To the untutored eye, the minimalist Starch boutique looks much like any other high fashion store. Its rails are stocked with avant-garde designs from up-and-coming names – accessories by Dina Khalifé, urban fashion from Mira Hayek and designs by Marc Dibeh, previously known for his ‘Love the Bird’ lamp that subtly incorporates a detachable sex toy. But there is a key difference between Starch and the innumerable gleaming multi-brand boutiques mushrooming all over downtown Beirut. Uniquely, Starch stocks exclusively Lebanese designers; what’s more, it is a non-profit foundation dedicated to their advancement.
Once a year since 2008, Starch has scouted four to six young Lebanese designers and given them a crash course in creating and marketing their collections, which are then sold exclusively at the Starch boutique. Members also participate in international exchanges, such as the recent seminar organized by Starch at the American University of Beirut, ‘London Meets Beirut’, with representatives of the international design magazine Wallpaper*, the London College of Fashion and the global designers platform Not Just a Label. Starch, like an increasing number of artistic foundations, was devised to help Lebanese talent leapfrog over the handicaps of setting up shop in Beirut.
Tala Hajjar co-founded Starch with fashion designer Rabih Kayrouz when they became tired of seeing design graduates struggle to realize their ambitions. Hajjar, who was Kayrouz’s public relations and marketing manager for three years, explains that in fashion college, “You learn how to cut patterns, to design, everything related to the technical side of designing, but never really the business aspect.” This is a global problem, but in Lebanon specifically, “You don’t learn art and design from a young age… so you’re already starting off a few steps behind many other designers worldwide,” she says. The tastes of the local market, too, have a stultifying effect on bright young fashion minds. “You drive down the highway and every billboard left and right is just another bling dress… you make much more money [doing made-to-measure] and your eye has got so used to [it] you will lose your identity and your creativity,” says Hajjar. Finally, financial and visa restrictions on travel mean that Lebanese designers’ influences and experiences are limited and they can be seen as provincial. Even those designers who stick to their guns suffer inequalities in production and delivery, which make multi-brand stores unwilling to take local pieces.
Thus, Starch aims to provide some much-needed business and creative support and an international forum for exchange and networking – an education that has helped launch such success stories as Krikor Jabotian and Lara Khoury. It is a trend reflected in long-established foundations like Ashkal Alwan, the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts, and brand new ones like The Creative Space, which offers haute couture training to young people from diverse backgrounds.
The financial potential of homegrown fashion and design is significant, in a time of global crisis for luxury industries, and with sustained foreign interest in Lebanese designers. Whereas people might once have asked, “Why am I paying $300 for a young designer’s top,” says Hajjar, now “people are actually spending this money… everyone’s after that exclusive piece that has a romantic story behind it.”
For now, it is nonprofits rather than businesses or the government that are investing in Lebanon’s talent pool. Starch’s boutique space is a donation from Solidere, but Hajjar is a solo full-time volunteer and the foundation is not yet officially registered. As of this year, Starch designers will have to invest a percentage of the profit made on their collections back into the foundation.
Hajjar is now focused on funding to grow her team and find a permanent location, saying: “Now I can go up to anyone with my grant proposal and say this is what we’ve done in the last four years, as opposed to this is what we aspire to do.”