Fashion typically evokes images of fabric lying on cutting tables, spools of yarn, needles, threads, and of course, runway models. But in a world where accessibility and movement are determined by an occupying force, fashion design takes on a new shape.
A new Palestinian fashion collective called tRASHY seeks to defy these limitations while transforming cultural attitudes, both within Palestinian society and in how the West engages with Arab-speaking communities. Its members, all 20-something Palestinians scattered across the Middle East, want to flip the script — even in the way they spell the brand’s name.
Since its founding three years ago, tRASHY has become more than a fashion brand; it is a microcosm of the many challenges Palestinian youth face in Palestine and around the world, and a platform for those who have been politically, economically, and socially disadvantaged for generations.
In the summer of 2017, founding member and filmmaker Shukri Lawrence began designing t-shirts that mix Arabic writing with international logos, “to show the West something they’re used to seeing but not from Palestine,” he says. A few months later, he was joined by Omar Braika, Reem Kawasmi and Luai Al-Shuaibi, and the group expanded their products to include dresses, jewelry, and more.
I was planning to meet with Lawrence in East Jerusalem, where he lives, and interview him in person. But he was in Amman preparing for a fashion show when the coronavirus broke out in March, and hasn’t been able to return since.
Instead, we had a Zoom call — a practice Lawrence was accustomed to even before the pandemic hit. Online chat platforms have become the team’s “office,” he explained, since this is the only way they can come together. Like many Palestinians, the team members live in separate locales and carry different forms of identification that determine where they can travel. Though Kawasmi and Al-Shuaibi also reside in East Jerusalem, Braika is based in Amman. The internet is where they can escape Israeli-imposed obstacles such as the separation barrier, checkpoints, and arbitrary security checks.
At a time of lockdowns and general travel restrictions, it is also how someone like myself, a photographer from Bethlehem, could document their story. Trying to take photos over a virtual medium was a new challenge for me — good visual storytelling often requires building trust and creating a sense of intimacy. But it also allowed me to better understand the obstacles the team faces on a regular basis. Designing garments is a physical job that requires touching, draping, and cutting fabric; only determined and imaginative artists can accomplish such a task while only communicating digitally.
In addition to restrictions on movement, the team faces difficulties in the production process, explains Lawrence. Not all fabrics are readily available in Palestine, and the tailors they work with are mostly based in the occupied West Bank. To get to them, the designers have to cross checkpoints.
tRASHY’s visual aesthetic is mostly inspired by images that surfaced in Palestine, and sometimes across the broader Arabic-speaking region, with the introduction of the internet in the 1990s. Many of these kitsch visuals can be seen either on the ground in more sha’bi “folk” environments, or online. tRASHY incorporates them into their garments with satire, as a form of breaking stereotypes, explains Lawrence.
“What we call kitsch, or lowbrow, or sha’bi is usually just another word for poor or working class,” explains Palestinian fashion designer Omar Jospeh Nasser, who specializes in historic rural textiles from Palestine. Some brands fetishize poverty under the misleading guise of anti-fashion, he adds. “I don’t think that is the purpose behind tRASHY.”
“Anti-fashion is the inflection of fashion; it consciously rejects the ideals of beauty and luxury set by fashion and embraces that which fashion wouldn’t be caught dead wearing: the clothes of the poor and dispossessed,” Nasser continues. “tRASHY’s defiant aesthetic is definitely Palestinian, even traditionally so; it doesn’t give a flip what anyone thinks is beautiful. We know we are beautiful.”
According to Lawrence, “tRASHY is an experience. Every collection and fashion show has a message.” The brand aims to tackle topics such as women’s rights, minority rights, and gender. In a recent move, tRASHY donated proceedings from their work to Rainbow Street, a Jordan-based LGBTQ organization, to help queer Arabs in the Middle East during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Representation for all these groups is very important to us, not only as Palestinians but as people of the Middle East,” notes Al-Shuaibi, who is a third-year international law and criminology student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he is also a teaching assistant. “We want to challenge the stereotypes where we are accused of being motivated by radical ideologies, and show who we are and how diverse we are.”
Braika concurs: tRASHY’s message is “the most important thing,” he says. “Fashion is like all other art forms. It needs to challenge your perception on things.”
This journey has encouraged the team to embrace their individual identities and sociopolitical perspectives, explains Kawasmi. It is precisely this aspiration for self-expression, along with the focus on social justice issues, that has united the group.
When it comes to Palestine, even art and fashion become political. With the Jerusalem municipality’s constant erasure of the city’s visual identity — through actions such as Judaizing street names, house demolitions, building modern capitalist structures (like Mamilla Mall) in place of historical sites, and a school curriculum that ignores the Palestinian narrative — many Palestinian art organizations in the city are compelled to primarily support artists working on resisting this erasure.
As a result, however, there are few spaces for artistic expression that seek to push beyond this theme. “Palestinian art often isolates and fixates itself on our relationship with Zionism/Western colonialism, and ignores the multitude of intersectional injustices and oppression that we also engage in within our own society and the world at large,” explains Nassar, the fashion expert. “The majority of Palestinian creative expression is safe, romantic, bereft of self-criticism, and still maintains its loyalty to the reductive narrative of ‘them’ and ‘us.’ If we are actually serious about our rejection of colonialism, the occupation, and injustice, we must go beyond this dichotomy. The occupation cannot and must not become a convenience: a safe subject and an infinite source of inspiration.”
With few institutions available to support tRASHY’s vision and work, the team has had to “make things happen ourselves,” says Kawasmi. Once again, the collective turned to the internet to gather support for and disseminate their designs.
Kawasmi isn’t optimistic, though, and doesn’t believe significant change will happen in her lifetime. But she still holds hope that with each stitch and with each new design, a new possibility is created.
Correction Nov. 19, 2020: The article was updated to describe Omar Braika, Reem Kawasmi and Luai Al-Shuaibi as members, not founders, of tRASHY.