For four years, 29yearold has been struggling to brighten women’s dress styles in ultraconservative, troubled region
Women in the Gaza Strip tend to wear long, billowing robes and headscarves, usually in black.
The idea of wearing the sort of short, colourful dress that dominates the fashion shows of Paris seems a world away.
But Nermin Demjati is trying to change that. She wants to combine East and West, tradition with modernity, freedom with the rules of a Muslim society.
“My idea is just to make simple dresses,” says the 29-year-old, who has been designing individual pieces for her clients for the past four years – a rare undertaking in the Palestinian Territories.
“Hardly anyone works like that nowadays,” says Adel al-Holdali, a member of the Palestinian Textiles Association in the West Bank and Gaza.
There are about 10 designers like Demjati in all of the Palestinian Territories, he estimates.
Because society is so conservative there, everybody wears the same thing, he says.
“For Muslim girls, dresses have become like a uniform,” he says, particularly in the Islamist-ruled Gaza Strip.
Sitting in her studio in central Gaza City, Demjati wears a long, dark blue blouse, red shoes, and a watch with a red leather strap. She has a red band in her hair, though she wears a lacy beige headscarf over it, tied casually around her neck.
With her flawless skin, large eyes and upright posture, she looks a little like Queen Rania of Jordan.
“When I was little, I used to shorten my dresses with a pair of scissors and my mother was so annoyed with me,” she says.
She thought the dresses she had been given were boring, too long and watching videos on the internet, she discovered you could actually become a clothes designer as a profession.
“I was kind of surprised to see that our dresses begin with a pen and a blank piece of paper,” she says.
After studying fashion design at a college in Gaza, her father helped her set up her own studio.
“I was a fan of British designers, but also of Dior and Arab designers,” she says.
She loves Queen Rania’s simple, elegant style, as well as Queen Elizabeth II’s dresses.
Demjati herself likes a cleanly cut dress in a light colour, with discreet accessories.
Although Palestinian fashions tend towards plain dresses for everyday wear, for big occasions they go all out, says Demjati.
“When you look at Western wedding dresses, the brides wear simple dresses with simple accessories. Here women go overboard,” she says.
For 21-year-old Sheruk Abdel Latif, who wanted a dress for her sister’s wedding earlier this year, Demjati designed a black dress with a train and a small gold stone on the back.
“Nobody was wearing a dress like mine, mine was different,” she says, remembering the day with enthusiasm. Everyone was asking her where she got it from. She told them to go to Demjati’s studio, “Voile Moda” – “voile” is French for “veil.”
In her workshop, a black dress with transparent lacework hangs on a mannequin. There’s another in turquoise with a squiggly pattern and another with a low-cut back. Women have more freedom at family parties.
Prices for her dresses start at around 100 euros (111 dollars) and Demjati now employs four people.
“The project is self-financing, but I haven’t made a profit yet,” she says.
Hani Murad, the former director of the Institute for Fashion and Textiles, based near Bethlehem, says the sluggish economy is the main problem for her. “Fashion design is a business that thrives in good economic times,” he says.
But in the Gaza Strip the unemployment rate is at nearly 50 per cent due to the economic blockade Israel has forced on the coastal region because of its radical Islamist rulers Hamas.
Egypt has also shut its border with the Strip and imports and exports are strictly controlled and anyone who wants to leave needs a permit.
That means some materials and accessories like brooches and buttons are difficult to get, says Demjati.
She has never been to Europe and says she would love to travel to Turkey and Paris to study their fashions. But from Gaza, Europe |still appears to be an impossible dream.