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.”