Rare design, common threads

Picture taken for Bold Magazine by Chantale Fahmy.

Picture taken for Bold Magazine by Chantale Fahmy.

An article about the state of the fashion industry in Lebanon, published in Bold Magazine in April 2015.

Building a business out of what we wear is not easy in a small, poorly connected country with unique challenges to manufacturers and textile producers. And yet, more and more, enterprising individuals in Lebanon are rethinking how to make the industry not just viable, but thriving.

While the global apparel market is growing-driven, in part, by increased demand from India and China-Lebanon’s own consumption of clothing has stagnated for the past three years. According to a March 2015 report by BankMed, the size of the Lebanese apparel market hasn’t budged since 2012, when it first hit $606 million. What’s more, at least 70% of the clothing bought in Lebanon in 2014 was imported.

This gap, according to BLC Invest General Manager Fouad Rahme, is due to several factors. ’Structurally, Lebanon doesn’t have the means to compete against Southeast Asia in terms of production costs, so we can never enter the fight for mass production,’ he explained. ’We also don’t have the cotton, textiles, and raw materials.’

A difficult economic context

For Rahme, this inability to compete with cheaper labor abroad means the Lebanese clothing industry needs to bank on one of its strengths: high-end fashion.

’When we’re talking about fashion and design, there is a good part of value added, and there is a degree of know-how that goes beyond machines, at the level of conceptualization, and the Lebanese possess this. We have everything that has a large value added,’ he said.

Missak Hajiavedikian, a designer who also teaches classes at the Lebanese American University’s (LAU) fashion program, agreed with this assessment. But he said that the demand for haute couture-fueled largely by wealthy clients from Gulf countries-could feel stifling for creators more inclined towards producing ready-to-wear fashion.

’In 2009, I launched myself on my own and started a ready-to-wear collection, but now I’m doing couture because this is what’s in demand in Lebanon and the Gulf,’ Hajiavedikian said. ’Ready-to-wear is limited in Beirut because there is a lot of competition with international brands, the costs of production are high, there are delays with the manufacturers, sometimes they steal your patterns… as a result, the prices are high, and the clients prefer to buy an Armani T-shirt rather than spend $500 on one from a local designer.’

But even the demand for high-end dresses and bridal gowns-staples of Lebanese clothing production-has suffered due to the precarious political and security situation in the country. Spates of bombings and clashes between the army and armed militants in the past couple of years, consequences of the war in neighboring Syria, have driven away the vast majority of tourists from the Gulf. State-instituted travel bans have since compounded the dearth of clientele.

’We started in 2012, when it was a much more dynamic market, and now it’s pretty dead compared to three years ago. Now it’s a completely different market,’ said Serene Abbas, one of the co-founders of Raghunter, an online search engine for clothing available in stores in Lebanon. ’The local consumer is not as enticed to spend money, the tourists aren’t coming from abroad.’

’A good 50% of the shopping (in Lebanon) was Gulf clients, that’s how big of a hit local boutiques took. Those were big spenders, they came in and said ’I want this, this and this in ten colors’ and then just leave.’

For Lebelik founder Louise Doumet, whose e-commerce site specializes in products by Lebanese creators, the fashion industry’s struggles are not only due to the country’s security issues, but also to the unreliability of Lebanese services.

’Busy days when you most need delivery services are when they are the least efficient,’ she said. ’The other issue is with the payment gateway.

You have only two options of payment gateways in Lebanon, and the one at the bank I use is not in-house. So there is not a lot of in-house support if there are technical problems.’

Finding ways for Lebanese fashion to thrive

But despite the difficulties, the Lebanese fashion industry has learned to adapt in innovative ways to face the realities of the market.

A recurring point mentioned by those interviewed for this article was the desire of fashion designers and entrepreneurs to stay in Lebanon and try to succeed here, in spite of the odds. ’I chose to stay in Lebanon because here people know me well,’ Hajiavedikian said. ’We have good inspiration to work with. I’m Lebanese-Armenian and 90% of my collections are inspired by Armenian stories, fairy tales, paintings. I want to show this on purpose.

’If I went abroad, I would have to start from zero. It’s my country, I wanted to prove myself first in my country,’ he added.

For Sarah Hermez, her decision to found Creative Space Beirut (CSB), a free design school for students who lack the means to afford a costly university fashion program, was due to her desire to bring together her passions for design and social justice, as well as her belief that the fashion industry should not be reserved to the elite.

’For us, we believe all design should be inclusive of all those who have talent,’ she said. ’Today, universities have taken all these forms of art and institutionalized them and put a price tag on it, and now it’s inaccessible, which doesn’t make sense because it’s a waste of talent.’

