Palestinian fashion designer Mai Hammad was 4 years old when she received her first thobe, the loose, embroidered ankle-length dress traditional in Palestinian culture. A deep purple garment covered in gold and jewel-toned embroidery, it was sewn specially for her on the occasion of her older brother's wedding. Hammad's mother and sisters all had identical ones, and Hammad remembers wearing the thobe with pride, showing it off to other guests at the wedding.
'A complicated relationship'
As Hammad grew up, she developed a complicated relationship with the garment. On the one hand, she adored the embroidery on most thobes, the plants and animals of her homeland depicted in rich, swirling colours. But on the other hand, she didn't like the shape of the garment. A burgeoning fashionista, she found the folk dress baggy and unflattering. When she wore one, she felt she looked much older than her years.
After Hammad became a professional fashion designer at age 20, she set out to resolve her conundrum over the thobe. "I thought to myself, why don't I combine the traditional with the modern," she tells us from her studio in Ramallah. So she began to cut up the robes and sewed the embroidery sections into clothing that she would actually wear, such as pencil skirts and blouses. The designs proved popular with her friends, and soon women across the Palestinian city were asking for them. Five years ago, she founded her company, Forty8 by Mai Hammad, offering a range of clothing and accessories that incorporate vintage Palestinian embroidery with contemporary cuts. Her products range in price from US$15 (Dh55) for a simple shoulder bag to $500 (Dh1,837) for evening gowns.
Tradition meets modernity
Like her clothing, Hammad is both traditional and modern, a hijabi in ripped jeans and Kate Spade flats. The daughter of two Palestinian-Americans, she was raised in Ramallah and spent summers in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where her five older siblings now live. Today, she splits her time between both places. Her Ramallah studio, where her clothing is manufactured by a small team of workers, is located on the first level of her parents' house, a beige mansion with a dystopian view of an Israeli military outpost. Filled with Palestinian art and handicrafts, the studio also has a few distinct American touches, such as a pile of assorted fashion magazines.
Spanning two worlds as a young female designer, Hammad faces different reactions to her work. In Fort Lauderdale, where she has a fan base of diaspora Palestinians, nobody blinks an eye at the fact that she owns her own business. In Ramallah, she says, people are often surprised to learn that she’s the boss. But, Hammad adds, it’s mostly men who ask questions. Women have embraced her designs wholeheartedly.
Going global through social media
Their enthusiasm is evident on Hammad's company's Instagram page. She has about 16,000 followers, who leave a stream of glowing comments with each photo she posts. Through Instagram and her website, she has grown a customer base that extends beyond Palestinians. Women from Italy, Spain and Australia are now wearing Forty8 designs. The name of the company is a nod to Hammad's heritage. Forty8 is a reference to 1948, the year of the Nakba, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were forced out by Israeli forces. Hammad, whose maternal grandparents are refugees, believes that Palestinians her age are at risk of forgetting the places their ancestors came from. "I didn't want the newer generation to forget," she says. She named each design after a village or a city in historic Palestine, such as Safad, Yaffa and Al Lid (what Israelis call Tsfat, Yafo and Lod), using a large map in her studio for inspiration.
Giving old dresses new life
Her bestselling item is the Majdal jacket, named after a depopulated Palestinian village where the city of Ashkelon now stands. A long jacket made of a flouncy material that ends just above the knee and embellished with ornate panels of embroidery, it comes in black and white.
In order to make her designs, Hammad relies on a steady stream of thobes. While the garments were once commonplace on Palestinian streets, they have fallen out of favour with many in the younger generation, who wear these garments only at special events, such as the henna celebration before a wedding.
Forty8 has benefited from the thobe's declining popularity. Over the past five years, Hammad has acquired thousands of thobes, many from families who say they no longer have use for them after an elderly relative, the final wearer, passed away. Depending on the quality of the embroidery, Hammad may pay hundreds of dollars for the garment. Some sellers say that the embroidery on the garment was never washed, ensuring it remains as vibrant as the day it was stitched decades before. Hammad can typically make five designs from one thobe.
In her workshop, a pile of embroidery swatches sits on a shelf, while a variety of thobes hang on racks, waiting to be cut into pieces. Looking at these garments, some of them glorious antiques, it's easy to imagine a preservationist arguing for their safekeeping in a museum collection. But Hammad says she is giving these old dresses new life and, in the process, making sure traditional patterns don't disappear from memory. She sees it as her mission to "keep the embroidery going, to reuse something that we don't want to throw away".
A matter of national pride
Embroidery is central to Palestinian cultural heritage. Traditionally, the designs differed from region to region, forming a "badge of identity" for the wearer, according to Hanan Karaman Munayyer, a collector of Palestinian embroidery and the author of Traditional Palestinian Costume: Origins and Evolution. "At a marketplace or festival in the 1940s, it was easy to distinguish the lady from Ramallah, Al-Khalil or Majdal from the 10 other regional styles that existed," Munayyer wrote in a 2015 article in the English-language magazine This Week in Palestine.
Today, embroidery is associated with national pride. Hammad is one of several designers who are involved in a revival of Palestinian embroidery. While Forty8 is unique in its use of vintage material, other designers are also blending embroidery with contemporary cuts. Natalie Tahhan from Jerusalem creates capes and other clothing printed with digital designs that replicate embroidery stitches. Noora Abdeen-Khalifeh is the founder of the Noora Heritage House in Ramallah, which sells hand-stitched shirts, scarves, dresses and more.
For Hammad’s Palestinian customers, the clothing’s appeal is no doubt about fashion and heritage alike. By donning a Forty8 original, they are, quite literally, wearing their history on their sleeves.