BEIRUT—The sophisticated fashion sense one sees on the streets of the Lebanese capital is one of the country’s assets—and some talented young people in Lebanon are finding ways to make a career out of it, with the help of a social enterprise called the Starch Foundation.
In just a few years and with limited means, the Starch Foundation has achieved recognition as a source of fresh design talent. In August, Vogue Arabia included its director, Tala Hajjar, in a list of 12 Arab women it called “trailblazers [who] are making a difference in the world.”
Later this month, fashion designers supported by the Starch Foundation will present their work on the catwalk at the annual trade fair Fashion Forward Dubai.
The Starch Foundation was started in 2008 by two Lebanese design professionals: Hajjar, a marketing specialist, and Rabih Kayrouz, a fashion designer based in Paris.
Their goal was to develop the careers of emerging Lebanese designers by supporting them with marketing and publicity, mentoring them in building a body of work and giving them space in which to show it to the public. The foundation supports from four to six designers every year for a period of one year. Hajjar says the designers can work in any design discipline—fashion, graphics, jewelry or the like.
The partners approached Solidere, the company that had been formed to redevelop downtown Beirut, and persuaded it to give them a prime retail space free of charge. Solidere had a contract with the Lebanese government to rebuild the heart of the capital, an area that had suffered extensive damage in the country’s civil war.
Starch occupies a ground-floor, glass-fronted space in a pedestrian-friendly street in the Saifi Village area of Solidere’s downtown Beirut development. The Starch designers manage the space during its open hours and talk about their work with people curious enough to enter. Their work is for sale, and the designers keep all the proceeds.
Two of the designers supported by Starch this year, Elie Mouhanna and Roni Helou, discussed their work.
Roni Helou, 25, graduated in 2016 from Creative Space Beirut, a school of fashion design that offers free tuition to talented students in Lebanon who are unable to meet the cost of design courses at the country’s other private institutions of higher education.
“Tala [Hajjar] was at my graduation fashion show, and afterwards she asked me to send my portfolio to Starch,” Helou said. “I launched my first collection here—my brand, actually.”
“I didn’t want to launch a brand immediately after graduation. I wanted to work for big names in the industry abroad, but with only a Lebanese passport that was a bit difficult. So when the opportunity with Starch came in, I decided to go for it,” he said.
Helou joined Starch at the end of 2016, and within a few months was preparing a fashion collection to show at Fashion Forward Dubai.
After previewing Helou’s collection at Fashion Forward Dubai in spring of this year, Vogue Arabia advised fashion followers to “expect Creative Space graduate Helou to toy with loose-fit separates, flowing skirts and current cuts with crisp tailoring.”
Elie Mouhanna, 32, has a master’s degree in graphic design from Lebanon’s Holy Spirit University at Kaslik, north of Beirut. Independently of his course work, he developed an interest in knitting and crochet, and taught himself these skills by watching YouTube videos. The result is a collection of enigmatic objects that look both naturally organic and the product of an unknown but advanced technological process.
“I launched my first collection with Starch in April 2017,” he said. “I have a fascination with mathematics and with textures, and I wanted to use materials like plastic sequins and glass beads. You can’t really tell if it’s natural or artificial.”
He hopes that the platform provided by Starch will lead to opportunities to apply the techniques he has developed to wearable technologies. “I’m selling the process, not just the product,” he said.
“At Starch,” Mouhanna said, “we have a place to showcase our work without having to worry about finances.”
Mouhanna hopes to move to a career in teaching in a fashion department in higher education while continuing his creative work. “For me, teaching means constant research and moving forward, and constantly progressing. I’m not intending to repeat myself,” he said.
“When people come here, they already have confidence in Starch. People just know that anything at Starch is going to be good. People come here every year and expect to see interesting designers, and interesting work,” Mouhanna said.
In February 2016, the Starch Foundation’s work was recognized by an award at London Fashion Week. The award was given for a show organized by Starch and the Arab British Centre that featured the work of eight Starch designers from different years, presented in an installation inspired by the interior of a traditional Lebanese home. After receiving the award, Tala Hajjar wrote, “We worked so hard … and we can’t wait to shine again!”