BEIRUT: Sitting in her boutique, Cynthia Chamat Debbane reflects on her career as a designer and on society’s addiction to instant gratification and fast consumption. “In general, we associate designers with wealth and elitism.
“Why? Because they’re always compared to mass production like Zara, these brands. The fast fashion industry has managed to make garment workers fall to the very bottom of the ladder in terms of workers’ rights and human rights.”
Surrounded by the clothing and accessories collections of about 37 Lebanese designers, many of whom are emerging – including herself – Debbane’s Boutique Hub in Sodeco is a celebration of the country’s young burgeoning creatives, as well as an object lesson on ethical consumption.
Despite the label of Beirut as a “design city” in the region, Debbane, along with a slew of her peers, including Rana Cheikha and Naji Raji, are challenging that notion – and asking the public to reconsider what it means to be a design city.
All three are supporting members of a campaign recently launched by an anonymous collective of designers. Through “Your Local Ninjas,” Debbane, Cheikha and Raji are making their usually private faces more visible, speaking out on what it means to be a local, sustainable and ethical designer in Lebanon.
“In the absence of clear and fair market regulations, this is a perfect opportunity to remind that we – as a big part of the community of local designers – form a market of our own, with work ethics of our own,” the campaign statement reads.
“We have a responsibility toward our makers, artisans, distributors, sales assistants, loyal clients and everyone involved in our businesses.
“Your support and understanding of our production system is key to compensate everyone around us what they deserve, and an essential asset of our local economy.”
Speaking about the campaign, Debbane emphasized a long overdue need for Lebanese creators to better liaise with the public, and lift the veil of preconceived exclusivity and what may seem to the average consumer to be an unreasonable price tag.
“Since I have opened this boutique, I’ve have gained a lot of insight from working with people on a daily basis on both the designer end and the consumer end. I think the illusion of exclusivity comes from being misunderstood.
“These designers have such interesting things to offer, but sometimes communication is not one of them.”
Cheikha acknowledged this in her own work with footwear. The 32-year-old spends the majority of her time on the creative process and overseeing the production sourced from artisans. Taking the time to meet her clients and tell her story, however, is largely left to the side.
“I don’t have my own store, so I work with people like Cynthia [Debbane] to sell my shoes. This is also a big challenge for them because we haven’t been able to make a name for ourselves yet, it’s also a risk for them.” Though designing and overseeing the production of her designs is nearly a full-time job, Cheikha said that it is still not enough for her to survive on. The trained graphic designer also relies on freelance work to support herself – something many of her peers do as well.
“In reality, we make a lot less money than we should and what people think. I’m already selling my products at a lower price, but that’s very difficult to explain to consumers and retailers who are also faced with their own challenges,” she said.
“But I’m hoping that eventually I will be able to make more than breaking even and live off of my designs.” Twenty-nine-year-old Raji, who runs Sumak Homeware, wouldn’t call his carpet designs affordable. Instead, he said they’re “logically priced.”
“In Lebanon, it’s hard to find logically priced home design pieces.
“Regionally, you have big designers who are really marketing to a certain crowd of people, so people here have the idea that if it’s more expensive, it’s highly valued. But sometimes, the number is an illusion,” he told The Daily Star.
“I’m trying to show people that no, Lebanese designers can offer interesting designs that are great quality and durable for a more logical price. I won’t say affordable, it’s not necessarily cheap, but it’s something that makes more sense.”
Particularly, in homeware designs, Raji noted the tendency of Lebanese people to search for European names because, frankly, it’s “European.”
The idea that Lebanese designers are not competent enough to produce items worthy enough to invest in is a huge challenge he faces. “People don’t really realize that they can trust Lebanese products,” he said.
But with the small community made closer by “Your Local Ninjas,” Raji is hopeful that with time, things can be communicated to a public that is more willing to listen.
For Debbane, the idea of buying Lebanese and supporting Lebanese is not only for her benefit, but also for the local tailors who materialize her designs. Cheikha and Raji fall into different categories, as they rely on a mix of international artisans.
While Debbane acknowledges that her prices are not accessible for many, she implored those who do have financial privilege to examine their consuming habits.
“Instead of going to the mall every week to buy a new top, buy something you actually care for and take care of it. When you have so many things for cheap, that comes at a price someone else is paying for.”