Nöl Collective is the fashion label rooted in the beauty of Palestine

By Rachael Morrow on November 30, 2020

Nöl Collective is a group of Palestinian creatives, garment workers and activists cementing themselves within the narratives of fashion. They are, above all else, storytellers, exposing the complexities of their painful history and the intimacy they share with their land. Their ability to work under apartheid and military occupation is a clear example of their immense courage, undying passion and continuous resilience. For them, creativity, politics and survival are one and the same. Nöl Collective is challenging the outdated concepts of war, patriarchal oppression, religion and gender, all through the power of fashion and its ability to explore the sacred relationship of the body and the garments we drape upon it. 

Founder and creative director, Yasmeen Mjalli states her work is “political because our occupier has appropriated some of our clothing while using the rest to cast us as terrorists in the eyes of the world.” They are fighting a battle with not only their corrupt government but with the rest of the world and their misinformed views of the Palestinian people. They do not have the luxury of avoiding or ignoring the Israel-Palestine conflict. They do not get the opportunity to ‘not get involved’ with this specific cultural annexation. Instead, the various people, communities and families involved in Nöl Collective, rely on this sense of solidarity to maintain their way of life. Yasmeen’s passion for her brand and the people within it is what separates Nöl Collective from so many.  She ensures that every member of the production process has a voice and is given the opportunity to use it, to tell their personal story, to attach their own meaning to their oppression. This bringing together of people resembles the way in which the Nöl (Palestinian word for the loom) “brings individual threads together to make something greater.” It showcases the power of the individual within the greater context of the society, how the one makes up the many.

These people are “working under apartheid and military occupation, and the world should do them justice and learn their stories.”  

Nöl Collective’s ethos of showcasing and supporting the beauty of community, specifically the Palestinian community, is especially unique within the fashion industry. How did you keep this motive so strong over the past three years?

Well, I suppose that’s the difference between clothing and fashion. I don’t make clothes–instead, I root myself in fashion, which is a means of nuanced storytelling, true to the complexity of communities and individuals. 

In many ways, this is actually what has kept me grounded and sane in the last three years. If I fall out of balance and focus on the element of making clothes, I start to feel lost and even struggle with anxiety. I start asking myself questions like, is my work relevant? Is it starting conversations? Am I doing justice to the complexity of intersectionality? To those who make the clothes? But, once I return to our community, the incredible people behind the clothes, the immense beauty of our culture, the heartbreak of our history, then I fall back into balance, and my work finds its place and purpose in the world.  The continuous storytelling we do is because I simply can’t find happiness without looking to our community. It keeps me strong. 

Nöl is the Arabic word for the loom, a device that has a long and emotive history within Palestine’s textile history. Why did you choose the loom to be the key symbol of NölCollective?

I had stumbled across a 1975 photo of a man on the Gaza beach. He had a cigarette dangling from his mouth and was surrounded by a halo of coloured yarns placed all around the beach. He had washed each roll of yarn in the seawater to stabilize the vivid blues, yellows, and reds. Immediately I was drawn, asking myself what this man was doing and how I had never learned about anything even close to what he was doing. It was yet another part of our culture that I hadn’t learned about yet became ravenous to know more. 

After weeks and weeks of research, I had learned that these yarns had been dyed with plants and spices native to Palestine like indigo and sumac. The man on the beach was stabilizing the colours with seawater before the yarns eventually made their way onto a loom where they would be woven into the fabric for carpets, furniture, and clothing. It was a deeply intimate relationship between the Palestinians and their land, a harmonious relationship only indigenous peoples know. I fell in love with the loom (which is the English word for Nöl) because it represented this collective process to create something beautiful, intentional, and sustainable. 

Nöl Collective uses its social platforms to discuss, share and expose decades of injustices occurring in Palestine due to the annexation by Israel. Was this element of Palestinian history always important to you, or did it develop as NölCollective found its voice? 

Funny enough, in the early days, I tried to separate politics from my work, thinking they had nothing to do with each other. The more I immersed myself in work, the more I read, the more I listened, I eventually sobered up the reality that fashion is art and art is inherently political. 

Fashion is political in SO many ways. On the macro-level, it’s political because of the gendered oppression of global garment workers, 75% of which are women, most of whom are women of colour, the human rights violations of garment workers, the environmental impacts of creating and disposing of clothing. In Palestine, it’s political because under apartheid and military occupation, Palestinians face numerous and often insurmountable barriers to even the most basic human rights let alone creating fashion. It’s political because our occupier has appropriated some of our clothing while using the rest of our clothing to cast us as terrorists in the eyes of the world. 

