The Men­tor TALA HA­J­JAR

Di­rec­tor & co-founder of Starch Foun­da­tion

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

“We’re try­ing to set the build­ing

blocks for a coun­try that has

in­cred­i­ble po­ten­tial in the fash­ion world”

Tala Ha­j­jar

“It took us two days to find an­other rent-free space in down­town Beirut,” says Tala Ha­j­jar, re­call­ing the day she was told the Starch Foun­da­tion would have to move out of the Saifi Vil­lage store­front it had oc­cu­pied since its in­cep­tion. Walk­ing past the Four Sea­sons ho­tel, she makes her way to the foun­da­tion’s new bou­tique in the Karag­ulla build­ing. Like its pre­vi­ous in­car­na­tion, it will serve as a show­case and in­cu­ba­tor for Starch’s ro­tat­ing selec­tion of emerg­ing Le­banese de­sign­ers. “They keep the pro­ceeds from all the sales and it’s also a way for them to in­ter­act di­rectly with cus­tomers,” says Tala, who spent her child­hood liv­ing be­tween Beirut and Lon­don dur­ing the civil war.

“Lon­don al­ways felt like a sec­ond home for me,” she says, not­ing that her mother was a strong role model in her life, who raised her chil­dren on her own af­ter Tala’s fa­ther passed away when she was very young. “She al­ways made sure my brother and I were happy and safe in the midst of the war go­ing on around us,” notes Tala, who grad­u­ated with a BA in po­lit­i­cal sci­ence from the Amer­i­can Univer­sity of Beirut in 2000, be­fore mov­ing to Lon­don to pur­sue a foun­da­tion di­ploma in art and de­sign at Cen­tral St Martins.

“I then ap­plied to the fash­ion de­sign pro­gramme at ES­MOD in Beirut and even­tu­ally trans­ferred to the school’s Paris branch, where I shifted my fo­cus to fash­ion mar­ket­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tion,” says Starch’s di­rec­tor. A year af­ter grad­u­at­ing, she moved to Cairo where she worked as the PR and mar­ket­ing man­ager for Azza Fahmy’s jew­ellery line, be­fore mov­ing back to Beirut where she would strike up a friend­ship with the de­signer Rabih Kay­rouz.

“One day he pro­posed I join his team as his PR and mar­ket­ing di­rec­tor. He had been in busi­ness for 11 years and he was look­ing to ex­pand into ready-to-wear as well as es­tab­lish a show­room and ate­lier in Paris,” says Tala, who re­called the mo­ment they stum­bled upon the for­mer theatre, hid­den at the end of a cob­ble­stone court­yard. They fell in love with the light-filled space and knew it would be the per­fect lo­ca­tion for Rabih’s Paris head­quar­ters. “Those were mag­i­cal years and a lot of work went into join­ing the Cham­bre Syn­di­cale de la Haute Cou­ture et de la Mode Parisi­enne,” she says, adding that it was a happy mo­ment when Rabih pre­sented his col­lec­tion in Paris for the first time in 2009. “I feel very for­tu­nate to have watched his busi­ness grow into a cov­etable ready-to-wear line,” says Tala, not­ing that over the years Rabih would be ap­proached by a num­ber of young Le­banese de­sign­ers look­ing for men­tor­ship to start up their own la­bels.

From their own ex­pe­ri­ences, Tala and Rabih were acutely aware that busi­ness skills were sel­dom taught within fash­ion schools, leav­ing grad­u­ates un­pre­pared for the world of com­merce, not least in a coun­try such as Le­banon, where sup­port from the govern­ment is non ex­is­tent. “De­sign-school grad­u­ates in Le­banon typ­i­cally ended up ei­ther work­ing for a big de­signer or start­ing up their own cou­ture line. This is why we have a sur­plus of de­sign­ers who create em­bel­lished evening gowns, and that can be very lim­it­ing, cre­atively,” says Tala. “Starch re­ally grew or­gan­i­cally out of this need among emerg­ing de­sign­ers in Le­banon who had nowhere to turn to when it came to learn­ing the nuts and bolts of run­ning a la­bel, from sourc­ing fab­rics to pro­duc­tion and deal­ing with re­tail­ers,” adds the foun­da­tion’s di­rec­tor, who de­voted her­self full time to Starch in 2011. That same year she would also win the Young Cre­ative En­tre­pre­neur Award, cour­tesy of the British Coun­cil. “We evolved over time to make sure we were guid­ing our de­sign­ers in a mean­ing­ful and pro­duc­tive way,” notes Tala. She now takes on up to six de­sign­ers a year, guid­ing them through the de­vel­op­ment of their col­lec­tions. “We’re try­ing to set up the build­ing blocks for a de­sign in­dus­try in a coun­try that has in­cred­i­ble po­ten­tial to leave its mark on the fash­ion world,” adds Starch’s di­rec­tor. In 2016, they took part in the In­ter­na­tional Fash­ion Show­case dur­ing Lon­don Fash­ion Week, con­ceiv­ing an in­stal­la­tion ti­tled Blue­print Beirut, for which ar­chi­tect Elie Metni de­con­structed the ar­chi­tec­tural blue­print of a tra­di­tional Le­banese home. It would serve as a back­drop for Starch de­sign­ers, who cre­ated gar­ments and ac­ces­sories in shades of in­digo.

Blue­print Beirut would win the show­case’s Cu­ra­tor Award, beat­ing out 80 de­sign­ers from 24 coun­tries. “That a small coun­try like Le­banon was able to win this award val­i­dated all the work we’d put into Starch and its de­sign­ers,” says Tala a few hours later at Beirut Souks, where she’s ea­ger to in­tro­duce a 2016 Starch alum who went on to grow his la­bel. She makes her way to the invit­ing bou­tique of Salim Az­zam, a young de­signer and il­lus­tra­tor who de­scribes him­self as a sto­ry­teller. In­side is a dis­play of min­i­mal­ist white-but­toned shirts, kaf­tans, abayas and dresses, each metic­u­lously hand-em­broi­dered with Le­banese proverbs, the flow­ers and fauna of Mount Le­banon and folk­loric im­agery. “Even though Salim stud­ied for a Master’s in vis­ual com­mu­ni­ca­tion de­sign in Canada, he came back to his tiny vil­lage of Bater in the Chouf Moun­tains and be­gan col­lect­ing sto­ries, that he then had em­broi­dered into his clothes by the women of the vil­lage,” says Starch’s di­rec­tor.

To­day, Tala is fo­cused on the foun­da­tion’s 10th an­niver­sary. “We didn’t want to sim­ply do a fash­ion show,” says Tala, who will stage an in­stal­la­tion chart­ing the evo­lu­tion of Beirut’s fash­ion in­dus­try over the last decade. “It’s not sim­ply about cel­e­brat­ing all we’ve achieved, but also ac­knowl­edg­ing the chal­lenges that hold us back and the work ahead to create a sus­tain­able fash­ion in­dus­try in this coun­try.”

Pic­tured at Rabih Kay­rouz’s Beirut flag­ship, Tala nur­tures emerg­ing Le­banese de­sign­ers through the Starch Foun­da­tion

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