Representing the creative future

Ayham Hassan: The Palestinian designer crowdfunding his way into education

“I deserve to be here”: Ayham Hassan lets us into his creative universe and the reality of making into fashion in your own terms

Last year, before Ayham Hassan started at CSM, he broke the internet. A boy from Ramallah, Palestine with the dream to study at CSM. Hassan fell in love with his future through a YouTube screen, watching Lady Gaga. Fast forward to 2021, after portfolio consultations, Ayham got into CSM. With a little help from the internet, his first GoFundMe campaign was funded overnight.

His designs are a symphony of the traditional and the modern. If you look closely, you can see how the worlds clash on fabric- his Palestinian heritage, the culture he has known all his life and the fast-pasteness of London, his new stomping ground. To him, it all starts with artistic references, which he then juxtaposes with his own experiences, the stories that float through his veins.

Now, after having finished his first year at CSM, Ayham is at the point he was 12 months ago. Fashion education is expensive, and he needs to raise funds again. Launched a few days ago, his second GoFundMe campaign is his way to embarking on the second year of his studies.

1G: First of all, please tell us a little bit about yourself and your work.

A: I am not actually representing anyone. I really deserve to be here, you know? I’d like to talk about it from a place where I don’t take inspiration from misery. My current project was inspired by the hunger strike of Palestinian prisoner Hisham Abu Hawash who was in prison without reason. I never experienced being in prison or striking for hunger. My process started when I researched the idea of death. I imagined how his soul was fighting to survive. He is making a statement since he wants to be alive and outside prison. His body is refusing to do that. He’s not eating or drinking anything. I was really inspired by the idea of having a soul and how the experience of being in Palestine is perceived. I started my process by looking at the idea of how the soul is leaving the body, the idea of the hero, the idol, and Palestine- since you have to sacrifice your body when you grow up there. It makes it easy to do that. But I don’t really want to do that. I don’t want to die. I can make it more effective if I am alive. It can have a much bigger effect. Why should I fight? There is no way to fight back under occupation or electrolyzed hyperthyroid military. The only reason that is justifying dying or being a martyr is that it might be your only option. People take this so lightly. My friends, everyone. They just say that they’d die for Palestine. At the same time, you process the idea of why they are actually sacrificing their body under occupation.

I like to describe my work from a critical and analytical lens to my upbringing in Palestine. I want to showcase my idea of culture, community or society. I really like conceptual ideas and transforming them into fashion. I think that’s a very interesting way to look at it. I usually get inspired by daily experiences. That being said, the news is an interesting topic for me. Now, being in London, I really see that my concepts are a lot more selective. The cultural difference between Palestine and London is interesting.

“A lot of people don’t see a point in supporting fashion, especially when you are talking about Palestine. ” – Ayham Hassan

1G: When you crowdfunded for the first time, the internet blew up. How has this changed your life and practice?

A: A lot. It gave me the opportunity to study in a place where I really wanted to study. At Central Saint Martins, I feel like I can actually do something with what I am learning. At first, when you are interested in fashion, you realise how horrible the industry can be. It’s a very competitive place. When I couldn’t afford to go to CSM in the first place, I wanted to seek help from the industry to see if anyone believes in me or what I am saying. That was the most exciting part. It was a huge turning point for me to actually see people engaging with what I am saying. It’s crazy, now I am here and have completed my first year. It was an amazing experience to be crowd-funded by people.

1G: Before Dazed published the article, did you have a lot of funding already on GoFundMe?

A: No. I actually started seeking a private sponsor, but unfortunately, most people don’t support individuals. Also, I came from a fashion background and a lot of people don’t see a point in supporting fashion, especially when you are talking about Palestine. No one did that before. They tend to support art rather than fashion. It was difficult for me to get sponsored for it. But as soon as I started the GoFundMe, it was going well for maybe a month. When I shared it with friends and family, some days went by, and eventually more people caught on to it. It went viral and within two days, I got sponsored. It was really interesting to see how fashion can actually support young designers.

“I see my work as a reflection of my upbringing and as an extension of my culture.” – Ayham Hassan

1G: It’s impressive what the internet can do, right? Being from Palestine, the country is usually overlooked in terms of fashion and creativity. How would you describe the fashion scene in your home country?

A: Compared to London, there is not a lot of a fashion scene. It’s a different place. I think it’s a really interesting take on Arabic society under occupation. There are a lot of choices that people have to take. If you are moving through cities, you will get pointed at and get treated differently based on what you are wearing. They will treat you differently when you wear something different to them since they stop seeing you as an equal. They treat you based on your appearance. They see you as a threat, even if you are not doing anything. This assumption is completely based on how you look. It’s a different take on fashion, but it’s also a place that I associate with the 2000s clothing my mother wore when I grew up. Her headscarf always matched the top, she was so colour-coordinated. You can see the Arabic identity in that.

