Beirut’s latest Renaissance: a proper fashion school
If any business has enjoyed a boom this century it is the fashion college, which has seen huge increases in applications and the birth of schools and degrees in scores of China's third-level establishments.
Remarkably, however, the Middle East, a region with a €13 billion luxury market according to Bain Capital, didn’t have a single fashion school until this decade. Even more surprisingly, the very first institute was born in Beirut, emerging in a small country still struggling to shake off the destruction of civil wars, and deal with the influx of 1.5 million refugees from Syria.
This first Middle Eastern fashion college launched its first program in 2013 within the Lebanese American University (LAU), driven by the self-trained designer Elie Saab and guided since its creation by a British academic.
Today, five years after students were first admitted to the four-year course, the first graduates with Bachelors of Arts in Fashion Design are spreading their wings.
“Before we created this school I felt my life mission was missing something. But as soon as I realized we did not have a college that gave a universal diploma for fashion I set out to find a good partner. It did not happen overnight, but in the end, we got there,” smiles Elie Saab.
His solution, teaming up with the London College of Fashion, who helped inaugurate the whole project.
“I’ll say this, the English are very professional for schools,” marvels Saab.
The UK even supplied the design project’s director, Jason Steel, who acts as program coordinator, and assistant professor.
Students first spend a common foundation year that includes art history, architecture and interior design. Before beginning a series of courses in creative ideas; pattern cutting, and garment construction; along with courses on history and theory. In their third year, it’s obligatory everyone does an internship with a real brand or retailer.
“We’ve placed people in Beijing, New York, Paris and London, spread over two terms, from Christmas to September,” explains Steel, noting that the likes of Mary Katrantzou, Zuhair Murad, Maria Grachvogel, Faustine Steinmetz and Adam Lippes have already taken interns from LAU.
Currently there are 50 students in the program, working in a modest old apartment building right in West Beirut, where one easily finds buildings gutted by shellfire and pocketed with bullet holes.
However, 18 months from now Fashion Design will move into a brand new state-of-the-art building around the corner within the campus of LAU, a private secular university launched in Beirut in 1924. Students are mostly born in Lebanon, or are of Lebanese origin with other passports.
“We encourage our young Lebanese to look to where they are brought up; their own history and stories and focus on community, working with charitable organizations and even mental health units in a holistic way to develop the collation,” explains Steel.
One graduate Genny Haddad used art work from an individual in one clinic to a create a series of tops that have been sold to some 45 private clients. Another student, of Palestinian heritage, studied life in the refugee camps and reflected that in her designs. The school’s first Prix de Jury by Dania Mahdi based her collection on Syrian refugees travelling over water. Mahdi has since gone on to become a buyer for Harvey Nichols in Kuwait.
Other classes focus on entrepreneurship linking students to artisans, to guide and create their accessories.
“We also do workshops on sustainability, digital marketing and story-telling. Working in-depth on how to come up with ideas; create patterns; chose materials in tutorials with artisans. If there is one thing Lebanon is very rich in, it’s artisans,” stresses senior lecturer Angelique Sabounjian.
Courses climax with a joint show in June, each graduate presenting up to 10 runway looks.
“Fashion was always something I loved in terms of drawing, art and coloring and illustration. So after I got accepted here I began studying sub cultures from club kids in New York to protestors and photos of processions and marches here,” explained Beirut-born graduate Tatyana Antoun, whose creations showed great dexterity and clever use of volume coupled with brash use of bold colors.
Post Beirut, many are doing master's degrees in textiles in London or the Glasgow School of Art; others, fashion business in Polimoda, in Florence.
“We are the first official degree in the region for fashion. And Elie Saab was a great example of how to become a designer and doing so at home. He’s been a great inspiration,” says Steel.
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