”


With that said, he returns to the archive.