“Fashion is a powerful medium to explore what identity is.” – Ayham Hassan

1G: What does the Palestinian identity mean to you?

A: I think identity is such a nice notion to explore. You can’t go there without experience. As soon as I got to London, I realised that I am different. I started to look at what my identity and my Palestinian background look like. I understood that through draping, designing the silhouette, looking at the colours that are used or the way I develop my ideas. Fashion is a powerful medium to explore what identity is. The other day, I remember talking with my friend. I said that I was never comfortable being Arabic since I thought that they don’t truly accept me, my femininity, or my interests. It wasn’t only until I came to London that I felt how much I belong there. I mean, I grew up there, and it relates more to me. I feel unique because I grew up there. I remember that before I never referenced Arabic culture in any way. I never looked at it, because I was there. It was normal for me. When I got here, my perspective shifted. I am more invested in my identity. I see my work as a reflection of my upbringing and as an extension of my culture.

“It’s very unfortunate that people feel like it’s difficult to talk about Palestine.” – Ayham Hassan

1G: Palestinian identity is such an interesting topic, yet so less talked about. It’s complex. I only remember the terrible headlines last year; it was either one side or the other. People got scared to speak since a lot of them are very undereducated about the topic.

A: It was very horrible. At the same time, it was interesting to me when I got here, to see how afraid people were to ask me about Palestine. They didn’t want to offend me. Even when my teachers see my concepts, they don’t have my background, so they never have the same take on it. It’s not that they don’t understand it, it’s more like an outsider’s view of my work. In one way or another, we have all experienced that. We have all experienced entrepreneurialism, the occupation or at least the effects of it. I think fashion is more cultural now. It’s more focussed on your identity as a designer rather than what you are perceiving. What are you consuming from this culture and what are you putting forward?

1G: A lot of people see this subject as rather touchy. They are scared to speak their mind, since everything gets twisted on the internet these days.

A: It’s about the lack of resources. The media is only showcasing the view of Israel. They have way more control. It was pointed at Palestinians. I never experienced this before. The things that happened last year are real, and those were the only videos that showed what was actually happening. It was posted on every Instagram. The media plays a very important role in showcasing Palestinians’ and Israelis’ views and the people keep forgetting that there is an occupation. Who can have the power and who does not have the power? It’s very unfortunate that people feel like it’s difficult to talk about Palestine. It’s not easy. The people have the power.

1G: That is very true. Taking it back to you, I wanted to ask you about what the symbol of Camouflage means to you.

A: It’s a very interesting concept to me. In my project, I had to find out what activism means to me and what I can do. I am very intrigued by the idea of fitting in and how this is translated into fashion. It is a privilege to have the choice to stand out. Palestine has a very civilian system and it feels almost like everyone is watching you all the time. It is a constant reminder that you are not free. That inspired me. At first, I thought about it when I heard about a girl that got killed. She was at the checkpoint and took a road she was not supposed to take. In Palestine, there are two roads. One for Palestinians with an ID, and one for Palestinians under occupation. She unconsciously took the other route and paid with her life for it. It’s crazy- she didn’t do anything bad, she got killed based on the way she looked. I started looking at the idea of fitting into a landscape, and being camouflaged. It was very interesting to look at the way how fashion is perceived in Palestine. I developed a print replacing the tools that one would need. For example, at the checkpoint in Palestine, I am not supposed to hold fabric scissors, it’s forbidden. At the airport, I had to prove with a student email that I am a student and that I need those tools in order to create my work. I wanted to highlight the ideas of standing out and fitting in.

1G: You speak of fashion very fondly. You see it as a symbol of expression, but on the other side, also as a means of protection. What got you into fashion in the first place?

A: I realised from a young age that I am more creative and artistic. I didn’t know the term fashion, I didn’t know it was something you could study or could make a living with. I was always interested in the way women dressed, obviously with a Palestinian angle and influence, which is very different to a European point of view. Then I discovered Lady Gaga and Alexander McQueen, which made me want to be a part of the fashion world. I wanted to explain my point of view through body movement and the idea of sensual fabrics. I wanted to create a design. I developed more based on my experiences. In my work, I discuss topics that previously I haven’t seen being discussed through fashion. I want to discuss the difficult. I want to show it from a serious and conceptual but also political place. I want to produce a stunning garment, a product of the artistic process.

“[CSM] is an international school, but yet still, a lot of minorities are not represented.” – Ayham Hassan

1G: Being into fashion is one thing, dedicating one’s education to it, is another. Last year, with your crowdfunding, you opened people’s eyes again to how expensive fashion education is. What do you think needs to change in order to push for systematic change and open more opportunities for everyone?

