Protect the past, plan for the future

Lebanon must support its artisans and designers

|Greg Demarque|

The World Cup is arguably the most viewed sporting spectacle and social event worldwide. So when Jennifer Lopez opened this year’s games dressed by Lebanese designer Charbel Zoe and accessorized by Lebanese jeweler Yeprem, it proved that Lebanon’s luxury designers compete at the pinnacle of their professions.

Even before that, the likes of Elie Saab and Zuhair Murad were offering their own evidence that Lebanon could dress the stars at major red carpet events, blockbuster films and high fashion photoshoots.

The Lebanese do not just have a flair for luxury products, they also have a special knack for creating them — both at the level of the designers who dream up novel creations, and at the level of the skilled artisans who have honed their craft across centuries. Moreover, we know that these products can be globally successful thanks to the proofs of concept embodied in the likes of Elie Saab, Charbel Zoe and Yeprem.

This, however, engenders two main questions: what can be done to boost the country’s name as a luxury producing country, and can this help protect traditional artisans, many of whom are giving up their craft?

The answer to the former can be summed up in one word: support. And conveniently, this makes the answer to the latter a resounding yes. In Executive’s special report on artisans and luxury (see “Crafting luxury“), several Lebanese designers with experience producing collections abroad say it is both more efficient and less costly to produce in Lebanon. Working with Lebanese craftspeople, they say, has more of a familial feeling as opposed to working with impersonal factories. All designers interviewed agree that Lebanon has a substantial pool of traditional artisans which could be further developed into producing at the luxury level.

This bodes well for Lebanese artisans, who have been leaving their professions in droves due to low wages. In a globalized world, craftspeople simply cannot compete with mass produced items from abroad. Meanwhile, the markets for ‘fair trade’ and ‘traditional’ goods are limited. The only sustainable option for Lebanese crafts is to go upmarket.

One of the major impediments for Lebanese crafts entering the luxury market is that their quality is often not up to the necessary standard. This is probably because there has been no significant demand on them to produce at that level but also because, since artisans usually learn their skills through family mentorship, they are often not exposed to the latest techniques and machinery in their craft.

But this can be fixed. Having designers work with these craftspeople to set quality control standards and consistently demand quality would be one way to nurture a luxury mentality while injecting new blood — both economically and literally — into Lebanon’s crafts sector.

Another step would be to practically develop artisans’ skills by establishing vocational schools and degree programs focusing on single crafts or teaching skills as part of university design programs, such as in the case of the Elie Saab School of Fashion Design, which offers a course in pattern cutting.

The creative industry, be it the craftspeople or the designers, also needs to form an association through which collaborations would be easier to organize. Such a group, similar to what the private winemakers of Lebanon did by setting up the Union Vinicole du Liban (UVL) in 1997, would also go a long way toward creating a support system for artisans, giving value to their work and globally promoting Lebanon as a luxury producing country.

Once Lebanese artisans have the tools to produce items at the luxury level, a national branding and marketing effort will be needed to promote Lebanon as a luxury producing country. Here authorities must first extend support to designers exporting their products by providing them with reduced taxes on imports needed for their business but not available in Lebanon.

The government’s main step of support, though, would be financing a country pavilion at international trade exhibitions to promote Lebanon as a luxury producing country. In the world of design, such exhibitions remain the primary way that international buyers are introduced to the latest a country is producing in their field, and as such would have the most significant impact on the way Lebanon is perceived.

In the absence of a government willing to do so, it would be up to an association of creatives to come up with and finance such a national campaign, much in the same way the UVL self-financed the “Day of Lebanese Wine” in the United Kingdom, where member wineries exhibited their goods under the umbrella brand of Lebanon.

The past few years have not been kind to sales of luxury products within Lebanon. Visitors — and shoppers — have been few since 2012. Several local luxury manufacturers offer their products at lower prices in their boutiques in Beirut than at their high end sales points abroad, yet the ratio of local to international sales has still been shifting toward the latter.

This is a wakeup call — Lebanon can and should unleash the enormous promise of its creativity. It is time to focus on our proven potential and make luxury a priority of coordinated development and public sector support. Doing so will not only help the economy and bolster innovation, it will protect the cultural endowment passed down through the centuries. And, not to forget, give Jennifer Lopez something to wear at the next international event.

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