Haya Khalifa may come from a fashion family but her path to becoming a sustainable fashion designer wasn’t always obvious. Sustainability has been slower to catch on in Bahrain, where she lives. But her care and commitment to ethical practices are as lovely as her clothes, which are a “contemporary and versatile” take on traditional clothing. Here, she reflects on highlighting sustainable fashion in the Middle East, starting her brand Nesma Studio and being a fashion changemaker.
Image via Haya Khalifa photographed by Ali Sharaf for Vogue Arabia
WARDROBE CRISIS: Tell us about yourself. HAYA KHALIFA: “The first time I heard about sustainable fashion was during fashion school. We had a project where we were supposed to design a sustainable ‘look.’ Having no knowledge in the subject I went for a cotton look, because that’s what I thought sustainable fashion was about. After a while I got into veganism for health reasons but started to learn about its [positive] impact on the environment. I embraced an eco-conscious lifestyle, which is highly uncommon in my country. “I remember coming across a vegan influencer who posted a picture holding the sign: ‘Who made my clothes?’ and I was intrigued. This made me think about all the personal lifestyle changes I’d made, with no attention to my work in fashion! “I learned more about Fashion Revolution. I took their online course and other courses in London College of Fashion and Central Saint Martins.
Image via Nesma Studio
“I REALIZED THAT THERE’S A LACK OF AWARENESS ABOUT SUSTAINABLE FASHION IN THE MIDDLE EAST AND I WANTED TO CHANGE THAT.”
I joined the local Fashion Revolution chapter here in Bahrain, and I’m a part of the Global Shapers community where I lead the Shape Fashion initiative in our local hub. I also work closely with my alma mater to help design students learn more about sustainability. Right now my focus is delving into the academic side of sustainable fashion. I’m doing an MBA in Luxury Brand Management with a focus on sustainable luxury in Glasgow Caledonian University and next year I’m doing an MA in Fashion Futures at London College of Fashion.” WARDROBE CRISIS: Fantastic! Also, congrats on being Vogue Arabia’s October issue It-girl! Why is sustainability so important to you now? HAYA KHALIFA: “I read a quote once that said, ‘We don’t inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children,’ and that resonated with me. We have a beautiful planet that’s full of wonders, but we’re destroying it and leaving nothing behind for coming generations. It is our responsibility now to restore the beauty of our planet and to care for others. I believe that no person would accept an item, no matter how appealing it is, if they knew the harm it caused to people and the planet.”
WARDROBE CRISIS: Tell us about your fashion brand. What are your influences and what factors do you consider in your design?
HAYA KHALIFA: “I started my career in fashion when I was 18. My mom, who’s originally Moroccan, started a luxury Moroccan brand here in Bahrain - Naseem AlAndalos, where we worked on a made-to-order basis. All the threads and handmade belts are made in Morocco by local artisans, and the full garments are produced here in our studio. The brand had regional success and our team grew to around 20 people here in Bahrain, but we still maintained the made-to-order aspect mainly because my mother wants everything to be done under her supervision to maintain the quality. We had no knowledge of sustainable practices - that was just the Arab culture of designing traditional clothing here. I later learned that this can be called slow fashion.
“After graduation and getting into sustainable fashion, I wanted to create my own brand, Nesma Studio, that serves the younger, modern Arab woman. We still love our traditional clothing but we want options that are contemporary and versatile. With every collection I shed light on a cause that I want to support and encourage my clients to support as well. I took the profit from my first collection and went to Zanzibar to build a classroom in a school in a small village and that experience changed my life.
“We still produce everything here locally. We know our team, make sure they’re paid well, and we provide them with housing and cover their utility bills. Most of the tailors and garment workers here are from India, Bangladesh, and the Philippines who moved here for better opportunities and we acknowledge their struggle of leaving family behind and help in any way we can. We also have Moroccan women from my mother’s hometown who we employ as they don’t have a lot of opportunities back home, and they’ve become like family to us. In terms of sourcing, at first I tried to limit it to high quality fabrics in small quantities from Italy and Spain.
“We only get organic sustainable linen and cotton at this stage, and I’m shifting towards deadstock as I made a commitment to no longer source new fabrics unless it’s certified or recycled. I also created an accessories line using offcuts and remaining fabrics as we don’t have textile recycling programs here, so it’s a way of saving them from ending up in landfill.”
Image via Nesma Studio
WARDROBE CRISIS: What are some of your favorite books or films about sustainable fashion? HAYA KHALIFA: “The True Cost is the most popular film about sustainable fashion but I always recommend Hasan Minhaj’s Patriot Act episode about fast fashion as a good place to start to learn about the fashion industry. I remember watching Unravel during my course in Central Saint Martin’s and it’s so powerful. As for books, Dress with Sense by Redress is a good guide to conscious fashion, To Die For by Lucy Siegle gives great insight to the reality of the fashion industry and Rise & Resist by Clare Press inspired me to be an activist in my community.”
WARDROBE CRISIS: Where do you want to be in 5 years? HAYA KHALIFA: “I hope to grow my brand further and reach an international scale (but still maintain the slow and sustainable production), I also plan to start teaching in university and introduce sustainable design as a module and not just a small project.”
Interview with Claire Kalikman. https://thewardrobecrisis.com/newgen/meethayakhalifa