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By Ruba El Murr

“With each passing year, we have managed to prove ourselves more and more as a fashion hot spot in the Middle East and I think that our collective effort can help keep us on this very promising path,” believes Jonathan Chakhtoura, Zuhair Murad’s accessories designer and assistant ready-to-wear product manager.

Obstructed paths to success

Thanks to internationally-recognized designers such as Zuhair Murad, Elie Saab, Georges Chakra and Georges Hobeika, Lebanon has a reputation globally for exquisite haute couture. According to Asma Charles, Chief Designer at Aaron Lansing Garment Ltd in Hong Kong, these designers have paved an easy path for Lebanese fashion design students to follow. Moreover, Chakhtoura believes that beauty and aesthetics are integral to Lebanese culture, which is perhaps the driving force behind the many talented designers.

While most students, professors and designers believe that there are many opportunities for aspiring designers in Lebanon, the fashion education opportunities are limited. There are two institutions in Lebanon that offer degrees in fashion design. Notre Dame University (NDU) offers a Bachelor of Arts, requiring 102 credits for graduation, and a Master of Arts in Design. Alternatively, the Ecole Superior de Mode (ESMOD), a fully-fledged fashion institute, offers a diploma which is equivalent to a university BA degree.

Since the first BA in fashion

Linda Selwood Choueiri, Assistant Professor of Architecture, Art and Design at NDU, claims that NDU was the first to offer a real Bachelor’s degree in fashion design, five years ago. Since then, two classes have graduated. Choueiri suggests that design opportunities are still not fully developed due to the misconception that fashion design majors will end up being mere tailors or seamstresses. In reality, Choueiri attests that “designers learn how to sell, create, draw, sew, and perceive. Through sewing and pattern-making, creativity can [flourish]. They will not sit in a factory; they will undergo creative [ventures] in sales and management.”

Most NDU graduates have been successful in finding promising opportunities. Some are studying for a Master’s degree in universities like the Milan Fashion Institute in Italy while others hold positions at Yves Saint Laurent, Rabih Keyrouz, Toni Ward and Basil Soda.

Some graduates have even launched their own collections. Rayan Raidi, a 22-year-old NDU fashion graduate, feels that NDU prepared her well, although she claims that opportunities come to those that “are witty and ambitious”. Marianne Afeim, also an NDU graduate, claims that not only do students have to “have the heart” but they also have to have money: “If you have the money you are good to go, and if you don’t, you have to start at the bottom and work your way up through experience.” Both students attended NDU due to its stature as a university rather than a technical institution.

In their final year, ESMOD students are judged by a jury of professionals from the textile apparel sectors, including the well-known Elie Saab. Moreover, many of the aforementioned famous designers regularly lecture at the institute. Najwan Miassar, a current ESMOD student, feels well-prepared for a future career in fashion: “At the end of the third year, if you are good enough, you get an opportunity to work with designers. I have many friends who have graduated and are currently doing so.”

What’s missing?

Chakhtoura, who obtained a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Fashion Design from Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston, and an Associate in Applied Science degree in Accessories Design from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, says: “Lebanon is very promising for young designers. Any talented fashion designer could do very well with their sketches, form, and a sewing machine, but other majors also need to be available.”

Charles adds, “Perhaps more effort can be made from the schools: better fashion shows, more international coverage for their graduation shows and perhaps better international deals with global brands.”

A promising future

Opportunities for graduate fashion designers in Lebanon include anything from working with renowned designers to starting their own line, opening their own atelier, or featuring their designs in stores like Starch. Starch, a boutique specifically devoted to young designers in Lebanon, opened in November 2008 in Beirut’s Saifi Village. It aims to guide young designers through the process of developing their collections, which rotate every six to twelve months.

There is always room for improvement and Lebanon’s fashion institutions could definitely use some; however, the future for Lebanon’s aspiring designers seems promising.

This article was previously published in Hibr Lubnani