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Sydney label Youkhana creates hand-braided garments that celebrate diverse bodies

IMAGE VIA @__youkhana__/INSTAGRAM

WORDS BY IZZY WIGHT

“I like to think of my designs as characters. I often create with someone in mind – so each piece has a personality.”

Blurring the lines between fashion, art and gender, Sydney designer Nathaniel Youkhana specialises in one of a kind. While most labels categorise their pieces by price, Youkhana measures them in hours. Tedious labour time ranges from 60 to 250 hours for each of his hand-braided, vividly-dyed, carefully-constructed pieces.

A dark blue dress from Youkhana’s latest collection, for example, took a cool three and a half weeks to make – and it shows. Working as a one-person atelier, Nathaniel creates thoughtful, ’emotionally evocative’ pieces centred around body inclusivity and diversity. Inspired by the creative women in his family, Nathaniel Youkhana founded his eponymous label in Melbourne five years ago.


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After quitting their job and taking a career leap of faith, Nathaniel explains “the real hustle began”. While the label was once about concealing, Nathaniel’s intricate designs are now pieces of celebration. I stole a moment of his time for further insight into the world of Youkhana.

Tell us about you. What’s your fashion background?

My name is Nathaniel Youkhana and I was born and raised in Bondi, Sydney. My fashion background is a little unorthodox because I never studied design. For me, my interest came from my Mum and Nonna (my grandmother), who both worked as seamstresses and fashion designers.

From a young age, I always felt fashion was a huge part of who I am and how I express myself. My family has always supported me in trying and testing different things in their sewing room.

How did the label get started? Talk us through the process and challenges.

 

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The idea was always in the back of my mind, but it never seemed like the right time. One day, I just started drawing up designs and making plans for the label in Melbourne. After a few years, I flew all of it up to Sydney so my mum could help me. Once I had twelve designs on a rack, I booked a shoot, loaded it up on Instagram and decided to quit my job and focus on my passion.

From there, the real hustle began. I reached out to performers, stylists and everyone I could. It was a struggle for the first two years and I realised I needed some side income. I wouldn’t recommend quitting your job – it’s just about finding a balance. I’m still hustling, but I have a better structural foundation and network. I love what I do and I’m so grateful for the learning curb at the start.

What were you trying to achieve from the project at that time? How has this evolved and what are you trying to communicate now?

Everyone struggles with body image at some point in their life; it’s something I’ve always been conscious of when designing. When I started Youkhana, I wanted to find a way to conceal shape without sacrificing self-expression or comfort. Many of my earlier designs incorporated my hand-stitched drawings and braiding. I focused on loose silhouettes that would fit most sizes.

Over time, my experience and skills have evolved, but my practice is still heavily focused on body inclusivity. I don’t want to exclude anyone, so I take the time to consider what I’m making and how I can create a diverse garment that compliments different shapes and sizes.

I think that’s the critical part: I want people to put an outfit on and feel empowered and confident. I want them to know they look incredible. It’s also why I choose to model my designs on a range of people – because everyone deserves to know their body is beautiful.

A lot of the garments I make aren’t sized; they’re fastened together. So regardless of your shape, you can fix each design to fit your body. My technique has improved and I still use hand stitching and braiding in all my designs. It used to be about hiding, but now it’s about celebrating. I no longer create shapeless garments to conceal bodily contours. Instead, I embrace them and show them off with drama!

How would you describe Youkhana to someone who’s never seen it before?

 

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I like to think of my designs as characters. I often create with someone in mind – so each piece has a personality. If I had to describe them, I’d say they’re inclusive and diverse, dramatic yet elegant and textured with lots of colours. I hope they’re visually immersive and emotionally evocative.

Where did the name come from?

Youkhana is my last name; I’m a very family-oriented person. I love my dad, so it means a lot to me and my Assyrian heritage.

What are you most proud of in your work for your label?

I’m proud that I’ve been able to commit myself to my passion. I love what I do. Although there have been bumps along the way, practice, hard work and dedication have allowed me to bring my ideas to life. It’s been amazing to meet like-minded individuals, and I’m grateful to have so much support. I can’t wait to see what comes next!

What do you wish you knew when you started?

I’ve always been a perfectionist and I put so much pressure on myself to ‘catch up’. I thought I had come into the fashion world too late. If I could go back, I’d tell myself that there isn’t a time limit on being creative or achieving success.

Who do you think is most exciting in Australian fashion now?

 

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I feel like the fashion industry is currently transitioning away from the traditional standards and embracing a more diverse practice. I’m so grateful to be a part of the shift toward more unique styles. There are a lot of Australian designers creating pieces that inspire me. I adore Sabatucci and Pigsuit, just to name a couple.

What is the Australian fashion industry needs to change?

We’ve started seeing a shift with designers and labels becoming more mindful about diversity behind and in front of the camera. I feel this is incredibly important and change is long overdue.

Dream Australian collaboration?

I often think about showcasing alongside other designers when I think about collaborating. An Australian designer who I admire is Jordan Gogos. Their creations are different from mine, but I appreciate the possibilities are endless and it’s important to challenge yourself.

Collaborations that speak to me are ones where we can create something that pays homage to both our styles, yet somehow bring them together to create something new. There might be something in the works – you’ll just have to follow me to see.

Go-to dinner party playlist?

Obviously my personal playlist, ‘Nathamyl’ – it’s on Spotify. It’s a 59-hour rollercoaster ride and the playlist for every song you can’t remember the name of. The selection ranges from ’80s power ballads to the ’90s angst era and pretty much anything that came out of Australia from the 2000s. In another life, I could have been a DJ.

Who is in your wardrobe right now?

 

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A bunch of Harley Davidson tees, a hand-braided black bag from Youkhana, a lot of patterned vintage shirts from Died of Natural Causes, a crazy number of short shorts and 40 pairs of black leather chunky boots. I’m just going through my Joanne phase [laughs].

How can we buy one of your designs?

Many of my designs are hired by stylists who use my garments for editorials, music videos and performances, making it challenging to have an online shop. However, I’m currently in the process of updating my website with some available and archived pieces. If you’re interested in purchasing or hiring one of my garments, you can contact me via Instagram or email.

Youkhana is one of the labels showing in Melbourne Fashion Festival’s Independent Runway. Get your tickets here.

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