Hermez said it was the obvious choice for her to start this project in Lebanon, her country of origin, despite having spent most of her life in Kuwait and the United States.

’I really had this personal urge to understand what is was like to be Lebanese, as one who had never lived here,’ she said. ’If I wanted to give back anywhere, it didn’t make sense to be anywhere else, especially since there’s so much work to do in Lebanon.’

For Hajiavedikian, the fact that ’every year, there are attempts to open new fashion institutes’ in Lebanon stands as proof that many young people in the country are attracted to the world of fashion and that this potential is recognized by universities.

According to Doumet, Lebanese designers have developed a particular style, mixing both aestheticism and practicality, which makes them stand out.

’I think Lebanese designers in general have managed to find a good balance between what is wearable, what is pretty and what is fashionable,’ she said. ’They have found a way to balance what they love and what is wearable.’

Poetry in style, prose in spreadsheets

More and more, Lebanese fashion designers have come to understand the growing necessity of mastering marketing and business skills in order to ensure their survival and success on the market.

Raghunter co-founder Narina Najm said the site has helped a number of local stores and creators to give their work more visibility on the Internet.

’A lot of the local boutiques don’t have the budget to promote themselves online. If they want to have Facebook or socialmedia, they need to have someone to manage it properly if they want to have effective outreach,’ Najm said.

’So for stores we came as a marketing platform to help them put themselves online, reference all their items, give them a store page with all their contact details, and market it through our social media.’

Jason Steel, the head of LAU’s fashion design program, said that the fledgling program, which is only in its second year, was planning to teach students the fundamentals of business in addition to the core skills of designing and creating items of clothing.

’If they’re just thinking about fashion, they’ll never be a fashion designer, they’ll never be successful. They have to open their eyes to everything,’ he said. ’As we move on, I introduce very organically the idea that branding is actually part of a business structure, so we then start to look at entrepreneurial skills and developing strategies that work for them if they know who their customer is.

’I tell students that one of the most important things in the fashion business is just that: business.’

Hermez said CSB has also learned in its four years of existence to multiply ways to make itself financially sustainable without compromising its ideals – a formula sought in all areas of the artistic world. These tactics include selling the clothing created by the students at the end of each year, with all of the profits going back to the organization.

’We’ve recently developed Creative Space Beirut ready-to-wear, and the idea with this is that we’re creating simple, easy to wear products that we’ll take into production so we can produce quantity, and eventually what we want to do is make a brand that we can sell online so we can generate income throughout the year,’ she said.

’Our sustainability plan is for the school itself to be a brand that sustains the education of the students. I think that’s innovative, and it functions well in the world we live in today.’

The financial opportunities of fashion

In 2013, the Lebanese Central Bank issued Circular 331, which announced that it had set aside $400 million for startup companies, paving the way for a rise in investments in small businesses. Rahme said he had high hopes that fashion would be one of the sectors to benefit from this boost.

’There have been discussions about creating an investment fund for fashion and design within BLC, and now with the circular, the Central Bank could guarantee these investments by up to 75%,’ he said. ’It would be really great if we could create a fund that, in addition to providing money, would cover all the back-office for multiple designers like logistics, accounting, human resources, distribution, because these might be hard to access for individual creators.’

But Abbas cautioned against jumping on the startup bandwagon without being properly informed.

’A lot of fashion startups were born two years ago because it was the next big thing, and then realized that actually it’s not easy. It’s actually super technical, it’s very cold,’ she said, adding that the lack of proper research on the e-commerce industry in Lebanon hurt aspiring entrepreneurs’ ability to foresee what works or doesn’t work in the business.

For Rahme, fashion represents a huge financial opportunity that banks are still trying to figure out how to embrace.

’It’s a difficult business, because banks don’t know it well. By nature, fashion is intimately linked to a creator, and we bankers don’t know how to respond to that,’ he said. ’But what is good is that we are seeing more and more managers working alongside creatives … So are we going to find a ground for dialogue? Probably yes, because creatives feel the need to surround themselves with structure, whether financial or administrative. Meanwhile, us in the financial world see fashion as an interesting opportunity.’

’There is a high margin of profit in this business. When it succeeds, it succeeds well. This is also a necessity for the country. It’s hard to break through, but when you do, it’s good because it’s the best way for the textile industry in Lebanon to survive.’

Doumet was also optimistic.

’I think designers here are very motivated and they want to grow,’ she said. ’In an economical sense, they are willing to give everything they have to see their brand succeed.’

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