Nurturing Lebanon’s design ecosystem

New initiatives to support designers in Lebanon

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On March 28, Fashion Trust Arabia awarded Lebanese designers Krikor Jabotian, Roni Helou, Selim Azzam, and the Mukhi Sisters at a fashion event in Qatar—and the Lebanese rejoiced posting congratulations on social media.

The Lebanese take pride in such success stories of local designers, and boast about a rich national history of creative enterprises. They applaud the fashion designers whose gowns glide down international red carpets draped on celebrities, and talk to non-Lebanese friends about long-standing traditions of craftsmanship in jewelry and furniture. Yet, it is important to note that the Lebanese designers and sectors who have “made it” have mostly themselves to thank for their accomplishments. There has been very little local support for creatives and designers across various disciplines—that there are so many success stories despite so little backing is an indicator that Lebanon has design potential.

In the past, designers that Executive spoke with frequently lamented the lack of assistance they have received. A few recent initiatives, most backed by the international community, have zoomed in on the design ecosystem in Lebanon, sparking some hope for the local scene.

Impact and income

Design is one of the fastest growing economic sectors worldwide. According to a study by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), the contribution of cultural and creative industries to GDP in Lebanon is estimated to be 4.8 percent, and constitutes 4.5 percent of jobs. The average annual growth between 2003 and 2012 was 8.2 percent—however, this does not include all design disciplines.

If Lebanon helps its designers, those designers can reciprocate on several levels. Given the right strategies and resources, local design industries can become more significant contributors to the economy, employ more people, and elevate the national brand. Through harnessing local talent and providing facilities, programs, and funds, Lebanon can maximize the economic success of its design fields. Design can also have higher level impact; it can be used to optimize processes and systems, make our cities more livable, and solve practical problems related to issues as varied as urban planning and civil service efficiency using design thinking strategies.

Active in the design space since 2009, designer Ghassan Salameh, manager and creative director of last year’s Beirut Design Week and head advisor for the FANTASMEEM program (more on that below), says designers themselves need to understand the extent of the impact they can have, and calls on them to help the public understand the value they bring to the table. While many designers may know their own value, others—including decision-makers—still have little awareness about what design can do.

“[The public] doesn’t know how to define designers or what the real impact of design is. They don’t see that design is important for innovation, or the role of design in the creative economy, they don’t know how large design [as a field] is, and so designers are not given the right appreciation,” Salameh explains.

Ultimately, designers, like anyone else, must make a living. “Supporting the design ecosystem is important because it gives designers [financial] stability to be able to spend more time solving bigger problems and looking for real solutions, instead of getting stuck in jobs where they do executional work,” Salameh says. Designer Karen Chekerdjian echoes this point, saying that there is no support for local designers, which in turn means that very few designers can invest in initiatives to help the industry and the state, without necessarily making money.

Strategic support

To move design forward efficiently, stakeholders need to understand what gaps exists and what spaces offer the highest potential. In late 2018, Endeavor Lebanon collaborated with Beirut Digital District to host the IGNITE Fashion and Design event, part of which included a roundtable with leaders in Lebanon’s fashion industry—designer Rabih Kayrouz; Christian Daccache, founder of Bureau Des Createurs (BDC);  Deliphone Edde, co-founder of Diwanee; and Edward Sabbagh, managing director of Farfetch Middle East. Their discussion was developed into a whitepaper released in February, and though it was fashion-focused, many of its takeaways apply to other disciplines.

The participants agreed that though some Lebanese fashion designers have penetrated international markets, many are still struggling due to gaps in the supply chain, and lack of funding and support for the fashion industry in general. One of their suggestions was to focus on financial support, urging investors, banks, and Banque du Liban, Lebanon’s central bank, to consider the potential of the design sector. They urged further development of creativity by encouraging more talent to enter the sector and introducing more programs, as well as leveraging technology and strengthening the ecosystem by building more factories. Salameh noted to Executive that in addition to the suggestions of the roundtable, better infrastructure, more educational inclusivity, and the provision of prototyping spaces need to be provided.

Tax incentives and the formation of syndicates would help the sector too, Chekerdjian says. She employs local artisans to craft her hand-made designs, but is classified as a merchant and thus does not get the benefits and incentives that, in other countries, come with sustaining national crafts and creating jobs for artisans.

At the roundtable, Kayrouz was vocal about the state’s role in building industrial know-how, arguing that financing and building factories for manufacturing in Lebanon was one way to encourage fashion industrialists. Salameh is more cautious, arguing that this solution may work, but it needs to be well studied. He suggests instead that Lebanon should focus on creation, rather than industrial production on a mass scale.

