BEIRUT: Trash pickup never looked so sexy. Teetering on black platforms and dressed in a skin-tight green jumpsuit modeled after the iconic uniforms worn by Sukleen waste management’s street cleaners, a model at a charity fashion show flung a plastic bag over her shoulder with a message written to Lebanese. It loosely translated to: “There’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
A group of student activists from the American University of Beirut hosted the “Fashion Meets Lezem” event in a bare concrete ballroom of the old St. Georges Hotel Sunday night. The event aimed at cleaning up Lebanon with more than cheeky smocks, as it wove some of the most pressing issues facing Lebanese society into a performance-like fashion show highlighting some the country’s well-known emerging designers.
Lezem, a group of some 25 young people, organized Sunday’s event with the help of high-profile sponsors like Nokia and Elle Arabia magazine. Selma Zaki founded Lezem as a university student organization in 2011 and aimed to galvanize young people to become active stakeholders in Lebanon’s future. On the agenda Sunday night was a laundry list of social, environmental and political causes: pollution, racism against migrant workers, sectarianism, poor public utilities and domestic violence.
Since founding Lezem, Zaki has used arts and design as a way to draw out her peers, making often heavy social problems more palatable to a young and sometimes apathetic audience. For example, Zaki’s first event brought together various art forms in an exhibition to raise money for Kunhadi, a Lebanese NGO against drunk driving.
“I learned from my first event that if I wanted to attract the youth of Lebanon, then I need to do something that gets their attention. That’s why we chose fashion,” she said.
Judging by the hundreds of young men and women who turned out for the show in their Sunday best, Zaki and her team know a thing or two about appealing to youth.
Proceeds of Sunday’s show went toward Bassma & Zaitouneh, an NGO that gives underprivileged people in Lebanon access to medicine.
The show opened with a billowing black and white gown by Jean-Louis Sabaji. Each of the designers was given a social cause on which to theme their creations, and Sabaji’s very clear inspiration was pollution.
“It is the smoke dress. It looks as if the smoke is going onto the woman’s body, as if it’s suffocating her in a way,” said Sabaji, a guest of honor alongside half a dozen other emerging Lebanese designers who volunteered a piece or two for the show.
All young people themselves, the designers in some cases felt strongly about the message their designs were sending. Sabaji pulled the dress featured Sunday night from a collection he had previously themed the “revenge of nature.” In that collection “nature was against humans for what we are doing to it,” he said.
Designer Bashar Assaf, who was assigned racism as his issue, chose to layer two abayas with deep, V-neck backs. The model walked out in black, turned to reveal the dramatic cut and then peeled off the black to reveal a white abaya underneath. “It’s nice to have students doing something like this ... and to help out in a way,” he said.
One of the longest segments of Lezem’s show condemned sectarianism in a mixture of spoken-word Arabic poetry and a dress made by designer Cherine Khadra. The Lebanese national anthem was scrawled in careful calligraphy across the elegant ivory-colored gown, and a gruesome splash of fuchsia across one side was a reminder of the blood and death that comes with disunity, Khadra said.
“In the national anthem it says we are all for this country,” she said. “We did it in white and black because there is no gray in right and wrong. There’s a splash of fuschia because we will die if we [don’t unite].”
“Our advantage is in our 18 confessions,” she added.
Part of Lezem’s philosophy is the idea of creating, or saving, a country worth living in rather than looking outside for a better life. That patriotism could be seen in the messages of change guests scribbled on a mannequin standing in the middle of Sunday’s pre-show reception. “Lebanese youth should stay in Lebanon,” a guest wrote across the mannequin’s paper dress.
While some designers chose to tweak pieces already hanging in their studios, Sanaa Ayoub presented a new minidress out of scraps of fabric left over from her most recent collection. Her recycled ensemble was part of Lezem’s bit on environmentalism, a topic Ayoub said she felt particularly passionate about after living in London and seeing the difference.
“In Lebanon we’re not aware of it. We don’t talk about protecting our country and our environment,” she told The Daily Star. “You should respect your country the way you respect yourself at home.”