Lebanese designer Nathalie Trad is known for redefining the boundaries of traditional aesthetics through her architecturally influenced clutches, which today form the basis of her eponymous line. With a focus on working with natural materials, such as shell, mother of pearl, and wood, the luxury handbag designer aims to break the mould by transforming her designs into wearable art sculptures.
Born in Beirut and raised in Dubai, Trad moved to Paris aged 17 to study for a degree at the prestigious Esmod International fashion school. It was in Paris where she developed a strong penchant for asymmetric design, taking classic shapes and radically transforming them, deconstructing, and redefining the boundaries of fashion aesthetics. After graduating, Trad relocated to New York to further pursue this vision. There, she obtained a BBA in Design and Management from Parsons School for Design and worked under the mentorship of an industry-leading accessories designer at Proenza Schouler.
Nathalie Trad’s time spent in two fashion capitals, Paris and New York, coupled with the expertise gained through her degrees and her quest to re-examine the foundations of traditional accessory design, helped her forge a unique signature style early on, laying the foundation for her 2013 inaugural collection. From signature creations including the Polygonia and Eliferia collections, all of the pieces are punctuated by chiselled contours, geometric structures and sharp contrasts in colour, texture, and pattern, with each clutch looking equally as good at home on your mantelpiece as it would under your arm on a night out.
Here, we take the opportunity to talk to the contemporary designer about her creative inspirations and innovations, the role of architecture in her designs, and her ability to combine Middle Eastern heritage with cutting-edge fashion.
Tell us how you conceived the idea of Nathalie Trad?
I developed a strong penchant for asymmetric designs that today form the basis of my line, whilst earning a BA from Paris’ Esmod International. It was then, in 2007, that I discovered my personal design ethos, to take classic shapes, ubiquitous in our natural environment, and radically transform them, deconstructing and always trying to redefine the boundaries of fashion aesthetics. In 2008, I relocated to New York to further pursue this vision. There, I obtained a BBA in Design and Management from Parsons School for Design and worked under the mentorship of an industry-leading accessories designer at Proenza Schouler. From a designer’s perspective, New York and Paris definitely served as a breeding ground for creativity. I got to reflect, absorb, and take stock of my surroundings, then redirect this new flow of energy into my own work. Being in those cities truly pushed me to expand my thought process and explore the realm of possibilities within my designs.
What pushed you towards designing handbags?
Designing for me is a process that involves questioning everything in my surroundings in an attempt to re-interpret what I already know, being observational and always trying to discover something new. Accessories design gave me the puzzle I have been seeking, deconstructing traditional shapes, ubiquitous in our everyday lives and recreating them from a new perspective. I didn’t want to just create accessories, I wanted to create wearable sculptures that broke away from the mould. When I put pencil to paper I let me imagination take an unrestricted journey of its own and it led me to handbags.
Can you share with us your design process, and which areas you enjoy the most?
Every aspect of the creative process feeds my soul. My design process starts with an idea, something that sparks my inspiration and leads my mind to a parallel universe where I feel like I am running at 200 km per hour. This is the time where I sketch uncontrollably and allow my ideas to take a course of their own. Once I am done with this stage, I look through all the drawings and start editing and refining my ideas which start turning into products. I create technical sheets and sometimes clay prototypes to help me visualise the final piece. It is at this stage when we are ready to go to my workshop in the Far East where we start creating moulds and samples, working on combining materials and testing out new techniques. It’s such an exciting process that always leads to new unexpected discoveries!
Where do you tend to find your greatest inspiration?
I like to think of my creations as architectural works on a small scale. I look to architecture from a physical aspect, geometry, proportions, ergonomics, and structure for inspiration, but beyond that, I study architectural principles, and ideologies as a means to create context and drive my process. Louis Kahn, James Stirling, Walter Gropius, Frank Gehry, and Zaha Hadid are some of the architects whose aesthetics and philosophies have impacted my design thinking and some of my pieces. There is no direct translation between a specific architectural design and my clutches, although nevertheless, I would say the Polygonia and Opiona clutches embody a concept frequently applied by Zaha Hadid, ‘There are 360 degrees why stick to one?’ This principle of multiple viewpoints also known to cubists is what I strive to apply in my designs. What I love most about these pieces in particular is that they morph into completely different pieces every time you look at them from a different angle or perspective.
Do you have a muse?
I would say my muse is my surrounding environment. I am inspired by everything that I see in my day to day life and by my travels. I constantly push myself to observe and scrutinise my surroundings, and to constantly question and reinterpret what I see. In order to do so I like to go by the moto, ‘smell with your eyes, hear with your nose, see with your ears, and taste with your hands.’ On a more personal level, I look at the people that are in my everyday life for inspiration, from my husband to my family, friends, colleagues and even passing encounters. There are qualities in each of these people that I admire and aspire to, passion, selflessness, work ethic, loyalty, creativity, and ambition. It is a combination of the qualities I get from all of these people that pushes me to be the best person I can be in every aspect of my life.
How is you Middle Eastern heritage fused into your designs?
I was born in Lebanon and grew up in Dubai, and my cultural heritage is embedded in me, it is running in my veins, and imprinted on my identity. It is hard to define and is intangible, but it is my core and the basis of who I am. This is where my passion for design was born, and where my journey began. When I create accessories my personality seeps into every aspect of my designs. My entire collection is a true reflection of my identity, my aesthetic is undeniably Middle Eastern with Western touches, a marriage of East and West.
Tell us what you feel are the most important aspects of design that you incorporate in your pieces?
