The Mentor TALA HAJJAR
Director & co-founder of Starch Foundation
“We’re trying to set the building
blocks for a country that has
incredible potential in the fashion world”
“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