Jordanian designer Nafsika Skourti on the shifting styles of Arab women
The designer charts her journey from creating a V&A-acquired jacket to improvising pandemic clothing
Nafsika Skourti knew she wanted to be a designer when she was but 4 years old. “Recently we were cleaning up the house, and I found a whole bunch of drawings from when I was a kid,” she says. “I have really specific memories of having opinions about fashion, like: ‘OK, red is the best colour, so everybody should wear red.’”
Her next aha moment came about when she was in middle school. On a family trip to the US, Skourti went shopping at Gap and Old Navy. “I bought a really great outfit of blue jeans, a navy hoodie, navy shoes and a top with a daisy on it and thought: ‘OK, your shoes should always match your jacket,” she says with a laugh.
And with that, a designer was born. Skourti launched her brand with her sister Stephanie in 2014.
The Jerusalem jacket
In 2019, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London acquired her Jerusalem jacket, which incorporates symbols from her Greek, Palestinian and Jordanian heritage.
It was a momentous turn of events for her, says Skourti, and told her story while also telling the story of a region, adapted for modern times.
[Before the pandemic], Arab women were very occasion-based in their dressing; they bought with something in mind
“Arab culture is always focused on Islamic geometry, or the cross-stitch, or the colour burgundy, or the thobe, and those for sure are part of our cultural make-up and history,” Skourti says. “But what is our culture today without constantly referencing before? How can we create things referencing how we feel now?”
To answer the question, she looked at what Greece, Palestine and Jordan – the regions that inform her identity – have in common. She identified that all three have a “big” smoking culture and similar cultural mascots, Petra in Jordan, the Parthenon in Greece and Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. But Skourti felt that was still referencing the past.
“I asked myself: ‘How do I talk about this today? Why don’t I turn these [references] into a jacket in denim, the most modern to-date fabric?’ I’m trying to take a cultural snapshot of how I’m feeling, and how many third-culture kids feel today.”
For that to be recognised by the V&A as a piece of note assured Skourti she was on the right track. “It felt [like coming] full circle,” she says.
And then the coronavirus pandemic hit. Team members left the country and had issues getting back in, supplies were delayed, photoshoots disrupted. Moving as she does with the times, the pandemic also changed Skourti’s design aesthetic.
“I saw clients veering towards more comfortable things. The whole culture of what are you going to wear here or wear there is gone,” she says. “[Before the pandemic], Arab women were very occasion-based in their dressing; they bought with something in mind. But going more casual has shifted them into shopping with a more western mentality, where they want to invest in a great jacket or shirt.”
In Jordan, everybody speaks Arabic, that’s a big part of our inspiration, our cultural storytelling – yet we need to find a way to tell a story that’s international
To fit in with the laid-back, comfort-focused style, Skourti is set to launch a demi-couture bridal collection to suit the simple styles favoured at intimate gatherings. “The typical Cinderella bride with a huge dress and 600-person wedding, is just not as popular now,” she says.
Skourti is also launching a knitwear line, something she’s excited about, but that also poses a challenge. “It’s really technical,” she says. “But I’m enjoying the process of translating the Nafsika Skourti aesthetic to knitwear, to take what we normally do and make it more comfortable, easier to fit, more chill.”
What remains is the designer's attention to detail. Skourti loves the care that’s put into couture, the “amount of obsession that goes into every damn thing”. She applies that obsession into everything she does, giving a plain white shirt the same attention she would an evening dress.
“I’m thinking: ‘How can I take standard materials and elevate them?’ It’s what’s keeping me inspired right now,” she says. “Normally when I do a collection, I explore a cultural narrative, but my mind set now is more lifestyle.”
Striking a 'glocal' balance
The situation in Jordan was challenging even before the current backdrop of the pandemic and economic uncertainty around the world. “Being based in Jordan, the fashion capital of the world, you tend to have lots of resources,” Skourti says, joking. “Actually, you don’t.
“Our process is very much about working backwards: ‘What can this person do?’ Or: ‘I have this material at hand, what can I make with this?’”
She cites a comparison with the food industry, saying if she started a restaurant in Jordan, it would be based around olive oil and local ingredients, rather than, say, Norwegian salmon.
Through a stroke of luck, Skourti started working with a Syrian refugee woman who helps with embroidery. The work picked up and the seamstress recruited four more friends. “It just became such a beautiful evolution,” says Skourti.
She dreams of becoming an international fashion brand, but says Jordan will always be home. “The women we work with know we’re creating a product that’s being exported, so it’s very inspiring, a dream. It’s skill that’s the currency,” she says.
Things might be tough right now, but one thing is easy for Skourti: working with her sister, a former Goldman Sachs employee. “When we first started, because we started out of our parents’ TV room, we would have these massive, high-rating, reality-TV-style fights,” she says, laughing. “But because we were able to be so raw and so honest, it allows us to have the best working relationship.”
Skourti says Stephanie and she are so aligned now that they make the same comments about designs even when in separate rooms, and that they do what’s best for the brand no matter what; they don’t let feelings get in the way.
Together, they hope to export an aesthetic.
Same same but different
According to Skourti, Isabel Marant trades in bohemian cool, Elie Saab sells hyper-feminine glam, Acne exudes a quirky Scandinavian vibe. Her brand exports a Jordanian value system.
“We’re a little more suburban than Lebanon, a little bit more connected to our roots than Dubai – we see our aunties all the time!” she says. “Here, everybody speaks Arabic, that’s a big part of our inspiration, our cultural storytelling – yet we need to find a way to tell a story that’s international.”
After all, whether in Jordan, Dubai, London or New York, everyone watches the same Netflix shows and sees the same memes, she says.
“We’re all becoming one big, global group,” Skourti says. “So I’m thinking, how can I highlight the unique things about us, but also outline the common denominators we have with everyone in the world? I find that exciting because the commonalities always outweigh any differences.”
Updated: June 6, 2021 11:36 AM