The Socially Engaged Designer NOUR NAJEM
Fashion designer & creative director of L’Artisan du Liban
“It’s a place that really pushes you to be bold,” says Nour Najem, as she thumbs through images on her phone taken during a family trip to Brazil last year. “My grandmother was born there because her family had immigrated to Brazil, which is home to South America’s largest Lebanese community,” says the young designer, who launched her namesake label in 2013, one celebrating Lebanon’s artisanal heritage, while empowering women by shifting production into their hands. “Fashion has unfortunately come to symbolise consumerism and superficiality as opposed to championing creativity, sustainability and ethical ways of running a label,” says Nour, who is part of a growing movement of likeminded designers upending the established fashion system.
“It takes being an outsider in an industry to begin to see what doesn’t work, and explore solutions. It’s in that space where I see the most interesting developments in fashion taking place right now,” says the Beirut-born designer, who was raised in a creative household of architects. While attending a French lycée in Beirut, Nour also became acutely aware of her own cultural heritage, which she wasn’t exposed to at school. “We were learning about European history, philosophy, culture and economics, but I didn’t see myself reflected in those narratives,” says the designer, while walking through her family’s marble and stone factory in an industrial area of Beirut. “This is where I developed my interest in colours, textures and patterns. When I was a teenager I used to spend my summers at the factory correcting the colours on drawings for mosaic carpets,” says Nour, who initially spent three years at the American University of Beirut where she graduated with a Bachelor of Science in biology.
“I wanted to do something good for the world and make it a better place, but as pragmatic as a career in medicine sounded, I knew I wouldn’t be satisfied because I wanted to do something creative with my life,” says the designer, who decided to pursue a BA in fashion design and patternmaking at Beirut’s ESMOD. While there Nour also embarked on a Master’s in business administration at the Lebanese American University, where she took a class in social enterprise that would alter the course of her career as a designer. “I knew from the beginning that I wanted to establish a socially engaged label and here was a business model that actually gave back to society and benefited communities, while still allowing one to make a profit and build a sustainable company,” says Nour, as she began to plan the launch of her label after graduating in 2012.
“From the beginning I had a desire to create modern clothes that were very much grounded in my heritage, yet comfortable enough for women to live in,” says the designer, whose love of craft is evident back in her studio, where she points out thoughtful details on a row of garments hanging on a rack. She stops in front of one dress made entirely out of overlapping ribbons in contrasting tones that produces a basketweave affect. “This is just one of hundreds of amazing craft traditions in Lebanon that risk being lost if we don’t find ways to give these artisans a sustainable income,” says the designer, who established the Kenza Foundation the same year as her label to create a platform for social change.
“Kenza is basically the philanthropic arm of my label. The foundation’s mission is to revive traditional artisanal skills that have been passed down through generations in Lebanon, while at the same time empowering marginalised and underprivileged women by giving them the opportunity to learn income-generating skills,” says Nour, who will develop handmade fabrics and embellishments for each of her collections. The designer begins by learning a particular technique or craft that she will then teach her team of artisans, either meeting with them in groups or creating online tutorials for those who cannot leave their homes. After
“I had a desire to create modern clothes that were very much grounded in my heritage”
collecting and examining their work for quality control, she takes their pieces to the factory where they’re assembled into the garments. This unique approach produces collections that are a fusion of the handmade and the machine, giving her clothes a character that transcends trends and seasons.
“I think a lot about how to inject meaning and thought back into the garments we wear, so that people are aware of their value and the resources that go into making them,” notes the designer, who also takes pride in transforming the lives of the women whose artisanal skills she relies on. “The experience of working with them has been incredibly enriching, because they’re some of the strongest individuals I’ve met in my life and I’ve learned a lot from them as well,” adds Nour, who began with a handful of women in the Armenian quarter of Bourj Hammoud and gradually expanded her network to some 20 artisans through word of mouth. In September 2017, she was tapped as the new creative director of L’Artisan du Liban, an NGO established in 1979 that supports hundreds of artisans across the country.
At 8am the next day, Nour is already in her studio at L’Artisan’s headquarters in the west Beirut suburb of Sin el Fil. “I jumped at the opportunity to work here. It’s a socially responsible company whose supply chains benefit artisans living in rural areas,” says the creative director, who was tasked with updating L’Artisan’s image while creating a new line of products for the home, as well as clothing and accessories. “I have to keep in mind that we generate work for hundreds of artisans, so I’m not only trying to harness their skills but also offer opportunities for collaboration amongst them, such as creating a minimalist vase combining blown glass with leather,” says Nour, who for the past year has been quietly developing a new line of products, which will be unveiled at Maison & Objet in Paris this month.
On any given day the designer can be found travelling to different parts of Lebanon to meet with artisans, including an elderly woman who has worked with L’Artisan du Liban for some 35 years. “She creates these beautiful tiny dolls, and even though she no longer needs to work for a living, she once told me she couldn’t stop because she’s addicted to needle and thread,” says the multitasking designer, who recently teamed up with another local NGO called Phenomenal Women, where she will work with victims of abuse to create a capsule collection, with proceeds from the sales going to them. “It’s really a form of therapy, where the women are able to create something with their own hands, that we hope will give them a sense of purpose and control over their lives, which they may have lost hope in,” says Nour, who passionately believes that fashion can be a socially beneficial tool. “I realised at some point that my brand isn’t for everyone, but I’ve come to see that as a strength and not a weakness. It allowed me to reconnect with my roots and help others, which is why I’ve never felt more confident in the choices I’ve made.”
Nour founded the Kenza Foundation to support underprivileged women while reviving Lebanon’s craft traditions
The socially conscious designer sprawled out on an intricate mosaic carpetat her family’s factory