BEIRUT: Tangible proof of the city’s fast-expanding academic programs in fashion design fluttered down a catwalk Monday night at American University of Science and Technology’s first fashion show, which was hosted at their campus in Ashrafieh.
A Lebanese folklore theme,“women of the orient,” informed a collection of student-made women’s wear comprising oversized harem pants, loose and tasseled abaya, scarves and other zaffe-appropriate dress. Press, dignitaries and the bright lights of a professional runway gave a handful of second- and third-year students their first taste of fashion’s glittery pomp.
Lebanon has seen a recent boom in accredited bachelor’s degrees in fashion design, as university administrators seek to fill a void in technical learning paired with traditional academic subjects. Over the past four years, both Notre-Dame University and AUST have answered market demand for more design specializations by creating fashion majors. In fall 2013, Lebanese American University together with bigwig fashion designer Elie Saab and the London College of Fashion also launched a four-year fashion design program.
Now household names, Lebanese designers like Saab, Zuhair Murad and Rabih Kayrouz ascended into high-fashion stardom relatively recently, over the past 10-15 years. Their success has helped encourage a local design industry still rich with sartorial craftsmen and lent momentum to a younger generation of designers now beginning to see their own successes. Has anyone missed Jennifer Lopez’ World Cup performance getup by 27-year-old designer Charbel Zoe?
Lebanese-made gowns on Hollywood red carpets and Paris runways have even sweetened Lebanon’s political dinosaurs to the potential of the nation’s design industry. Nothing made that more evident than Tourism Minister Michel Pharaoun draped in a velour abaya Monday night after offering his warm wishes.
As the deficit of fashion education is filled by bachelor’s programs, so grows the competition among them; something to look forward to, said Hala Habbal, chair of AUST’s arts and design department.
“I hope to see more universities offering the major. The more people who are exposed to this major, the more they will understand that this is a fully fledged program. There will be better competition and we [will] feel motivated to work better and distinguish ourselves,” said Habbal, who works as one of the main instructors for the fashion program in addition to leading the parent department.
The growth of academic fashion programs will also help battle a social stigma that undervalues the profession as a practical career path, a misconception challenging LAU and AUST administrators.
“This is our culture. When I started, we had to convince people about graphic design. For Lebanese, they thought that drawing might not provide them a good life later on. Now people think that a fashion designer is someone that only sews. They do not know that there is a whole design process.”
Till today, most of Lebanon’s rising and aspiring fashion designers pursue a degree in fashion in Paris or London or study loosely related fields like graphic design or architecture. That was Rena Braidy’s story until she switched out of her graphic design major into AUST’s then-budding bachelor’s degree in fashion. “I chose graphic design ... but I honestly didn’t feel myself in that major even though I worked for five years as a Web designer,” said Braidy, now in her final year.
The creation of fashion BAs has also strengthened the relationship between local universities and peer institutions abroad as local programs seek international accreditation. AUST, for example, collaborated with the fashion program at Polytechnico di Milano in order to structure its own curriculum. The new bonds forged between Lebanese and European fashion schools have already opened opportunities to design students. Braidy will go from AUST to a master’s program in fashion business at Polytechnico.
Her talent was showcased along with six other students’ Monday night as part of AUST’s show. The first student enrolled at AUST’s fashion program, Braidy offered one of the most sophisticated interpretations of the folklore theme, with a wool abaya-like cloak in cobalt blue and black detail inspired by the classic ironwork on Beirut’s Ottoman era buildings, she told The Daily Star.
“This is the theme: tradition with a modern twist.”