The So­cially En­gaged De­signer NOUR NA­JEM

Fash­ion de­signer & cre­ative di­rec­tor of L’Ar­ti­san du Liban

Harper's Bazaar (Arabia) - - The Talking Point -

“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”

Nour Na­jem

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

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