Most of the designers Executive spoke to agreed that focusing on industries that are already well-oiled in Lebanon, such as jewelry or fashion, is a good strategy to move forward. Salameh explains, “It’s smarter to support industries that are functional already. It will have a bigger impact because you already have people invested and doing something. But [there is a] need to support design across disciplines.”

Teaching and connecting creatives

Strengthening educational channels gives designers a better sense of the work they can do. This is the goal of FANTASMEEM, a design program implemented by the Goethe-Institut in Lebanon as part of a German government initiative to support design in developing countries. Launched in early 2019, the one year program aims to support designers through capacity building and networking, and is comprised of several parts, including an artist residency, where 18 local designers were mentored by international and local experts, job-shadowing industry specialists in Lebanon and Germany, and opportunities to apply for grants.

Another design initiative in Lebanon is the Beirut Creative Hub (BCH). Created by UNIDO and Lebanese co-working space Antwork, BCH is a platform for creatives in Lebanon to meet and learn. The free program, which is funded by the EU and the Italian Agency for Cooperation Development, is a pilot that will run until June. It offers workshops on technical and business development, and on design subjects for anyone that wants to attend.

The idea is not only to teach emerging designers new skills, but also to give visibility to traditional creative industries that are at risk of being lost, and even more importantly, to connect people who would not normally meet. “In the workshops [we have] designers, artisans, students, industrialists. This [combination] could lead to collaborations beyond the time frame of the hub,” says Stephanie Khouri, the program’s coordinator. She gives the example of a glassmaking workshop with a long-time Syrian artisan living in Lebanon, who will teach his techniques to a crowd comprised of design students. The networking opportunities can create long-lasting connections and give birth to partnerships. “Job creation is a goal—you have to start somewhere,” Khouri adds.

Traditional institutions that teach design are also keeping up. Académie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts (ALBA) is the institutional partner of the BCH. Meanwhile, the Lebanese American University (LAU) recently revamped their curriculum to include more relevant topics for today’s designers. Yasmine Taan, associate professor at LAU’s art and design department, argues that design is a discipline that changes with society’s needs, making it imperative for those teaching design to keep up with these changes. To address this challenge, LAU introduced a first-of-its-kind (for the region) course this semester, on graphic design history in the Middle East, which will provide better context for its students. Other new offerings at LAU include User Experience (UX) and user behavior courses that will help designers across the board.

Fostering innovation

Endeavor’s whitepaper emphasized the importance of mentorship in developing creativity and giving designers the tools they need. Their recommendation was also to have designers focus on their forte—design—while delegating business aspects of their work to professionals in those fields.

Going beyond that, the experts contributing to the Endeavour whitepaper also encourage leveraging technological disruptions. For fashion but also other types of design, e-commerce and social media can raise brand awareness and boost sales, giving designers more visibility and easier access to international markets that can help more talent bloom into economically-viable businesses.

Top down and bottom up movements

Rabih Kayrouz’ incubator-style initiative Starch Foundation has supported designers since 2008, and some alumni like Krikor Jabotian, Rami Kadi, and Hussein Bazaza have gone on to reach great success.

Since 2010, Beirut Design Week has been encouraging designers with a movement that empowers design entrepreneurs, gives them a platform to sell their wares, and offers insightful exhibitions and events for more high-level aspects of design. More recently, Beirut Design Fair, which is held at the same time as sister event Beirut Art Fair, has also stepped in to offer designers access to local buyers, as well as international clients and press that fly in at that time.

These new initiatives are backed by a collaboration of foreign investment and local talent—Beirut Creative Hub is backed by UNIDO, FANTASMEEM backed by Germany, even Endeavor Lebanon is part of the international Endeavor network. BCH’s Khouri explains that there is always a risk with a top-down approach to such programs, but is happy that the response to the initiative has so far been positive, and attendance high.

Salameh believes that Lebanese designers need to initiate more grassroots movements: “Two years ago this conversation didn’t exist in the way it exists today. We are moving in a good direction, but I think it’s the responsibility of designers to mobilize and raise awareness about what they do so that people understand how much impact design can have. Designers often don’t see the power they have.”

The impact of design on Lebanon can be social, economic, and developmental. With so many success stories already, the country, by all accounts, has a lot of potential in this field. Giving Lebanese designers across disciplines a strategic push could positively impact job creation, the economy, and propel the Lebanese into further success. Growing interest in the sector from international agencies is encouraging, but for the design industry to really thrive,  public sector initiative is vital.

Olga Habre is the Executive Life editor.