A: It’s such an annoying place to be in when you cannot afford it. You want to study something that you are very passionate about. I personally believe that fashion students have more of a relation to what they are studying- it comes from a place that is personal and passionate. It is annoying to constantly worry about funding. Being sponsored by the elite means that they can control what you are saying, and I don’t want anyone to control what I am saying. I want to be free enough to express my concept and speak about it freely. I want to be an explorer. The fashion education system is a proper place to study and think about fashion as a system. It is a privilege to be here and feel a sense of belonging. This is an international school, but yet still, a lot of minorities are not represented. I noticed that. In my second term, I noticed that a lot of my peers don’t have any references from Arabic societies or Arabic culture. It is definitely more western- the focus lies on what happens in London, Paris or Italy. Fashion is happening there. But I also feel that now, it is the time for people from different places to say what they think about fashion and show it.

“These days, in fashion, you can do whatever you want. It’s full of open resources. But yet still, a lot of fashion school students are getting caught up in the McQueen fantasy.” – Ayham Hassan

1G: Drawing from that, the fashion education system is still very colonised. Do you think that we are actually making a change, or do you think we still have a long way to go?

A: Unfortunately, I think we still have a long way to go. It is true that our generation is doing something different. But, we are also still caught up in the medieval structures of the system. these days, in fashion, you can do whatever you want. It’s full of open resources. But yet still, a lot of fashion school students are getting caught up in the McQueen fantasy. We are still very influenced by the structures of the fashion industry, yet still, at the same time, we are trying to change it. There is more focus on what you want to say as an individual these days. It’s about your culture, your society, and your childhood. Cancel culture is a big thing. People are afraid to offend someone, or at least reference a different culture. I think it should be fine as long as you reference it the right way, give credit and give validation. I mean there are only 2 Palestinians in CSM. That’s not enough. There are not a lot of people from Arabic backgrounds here.

1G: Your white project was inspired by a former trip to London and the idea of a borderline. I believe your idea was that a line is more than just a line. It’s about separation. Can you tell me a little bit more about this?

A: It was a phenomenon I experienced a lot. The year I did the funding, got my visa and everything was the first time I ever went to London. It was all based on that. I remember when I told my teacher about it, they weren’t sure if I was doing the right thing. Should I talk about that? I kept wondering. I kept wondering if I should settle for something traditional. Visually, it felt natural to talk about it, since growing up, I have seen what a line does to people. It was the first time for me to discuss the concept of a border and how it concedes culture through fashion. Visually, it was very different from what my peers did, since they never experienced it. Growing up, a border could only be a 10-minute walk away. But this 10-minute walk is a reflection on deconstructing culture. I chose the most colourful textile based on culture and costumes, which was a really interesting take on what embroidery is to me since it was placed on the costumes. I am the third generation of this craft. It’s dissolving. It was inspired by the artwork of a Palestinian director, which I really liked. She had an extremely futuristic take on what a borderline can be, and how it is destroying the culture, the society and the community. This is the future of neglecting Palestine, being under intense occupation. It was such an interesting way for me to explore this through fashion and body movement. I experienced it when I set off from Palestine to Jordan and then from Jordan to London. The trip took me three full days. It was a very literal and visual exploration of a borderline, but also a very eye-opening way to see how this is affecting culture.

“Our teachers need to put a deeper focus on creative worlds that are not western. For example, maybe they should look into the concept of the draping of Moroccan women rather than the traditional western draping. ” – Ayham Hassan

1G: What are your goals for the next academic year? How do you wish to evolve and progress?

A: I am really excited about the next year. I hope that I actually get to do it. In my first year, I experimented a lot. And now, in my second year, I think it is the place where I can explore my aesthetic more. I want to dive more deeply into things. I want to refine my research process. I find a lot of difficulties being an international student here since I am from a very different culture. I am very excited to see how I will perceive the concepts in a different way, and how they will be refined and polished.

1G: How do you see the future of decolonisation within the fashion system? What can we do better as individuals or as an industry?

A: It is such a complex and interesting topic. Especially, since I am an Arabian Palestinian who is living in a place that is not full of Arabic people. The power comes from the people who write our briefs. Our teachers need to put a deeper focus on creative worlds that are not western. For example, maybe they should look into the concept of the draping of Moroccan women rather than the traditional western draping. Also, the students should be more comfortable discussing other cultures and tie this into their references. They should look into different silhouettes, different colours and different textures. The process should definitely involve more people from minorities.

1G: Very good point. We can only change the system if we change the structures. I have one last question for you. What are your dreams and aspirations for the future?

A: As a designer at CSM, I am in a place where fashion is the most creative, competitive and interesting. I really want to work in the industry, so I can understand every aspect of it fully. I want to collaborate with people. One day, I’d love to have my own brand. Right now, I don’t think creating a brand is the most sustainable thing to do. But at the same time, I think it matters a lot to get Palestinians’ work out there. I would love to have a collective studio, collaborating with other artisans.