The Bachelor of Arts in Fashion Design in collaboration with Elie Saab Interview with Dr. Yasmine Nachabe Taan
Diala Aschkar, Art Director at Orient Palms, Paris, France

The Bachelor of Arts in Fashion Design in collaboration with Elie Saab

Interview with Dr. Yasmine Nachabe Taan

The much awaited “Bachelor of Arts in Fashion Design in collaboration with Elie Saab” has been launched this October at the Lebanese American University (LAU). We have interviewed Dr. Yasmine Nachabe Taan to get first insights about the visions and academic directions of this new fashion program. Dr. Taan is the Chair of the Department of Design at LAU which includes the graphic design and the fashion design programs.

Fashion as a Design methodology

Dr. Yasmine Nachabe Taan: To launch the fashion design program, we wanted to avoid recycling what is already happening in Beirut in fashion, we wanted a fresh blood. The fashion design students enrolled in this program will start with a foundation year that will provide them with a strong base in design education. The curriculum has been based on US and European models; its strength is the numerous workshops that will provide an insight to the industry.

At LAU, we teach design thinking that involves conceptualizing methods and problem solving while responding to a specified target audience. This education model proved to be effective, as many of our alumni – such as Rania Sarakbi and Rani Zakhem, who graduated from LAU before we created this program – are now well established practicing fashion designers.

Dr. Yasmine Nachabe Taan

Know-how from the UK

Y N T: In his last public address at LAU, Mr. Saab made a promise to the candidates for this program that, instead of them traveling abroad to seek high standard education, LAU will invite foreign experts as well as local professionals to provide them with technical and conceptual knowledge to produce their collection of garments. Many young people want to study fashion abroad but they don’t have the means to travel. So instead of sending the students abroad, we’re bringing the expertise to Lebanon. On November 5, 2013, there will be a ceremony at the London College of Fashion to sign the agreement between LAU and LCF, which will provide the students with an exchange students platform and other collaborations with the London fashion design program. We are also working on establishing more similar agreements with other institutions in Europe and the U.S.

The Lebanese context added value

Y N T: We have a lot to think about at this stage. In addition to training the students for the profession, I am waiting to see how fashion design will unfold in Beirut and the region. Will it have a particular (national/social/cultural/etc.) identity?

Focusing on the local craftsmanship might be an option. I am thinking of the raw material already available on the market –silk as in the Bsous museum for example–, and Burj Hammoud is definitely the haven for creative designers. An interesting example for a socially responsible design is Sarah’s Bags from which women prisoners are benefactors of their projects: by getting them involved in the production of the bags, they are securing jobs for a living. So design is not only about creating beautiful garments, there might be fertile ground here yet to be tackled, explored by young creative designers.

Design and Business strategy

Y N T: Design thinking is about problem solving, about producing a design that is not only aesthetically beautiful but it is also about function, about defining the problematic: who is the target audience, what is the budget of the consumer, where do they get their clothes from, what do they wear, why do they like this color, why do they prefer this fabric, why in Lebanon for example we prefer 100% cotton — because it’s hot, but it’s not only the weather, it’s social. There’s the social aspect of fashion that we would like to further discuss in the classrooms. In Beirut, fashion is a social statement. It’s about asserting that the wearer belongs to a certain social rank. People like wearing clothes with big letters, loud brands flashing at the viewers. So how will the local designers compete with big brands?

The business sector is an important sector for fashion designers. Our plan is to eventually offer a master program in design entrepreneurship. We do offer few courses in the current curriculum that focus on the business aspect of fashion. The courses will address how to launch one’s own brand, studying the consumer to answer his needs, establishing a company, having a business edge and building a strategy. Photography is also a crucial aspect in marketing fashion design. A designer can produce the best dress ever, if it is not well marketed, it will never sell.

The West and Arab markets

Y N T: We don’t want to limit the students to a certain trend. Fashion design is not only about style but it is about innovation. We want to teach them to produce a design that is responsive to the needs of a global or local market. It is not easy to label a design as “Westernized”: it could be modern and answering a local need. The students should know themselves and their culture and look into themselves because of this culture of copying and imitating. Prof. Jason Steel, the coordinator of the program, after giving a Workshop at LAU three months ago noticed that students lack confidence. We have to work on building their confidence.

Newest techniques and manufacturing

Y N T: We will teach the students the newest techniques in courses and/or workshops. Prof. Jason Steel talked during his workshop about smart fabrics that move along with the body. There is for example a designer in Lebanon that uses metal in fabrics, I was thinking about Milia Maroun. We want to teach the students a more sophisticated design approach, introducing them to new fabrics, new technologies in the production of fabric and other material. There will also be a workshop about working with manufacturers. For example we have already done last year a walking tour around Burj Hammoud industrial area as part of the Design Week event.

Work opportunities in Lebanon

Y N T: Despite the fact that Lebanon’s market is relatively small, local prêt-à-porter is developing in its own way. This could be an opening gate for a new industry in Lebanon. Interesting initiatives such as Starch are acting as fashion design incubators to assist designers in launching their own brands. This is very important, as the Lebanese Government is unable to provide support at this level for this creative sector.

Another important aspect is seeking internship for a better exposure to this highly competitive field. At LAU, the best three students from the second year in fashion design will be selected to join the Elie Saab atelier as interns. So Mr. Saab will help a lot in many ways through his name, his connections, his counseling for choosing foreign Academic institutions and the internships he offers, although of course he will not be teaching courses as part of the program.

Learning from established houses

Y N T: I had a meeting with some very well established Lebanese designers and they are craving for our students – if they are well prepared to handle the pressure of the field, of course. I heard many complains from designers about the majority of young designers wanting to start their own brands, which results in the lack of expertise in working at an already established designer’s atelier. There is an increasing need for qualified technical stylists that can meticulously execute creative ideas.

We already have 25 students enrolled in the program. This is a large number for a new program but we are excited to work with them. We have a long way to go in redefining what is fashion in a context where fashion is sometimes perceived as only ‘dressmaking’ or a mere craft.

Selecting the students

Y N T: As acceptance criteria for the program, LAU requires similar criteria as the Graphic Design major these can be found on our website. We are currently working on establishing portfolio review sessions after the foundation year. We have many students asking us and preparing their portfolios and that is not going to be an easy process. We are aware of the challenges of launching a fashion design program. We are not necessarily interested in glamour but rather in new approaches to textile and fashion design. In general, new fashion programs suffer from significant dropouts at the end of the first year.

From the research that we have done on why other fashion programs failed, we found out that the students were not really told about what this program involves. Once enrolled the students discovered that fashion is not about the glamour that they see on the pages of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar; the real work is the hard work that happens behind the scene and this is what they will be learning at LAU.

You can also read the interview with President Joseph G. Jabbra.