Bazaar pays homage to the inspiring women of a cosmopolitan Arab city that has long captivated the imagination of the world
Courtesy of Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation, Beirut
‘Beirut is the Elizabeth Taylor of cities: insane, beautiful, falling apart, ageing and forever drama laden,’ observed the celebrated Lebanese-American author Rabih Alameddine. For Rabih’s observation isn’t a critique so much as an acknowledgement of the nuanced and complex realities of a city that’s long captivated the world’s imagination as either a ‘Paris of the Middle East’ or a theatre of regional conflict. His stories, on the contrary, serve as a reminder that this is a city which lies somewhere between these two extreme images. In his novels it’s often the female protagonists who come to embody the city, making the point that in order to truly capture Beirut’s spirit one need look no further than the generations of women who have helped shape this fascinating piece of land jutting out into the Mediterranean.
Yildiz Diab: Researcher, Entrepreneur & Founder of Ana Aqra Association
“That an Egyptian such as myself can call Beirut home is part of what makes this city so magical and a place where everyone can belong,” says Yildiz, who moved to Beirut in 1988 with her Lebanese husband. Over the past year, she’s been slowly collecting information and artefacts from other families in Lebanon and Egypt with similar histories and stories. “Dig a little deeper and one will find that these aren’t just clothes, receipts and photographs. Together with oral histories of those who are still alive to remember that period, they paint a social history of the region that’s linked to anti-colonial movements, feminism, globalism and mobility,” says the researcher, who hopes her research will lead to a book, exhibition and eventually a foundation in Beirut to preserve these histories.
Tala Hajjar: Director & Co-founder of Starch Foundation
After graduating from ESMOD in Paris, Tala went on to become the PR and Marketing Director for Lebanese designer, Rabih Kayrouz, assisting him in expanding his label into ready-to-wear as well as establishing his showroom and atelier in Paris. Over the years Rabih would be approached by a number of young Lebanese designers looking for mentorship to start up their own labels, prompting the pair to launch Starch, a non-profit organization that provides an alternative space for local designers to thrive in. “What we’re trying to do is set up the building blocks for a design industry in a country that has incredible potential to leave its mark on the fashion world,” added Starch’s director, who together with Rabih has transformed the foundation into a recognized source for fresh design talent within the region and globally.
Rana Salam: Founder & Art Director of Rana Salam Design Studio
“Perhaps because of Lebanon’s complex social, religious and political history, Beirut has given birth to a thriving creative industry,” says Rana Salam, the celebrated graphic designer and creative director. She recalled the day her father gave her a scooter at 15 to explore the city’s streets. It exposed her to Beirut’s popular culture, which later became the main source of inspiration for her work. In 1992, Rana graduated from London’s Royal College of Art with an MA in Visual Communications and Art Direction and eventually opened her design studio in a storefront on London's Golborne Road in 2002, working with clients such as Paul Smith, the V&A and Liberty. She eventually moved back to Beirut in 2010 with her family, where she set up a new design studio in a converted warehouse in Gemmayzeh. Since her return, Rana has become an outspoken design activist. “There’s a need to change the world’s perception of the Middle East in an engaging and positive way and what better medium to use than the power of design.”
Nour Najem: Fashion Designer & Creative Director of L’Artisan du Liban
“Fashion has unfortunately come to symbolize consumerism and superficiality as opposed to championing creativity, sustainability and ethical ways of running a label,” says Nour Najem, who is part of a growing movement of like-minded designers upending the established fashion system. After graduating in 2012 she launched her own label, in addition to establishing the Kenza Foundation that same year to create a platform for positive social change. “Kenza is 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 marginalized and underprivileged women, by giving them the opportunity to learn income-generating skills,” says Nour, who in September 2017, also became the new creative director of L’Artisan du Liban, an NGO supporting hundreds of artisans across the country.
Nadia Abdelnour: President of Inaash
“This is where we keep our treasures,” says Nadia Abdelnour as she holds up samples from an archive of exquisite Palestinian embroideries housed in Inaash’s headquarters in Ras Beirut. Run by a team of passionate volunteers since 1969, Inaash supports economic and social development in Lebanon’s twelve Palestinian refugee camps, while keeping alive an embroidery tradition that risked being lost, through income-generating projects targeting women. “There’s a part of Palestinian history that’s been completely erased. Most people don’t realize there was a thriving educated Palestinian bourgeoisie living in vibrant towns and cities,” says the NGO’s president, a few days later at Inaash’s light-filled Hamra boutique displaying a selection of contemporary clothing, accessories and home-ware created over the years by a roster of Lebanese designers such as Rabih Keyrouz, Milia M and Nada Debs.
Maria Ousseimi: Interior Designer
“It’s hard to describe my approach to designing interiors because it’s so intuitive. What I’m trying to create is an atmosphere and capture a feeling or moment in time,” says Maria Ousseimi, noting that she never intended on becoming an interior designer. Following the outbreak of Lebanon’s civil war in 1975, she lived in Switzerland, the US and the UK, before moving back to Beirut with her husband and two sons in 2002. “What I love about Beirut is that it’s a dynamic city where creativity thrives in this unique mix of freedom and chaos,” says Maria, whose home in an Ottoman-era townhouse in Gimmayze, is considered one of the most beautiful in the city for its effortless combination of simple and sophisticated objects belonging to someone who has traveled the world.
Hala Hanna: Co-founder of XXe Siècle
“The past 16 years have been a real adventure,” says Hala Hanna of XXe Siècle, the gallery she established with her brother Souheil in 2000, which has become the premier destination in the Middle East for 20th-century furniture and decorative arts. “Beirut is a great place to collect the work of some of the most celebrated designers of the ‘50s and ‘60s,” she says, noting that it wasn’t difficult to acquire 20th-century gems in Beirut, at a time when the Lebanese capital was busy rebuilding itself after the war. “This gallery isn’t simply about preserving the past. Like Beirut, it’s constantly evolving and we’re looking forward to contributing to the conversation surrounding the future of design in this city and the region.”
Carla Daher: Model, Actress & Educator
Carla Daher is a rare breed amongst Lebanese models for having become the face of a new generation of avant-garde designers who are questioning long-held notions of beauty. A graduate of the theatre department of the Lebanese University of Fine Arts, she sees the role of artists as that of activists thanks to their public platform, which allows them to address social and political issues impacting Lebanon and the region. “There’s beauty, but also tension in a place like Beirut and that creates the perfect environment for a dynamic and vibrant art scene to take root,” says the actress, whose modeling career took off the day Demna Gvasalia’s team came to Beirut to scout models for the designer’s Balenciaga S/S 2017 runway show.
Aida Kawas: Co-founder of Orient 499
The brainchild of Aida Kawas and Frank Luca, Orient 499 would not only enchant the world with its unique offerings but also change the conversation around what artisanal means in the 21st century Middle East, by setting up a surprisingly young workshop of talented craftsmen and women. “Orient 499 is ultimately a love letter to Lebanon and Beirut, and I’m proud of what we’ve been able to achieve in the last 13 years. We're not only bringing attention to our rich heritage but also contributing to more nuanced narratives about our city and its people to a global audience,” says Kawas.
To read the full story, pick up the October 2018 issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia