“It’s an exciting time to launch a fashion design program in Lebanon because of what is happening in design. Whether it’s Mar Mikhael’s little boutiques, or the designers who are just starting out with unpredictable, yet exciting futures ahead of them, or the young Lebanese designers whose names are shining abroad, there’s an energy and talent that is motivated,” enthuses Yasmine Taan, chair of the Department of Art & Design at the Lebanese American University (LAU).
Indeed, success stories of Lebanese designers have become more common over the past decade, and it seems the design industry is finally getting some of the recognition it deserves — although there is still a long way to go.
Carving a path
When it comes to fashion design, names like Elie Saab, Zuhair Murad, and Georges Chakra are role models for a younger generation, who through their international fame, saw fashion design as a viable and prestigious career path.
As such, interest in fashion design education rose with more universities introducing degree programs. “I would say that the ready-to-wear community in Lebanon is definitely growing. There are more fashion design programs being built: LAU just graduated their first class, you have ESMOD, you have ALBA (Académie Libanaise des Beaux-arts) starting its program, you have us … There is definitely a new generation of graduating fashion design students that are about to enter the design market in Lebanon, and its very interesting to see where it will go,” muses Sarah Hermez, co-founder of Creative Space Beirut, a free fashion design school.
Starting out in the fashion design industry in a small country like Lebanon has an advantage in that one can quickly build a brand. “The positive thing about building a brand here is that if you have the right network, it’s an easier start because when you are in a small community and everybody knows everybody, you can work together to build your brands. You can reach out quickly to the market because it’s so small,” says Hermez, explaining that this culture of collaboration is rapidly growing amongst Lebanese designers.
But the downside of such a market is that it is limiting, especially in a highly competitive industry, such as fashion design, where one needs to be present in the world’s fashion capitals to succeed. “In the fashion world, a lot depends on who you know, and on being in the right boutiques, and reaching out to the right buyers; it requires a lot of international networking and PR. In order to do that, you have to be present there, which means you need to have a really big budget to travel; young designers mostly can’t afford it unless they find an investor,” explains Hermez.
Although Hermez feels there is an emerging interest among financial backers and investors to finance fashion designers, she says there is not enough yet to meet demand.
When budgets are tight
The majority of Lebanese fashion designers say their largest market is the Gulf, which is not surprising given the traditional wealth of those countries and their affinity for the Lebanese touch.
However, with the decrease in oil prices and political turmoil the Gulf has been witnessing, this purchasing power has decreased significantly, and most fashion designers Executive spoke with have noticed. Only two of the six designers interviewed continue to have a steady demand from the Gulf. The others say that instead of the usual 10 to 12 couture dresses per season, clients from the Gulf have downsized to just two or three.
Yet, with the current omnipresence of social media, names of Lebanese fashion designers continue to flourish, regionally and internationally.
Executive spoke to six fashion designers (two via email) to learn about their unique successes and challenges. From those who overcame the obstacles of a war to become international success stories, to those who have recently entered the market but have already made a name for themselves; their stories show what it means to be a fashion designer out of Lebanon.