On the micro-level, fashion is political because of its intimacy between the wearer’s skin and the maker’s hands. Those same hands which prepare dinner for loved ones, which pick fruits and pour juice and brush hair. The people behind our clothes live and work in complex social and political frameworks which we often know nothing or very little about yet we wrap the clothes they make around our bodies. Particularly in the case of Palestine, everyone involved in bringing these creations to life is living and working under apartheid and military occupation – and the world should do them justice and learn their stories. 

Have you experienced unfair treatment, disadvantage and complete disregard, for merely being a Palestinian fashion label? 

Sadly, yes. I’ll never forget the time we were exploring the opportunity of a collaboration with the Middle Eastern branch of a global brand. It was shocking and exhilarating to know that they wanted to work with us and that we were going to create something together. Pretty soon, though, they started asking questions like “are you involved in politics at all? Because we can’t be political.” 

I was stunned–particularly because a Palestinian fashion brand is inherently political in its mere existence. The brand wanted us to make jackets in Gaza yet they were insisting they wouldn’t move forward until they were certain we were not involved in politics. How can you make a jacket in Gaza, with the hands of a person living in what can only be called an open-air prison yet not make it political? They eventually pulled out of the deal and we never heard from them again. I guess the politics of injustice was too isolating for some of their customers…

That was a sobering moment for us in which we had to reassess the conversations we were even willing to have regarding collaborations, what “growth” means to us, and faith to our values first and foremost. 

All of your clothing, handmade pieces and accessories are so affordable, especially for such a boutique label. Was this a deliberate moral choice, to ensure you were not elitist and exclusive? 

In the end, this is relative. I often worry because while our clothes are affordable to many, they’re still unaffordable to many others. It’s heartbreaking to watch a mother and daughter, for example, walk into our store, look at a price tag, and have to walk away from something which is considered “nothing” for other customers. It’s pretty common for people to DM me or email me and express their inability to purchase something, and we give them a discount–just because no one should ever be excluded. Our collective has continuously sought after ways to include everyone in some way which is why we have designed our new space to include both a community library and a social space open to the public in which we host free workshops, discussions, and events. Community, as always, is beyond the threads.

The ‘Design Stories’ component of Nöl Collective is so intimate, as it details the garment’s narrative, from inception to execution. Where do you find such inspirng women willing to share their designs and stories?

Anyone creating anything is inspiring, and particularly so in Palestine. The sheer human will to wake up every day, fight under so many systems of oppression (apartheid, patriarchy, etc.) and channel creative energy is an act of defiance in and of itself. It’s part of what makes Palestinians such incredible people. So, I guess the question isn’t really “where do you find such inspiring women? but rather “are you paying attention? are you listening?” 

Not only are you adamantly sustainable, geo-political and proudly Palestinian, you are also extremely feminist! Was this always what you had envisioned?

Definitely. We’ve been feminist since our inception, and in many ways, feminism was the reason we even launched this collective. At the time, I was having what I call my feminist awakening and struggling to heal from continuously unfolding gendered oppression. From being patronized by men to being sexually assaulted in broad daylight on the street, it felt like the patriarchy was dominating my life, and I didn’t know who to talk to about it. I needed to heal and knew that the community was the only way to do so. So I decided to build a community of people who would listen to each other, offer support and a starting point for the healing process. Enter Nöl.

Clothing was a natural part of this process because clothing is so intimately connected to my body which is the site of constant physical and emotional assault by the patriarchy. The way I presented my body in clothes, the clothes I chose to express or protect myself became part of the conversation. The more I learned about fashion, the environment, military occupation, the more I realized that (intersectional) feminism should be centred in conversations for change and progress. Feminism is intrinsic to every struggle for justice and anything we do now, and moving forward will always try to shine a light on that.

Finally, where do you hope to see Nöl Collective in the future?

It’s hard to say, honestly. One year ago, I couldn’t see myself where I am now, and the same for two and three years ago. The nature of the collective has had a pretty violent and beautiful metamorphosis driven by the desire to educate ourselves continuously and do the most good. For example, my ideas of what feminism is have changed drastically, along with my ideas of sustainability, community, and storytelling. We haven’t been afraid to change what we think and practice based on new learning. Because we’re constantly learning, the collective is constantly changing, and that’s why we look so different from what we did when we first set out. And that’s why I can’t say what we will look like in the future, but I can only hope for this: that we have kept evolving because we have kept learning. 

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