Can Fashion Reduce Conflict In The Middle East? This Israeli-Palestinian Brand Believes So

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When conceiving a fashion brand, the typical approach by founder designers is to cultivate a personal aesthetic and stylistic point of view, usually during a design degree. Few designers start with a political and cultural purpose and a steely determination to avoid creating “just another brand.” Founders Amit Luzon and Eyal Eliyahu did just that, launching the brand ADISH almost two years ago with a determination not to use “empty words about peace.”  

Instead, they formed a codependent creative and economic partnership between Israelis and Palestinians across the Tel Aviv and West Bank divide. It’s difficult to imagine a more powerful brand message, or another fashion brand so ambitious in its cultural and social aims. During a recent interview, Luzon explained to me that this partnership is at the heart of what drives him and Eliyahu.

The Israeli design duo has been friends since before they started high school, after which they completed their army training and then traveled to the US. Traveling ignited their idea to create a brand that represents a global point of view, but that incorporates handmade textile techniques unique to local cultures. With a keen interest in craft, after returning home, they began researching local embroidery techniques and embarked on an 18-month journey that eventually took them to the Dheisheh Refugee Camp, established in 1949, at the southern edge of the city of Bethlehem in the West Bank.  

 The path to Dheisheh was facilitated by an organization called The Parents Circle Families Forum, which is a grassroots organization of over 600 Palestinian and Israeli families who have lost an immediate family member due to the conflict. Through this organization, they met three ladies who could create Tatreez—a traditional Palestinian cross-stitch embroidery, known for its strong link to geography, identity, and cultural heritage. The craft is passed down in families and villages through generations of women. The different Tatreez styles distinctly represent the respective villages or areas of Palestine that they originate from. Wars have led to the dispersion of the craft and have diminished the styles and variety of Tatreez embroidery, explained Luzon. However, he and his team are now working with over 40 ladies in a formal workshop that ADISH built in the refugee camp, and the dedication of the Palestinian ladies has helped revitalize the craft “carrying it on into the future and out into the world,” he said.

 Luzon and Eliyahu have two partners in the business. One is Palestinian Qussay Abuaker, who built the independent production structure for ADISH in the West Bank, and is now handling all of the production in Palestine. The final partner is Jordan Nassar, the U.S.-born textile artist of Palestinian descent who acts as art director, shaping the imagery around the brand and influencing the use of Tatreez in the collections. He uses Palestinian embroidery techniques in his work to present Palestinian landscapes and explore the crossover between identity, culture, and tradition.

This symbiotic partnership forms the language of the brand, which exists through the incorporation of Palestinian craftsmanship, with the Israeli studio acting as a link to modern style and a conduit to the globe, where the brand sells in 15 stores including Dover Street Market, spanning N.Y., L.A., Tokyo and London. 

Inevitably, there are complications in building a business that is Palestinian- and Israeli-owned, and this is confirmed when Luzon explains “we don’t have any business support in Israel. There are some government cash prizes for fashion designers but we don’t feel comfortable in participating in those because of our Palestinian partners.” When asked how they navigate any political tensions he said “from time to time we receive unpleasant comments about our brand’s values and authenticity. When you are doing something controversial those comments will always be there, you just need to know you are doing what you believe in.” He goes on to say “to us, it means we’re doing something important that is causing people to really think.” 

When I spoke to Abuaker he explained that what he and his Israeli business partners are doing is highly sensitive. “Everything in Palestinian life is imposed by Israel. Embroidery is sensitive because it [can be seen as] Israel attempting to claim Palestinian craft as their own.” He told me he has ADISH images on his phone to show anyone accusing him of “giving away Palestinian heritage” (this happens on a routine basis at banks and other institutions) in order to demonstrate that Palestinian craft is the creative soul and story of the brand, not a way of cashing in at the expense of the Tatreez craft and its people. This manifests in the SS19 collection with embroidery patterns that were influenced by the freedom of movement restriction and referencing the Palestinian International Marathon. 

In seeking to understand the history of Israeli and Palestinian design collaborations, I spoke with Oded Chai, director of External and Continuing Studies at Shenkar College, Tel Aviv. He cited the first Israeli “haute couture” fashion house, Maskit, as an example of how the founder collected ethnic craft and art from Palestinians, Bedouins and Jewish immigrants to Israel, and turned this into a commercially successful business. It’s the usual “colonialist comes and enjoys the fruits of the region, as has happened all over the world,” he says, citing appropriation of ethnic textile craft in Guatemala as another key example. Concerning the business model ADISH are operating under, Chai describes it as “more sustainable, because all parties are on equal terms. I think this is innovative and the only way things can succeed.”  

On a practical level, Luzon says the main challenges for the brand are “the freedom of movement—we can’t go to them.” The consequence of this is the need to send drivers back and forth from the West Bank with samples, which costs “hundreds of euros.” He and Abuaker explained that sometimes they meet in the street in occupied Area C (located inside the west bank but under Israeli control) due to settlements and Palestinians cities junctions. The situation is slightly different for Abuaker. He can travel to Israel (with special permission) between specific hours in the morning until the evening but must return to the West Bank before the curfew.  

Reflecting on the progress ADISH has made in the past two years, Luzon explains that building trust between the brand and the craft-women was a challenge achieved by paying them on time and providing regular work. The craft-women are paid at a higher than the local market price for their work, because of the challenging materials, such as fleece, jersey, nylon and leather, which are difficult to embroider. They do trials of the embroidery and say how long it takes, upon which the costing is based. The approach is to allow them to quote a realistic and achievable time, rather than pressure them to rush their output and potentially compromise the quality.   

Part of running this Palestinian/Israeli partnership is presenting each party as they really are. It’s about seeing that “Israelis are not just soldiers and Palestinians are not just suicide bombers” Abuaker told me. He believes that sustained false images of both parties are pivotal to the conflict. Through ADISH, the team works together on a daily basis; “I speak to Amit every day” says Abuaker, “to create work that respects and promotes the traditions of Palestinian embroidery. If such a partnership is coming from an Israeli [individual or company] that doesn’t mean we immediately reject it,” he said. 

With the additional complications of manufacturing across borders (one of the factories they work with is in the North of Israel), Abuaker estimates that their cost of production is up to three times higher due to the logistical complications between Israel and Palestine. Facing such challenges, what drives the team to continue, I ask? Abuaker’s says the partnership is a roadmap and a framework for establishing and running a business in a conflict zone. It is also a platform that forces the question “how can enemies work together?” to be asked and answered. He says that ADISH has created another dimension to think about how a fashion brand could affect the status quo.