BEIRUT: It was bedlam in vogue back in October, as the catwalk doors opened for Madiyah al-Sharqi’s fashion show in Dubai. Local journalists sat on each others’ laps for a spot at the front, buyers and local socialites bottlenecked in a vicious line to the VIP section, international fashion editors and regional celebrities sparkled in bits of Sharqi’s collection, and hundreds of local residents crammed into a dozen rows of stadium seating.
The fog of anticipation choked the auditorium as though the audience were waiting for an off-season collection from a member of the Chambre Syndicale. No, it was the pretty and ethereal summer collection of Sharqi, who, while lucky enough to be born Her Highness as the ruling emir of Fujairah’s daughter, was really just another aspiring 24-year-old.
The hubbub at Fashion Forward Dubai foreshadowed something more than Sharqi’s potential commercial success. It was a sign that the players giving the Middle East’s fashion world a big push in 2013 were succeeding. This past year, the region saw massive resources, probably more than ever, poured into boosting its fashion and design industries. More forums, talks and round tables – mostly in Beirut and Dubai – focused not only on the question of boosting sales but also on how to encourage young designers and infuse the industry here with its own language, not one simply ripped from runways abroad.
In Lebanon, there were more collaborative trunk shows and exhibitions this year than in the past several years put together. In addition to Afkart design shows, Artheum hosted its Jewelry Design Week in March and the Beirut Fashion Expo in June. Le Grey hosted a pre-Christmas bazaar for local talents and is now hosting a sculpture exhibit by eccentric local fashion designer Hass Idriss. Downtown’s swanky Zaitunay Bay brought in hundreds of Lebanese designers at an expo over the summer.
L.I.P.S. Event and Model Management in June hosted what its chief executive Johnny Fadlallah intends to be a biannual, multiday fashion show for local couturiers.
All of that just scratches the surface.
The past year has witnessed a shift in the way the local fashion industry functions in Lebanon and the region. Fashion expos increasingly include talks, tours and conferences in a campaign to boost the prestige of local design in the eyes of the community. Designers, once demoralized by the bleak economy and declining tourism on which they depended, have become vigilant in pushing the country to support its own design industry.
In June, a think tank called the MENA Design Research Center hosted its second Beirut Design Week, which drew local attention to the city’s rich community of fashion, product and accessory makers. The week was more than a bid to get customers; it highlighted the industry from its artisan roots up to the storefronts. It kicked off with a walking tour of the tanneries, cobblers and metalworkers centered in Burj Hammoud, and local designers taught open seminars on draping, drawing and product design.
The week wrapped up at the Lebanese American University with a full-day conference where more than 20 speakers, many of them traveling from Europe, presented on major issues faced by the industry such as intellectual property rights and access to education.
It was LAU really that offered the year’s biggest local industry news. September saw the launch of the university’s fashion design bachelor’s degree, which undoubtedly fills an immense need in the design education market.
If aspiring fashion designers did not leave Lebanon to attend Central Saint Martins in London or Esmod Paris, the majority of them hold bachelor’s degrees in graphic design or architecture – a trend attributed to intense familial pressures to get a four-year degree and a lack of esteemed design programs in the country.
And in early December, LAU made international news when it established a partnership with the London College of Fashion that would, among other things, allow instructor and student exchanges and curriculum development along international standards, chair of the design department Yasmine Taan told The Daily Star.
In the news release announcing the agreement, renowned Lebanese designer Elie Saab commented on the need to grow the region’s fashion industry.
“The vision behind LAU’s fashion design program was to offer the region’s students an education of the highest possible international standards without having to travel too far from home,” he said. “I am pleased with the agreement, which is a major step toward creating a regional hub for talented designers.”
At the regional level, Fashion Forward Dubai introduced Arab fashion design to the international media this year when it launched the Gulf’s first fashion week last spring. FFWD attracted editors and journalists from major global fashion publications: Women’s Wear Daily, Style.com, Harper’s Bazaar, Rolling Stone and Elle. The international buzz was a major point of pride for local publications and refueled an interest in coverage of up-and-coming Arab design.
Bong Guerrero, founder of FFWD, and emirate leadership have huge plans for making Dubai a world fashion capital. That dream is in turn encouraging Arab designers from the Gulf, who are beginning to rival Lebanon’s near-monopoly on regional fashion production.
All this noise coming from the Mideast fashion industry has apparently woken up some of the country’s top designers, whose lives abroad had left them somewhat disconnected from the local scene. Reem Acra, in an interview with Agence France Presse, declared her plans a few months ago to swoop in and give a hand to boosting the region’s design scene.
“I am getting involved,” she said. “There is an eagerness in these countries; they want to expand, they want to be part of the fashion scene.”
The industry forums both in Lebanon and in Dubai focused on building a design scene with its own regional character.
In June, the British Council sponsored a debate in Beirut among designers from around the region. The aim was to identify a distinct regional design canon and propose a plan for developing the industry. Sarah Thelwall, one of the conference organizers, was keen to foster a Mideast design industry that did not simply reflect Europe’s established one.
Looking at the beautiful abaya-inspired dresses, woven kaftan coats, accessories featuring Arabic script and geometric embellishments on catwalks from Lebanon to the UAE, a regional design language already seems well developed, at least in the most literal sense.
The fashion industry also saw a boost from young entrepreneurs this year. Lebanon-based Web startups aimed at selling local fashion and accessories popped up every other month in 2013. The longest-running website selling pieces by Lebanese designers online, Lebelik, has grown its inventory substantially.
New websites, such as Raghunter.com and MySouk.com, are also showcasing local talent. Lebanese fashion makers are even turning to international platforms to promote their work. Several rising designers – such as Lara Khoury and Mira Hayek – have turned to Not Just Another Label in a bid to get the attention of international buyers.
And if there’s anything the Lebanese designers can learn from Europe’s established fashion names, it’s to not lose hope in the region. Despite an intensely violent year in terms of security, European brands were setting up shop in Beirut with uncanny optimism. Roger Vivier, Joseph, Marks & Spencer, Agatha and Versace Home are just a handful of the fashion retailers who opened flagship stores in Beirut this year.
Their executives and press staff have reiterated that, while there might be political insecurity here, Europe’s economic meltdown has forced its brands to look East, to Lebanon, the Gulf and China, for new markets. What’s perhaps more interesting are the young European designers, such as Taller Marmo, who have gone to Dubai to start their careers in fashion. It’s a movement that’s flipped the Eurocentrism of fashion on its head.
In hindsight, the year 2013 will be a definitive year for the region’s fashion scene. And the hope permeating the industry, in the midst of so much hopelessness outside of it, has really brought regional designers together in a way they never were before.