It is very important for us to maintain the design ethos that is at the core of our brand. A design philosophy that attributes the highest importance to innovation and the creation of unique and timeless, handcrafted pieces that speak to the modern woman of today. A woman who is fluent in the language of art and design, who is not necessarily looking for trends, instead investing in special pieces to add to her wardrobe and hold onto.
Your designs are renowned for their quirkiness, but also quality, how do you go about balancing the two?
At the beginning of the design process, I make a point to forget about any functional constraints in order to allow my imagination and ideas to flow. At this stage my aim is to create sculptures, which are interesting objects rather than handbags. However, once I have my designs on paper, I then turn my attention to transforming them into clutches, making sure function is not side-lined. It is crucial for the clutches to be light, comfortable to carry, and fit a woman’s essentials. For me, form prevails but function is never sacrificed, and quality is always paramount.
How have you found the transition from being an employee at a company to being an entrepreneur at the helm of your own business?
Being an entrepreneur means that I need to play several roles in the span of a day. Being a small business owner requires being hands on, so no two days are ever the same. I often oscillate between logistic tasks, accounting, designing, social media, and PR all during a single day.
What do you feel has been key to the growth and success of Nathalie Trad?
We continuously experiment with our materials and work towards discovering new inlay techniques, pushing the boundaries of design conceptually and technically. Each clutch is meticulously hand-crafted and requires at least two weeks to come to life. This involves moulding, curing, preparing each piece of shell, inlaying, lining, and applying the finishing touches. The process is masterfully executed by artisans who have been taught a craft that is only passed on from father to son, through the generations. In this day and age, I believe the consumer is no longer simply after a product but rather an all-encompassing experience and journey. A product that has a story, a timeless piece, a precious heirloom that she can truly hold onto. This is precisely what we strive to offer our customers and what I believe makes our pieces special. I believe the commitment to this mission has contributed to the success we have achieved thus far. It is very important to mention nevertheless, that we still have a very long way to go. In my mind success will never be an accomplished achievement but one that is a constantly evolving goal that drives me and encourages me to keep going.
Tell us about when you first noticed the popularity of your brand and saw your bags on the red carpet?
One of the ways for us to grow our brand awareness and customer base is through an influencer or celebrity. Just one month after the launch of our brand, we were surprised to see Mary Katrantzou accompanying Karolina Kurkova at the Met Ball clutching our Polygonia. It was a true honour to see the bold and innovative designer choose one of our pieces. Other celebrities that have carried a clutch and have been supporters of the brand are Nicole Kidman, Solange Knowles, Olivia Palermo, Gabrielle Union, Sara Sampaio, Sienna Miller, and Anne Hathaway.
Although you already have a strong celebrity following, who else would you like to see carrying your designs?
Michelle Obama, Oprah, Amal Alamuddin Clooney, Queen Rania, Meghan Markle, Zoe Kravitz, and Tracy Ellis Ross are some of the leading women I would love to see carrying my clutches.
What made you gravitate towards shell and wood materials?
From the beginning I gravitated towards shell as a base material that I source from the Far East region, which is a treasure trove of exquisite materials. I complement it with other materials such as wood, resin, brass, stainless steel, copper, and brass, creating a marriage of seeming incompatible materials that end up harmonising beautifully. The richness of these materials seamlessly mirrors my inspiration and work perfectly in line with the vision I have for my clutches. Wood can be difficult due to the fact that it breathes and tends to react to humidity and fluctuating temperatures. I do, nevertheless, consider this a welcome challenge!
What was your inspiration while designing the Spring Summer 2018 collection?
The collection is entitled, ‘This is Not a Clutch’. Drawing inspiration from the bold and rebellious universe of the Memphis Group, it aims to playfully challenge the traditional concept of a clutch, blurring the lines between art, object, and sculpture. This collection stems from a place of positivity, bursting colour, and happiness. It is a figment of my imagination of the place I would like to see when I look out into the world, and it takes on a more whimsical and light-hearted ambience than previous seasons, with both classic and original shapes being used to re-imagine the conventional clutch bag.
Which new materials and techniques have you introduced for SS18?
Our collections fuse fine materials and techniques to produce artisanal gem-like clutches that we hope are destined to become collector’s pieces that are both irresistible objects of desire as well as timeless precious heirlooms that can be passed down from one generation to the next. We tend to gravitate towards shell such as mother of pearl, the iridescent Paua blue, and other beautiful species found in nature. We continuously experiment with our materials and work towards discovering new inlay techniques, striving to push the boundaries of design conceptually and technically. This season highlights some new inlay techniques we have discovered along the way. The shades of Rose are achieved by adding a layer of colour under an iridescent white hammer shell, allowing us to reach this rich and complex hue.
How do you decide on the theme of your collections?
The collection themes can come to me at any point, they stem from a slight inclination I have towards an era, an artist, or an artistic movement in that particular time. I then try to delve deeper into the theme, research as much as I can, and refine the idea as we go along with the design process.
Do you have a ‘go to’ everyday bag, as after all, clutches can’t hold everything!
I actually wear our clutches day in and day out at any time of the day. You would be surprised at what you could fit into our larger clutches!
What essentials do you keep in your bag?
A lipstick, a card holder with my cards and cash, my keys, and some gum or mints.
What can we look forward to seeing next from the Nathalie Trad brand?
We have lots of exciting projects brewing which we cannot wait to reveal in due course. In the meantime, you will find that our next collection is a great new departure for the brand, bursting with new shapes, colour, fun, and positivity.