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

Interview with President Joseph G. Jabbra

Diala Aschkar, Art Director at Orient Palms, Paris, France

For the launch this Fall of the much anticipated “The Bachelor of Arts in Fashion Design in collaboration with Elie Saab” we interviewed Dr. Joseph G. Jabbra, president of the Lebanese American University (LAU).

Dr. Jabra: First of all, I’d like to welcome you to LAU, and just give you a very brief idea of the university. As you well know, our origins go back to 1835, when a woman from the United States came here and decided to establish a school for the education of women in the Ottoman Empire. The first year she had 3 students, but this institution grew and now it’s a full fledged university. We have two campuses: one in Beirut, one in Byblos; we have a hospital, and we just inaugurated on September 13 a new campus in the United States in New York, in downtown Manhattan. We have 7 schools including the school of Architecture and Design.

We always believed that LAU is an institution that is part of society. In other words, we feel that we have the responsibility, even the obligation, to make sure that our institution responds to the needs of society. And in order to do that, we need to be creative in our thinking, we need to make sure that we are not only responding to, but that we are taking the initiatives in order to help society, in order to help our youths.

President Joseph G. Jabbra

Flip-Zone: So you are opening a new fashion program…

Dr. Jabra: Yes, we are being innovative in terms of our curricular offerings. One of the areas that we thought about, that is missing from this entire region, is the whole issue of fashion. You have a lot of places where you can learn about fashion, but fashion as an academic discipline offered by a university, this is a first. And we though that instead of having students from this region go to Paris, go to London, the United States, why don’t we provide them with the initial degree, academic degree, to study here. It will be cheaper for them and it is an American institution that is highly recognized all over the world. So we are offering a program to not only Lebanese youths, but youths from the entire region.

F-Z: How did the idea of collaborating with Elie Saab come to life?

Dr. Jabra: Well, the thought came to us that we needed to have an attractive name, a name that is well known in the industry, and we thought of Elie Saab. When we talked to him, he was very open to the idea. He said: «I have been thinking about the same thing. I want to help young people who are interested in taking a degree in fashion here in Lebanon. If they want to specialize further, they can go on to London, Paris, Italy, the United States you name it.» So we agreed to have the program. We had a gala dinner last year, in March, that was really a splendid one, we had close to a thousand people attending, and Elie Saab was there. We introduced him, he came to the stage, and he said: “I’m very overwhelmed, because my name has been attached to a university and I want you to know that I never had a higher education!”. He got a standing ovation for that.

When we began talking to Elie Saab, we had to prepare the program and send it to the government, to get approval, which was done. But over and above that, we thought that we need to link the program to a famous school of fashion. I went to London with my colleagues and we began to work with the London College for Fashion, which is one of the leading colleges for fashion in the world. They sent somebody here and now, we have an agreement, a memorandum of understanding that they will be here, they will continue to work with us on the curriculum, they will give lectures, they will send their faculty here and we’re going to have a signing ceremony for this agreement, here in Lebanon, in due time.

F-Z: When the news came out of a new fashion program and that M. Saab was involved were there, people, students specifically asking about it?

Dr. Jabra: I’ll tell you: when the word came out that we were going to launch a fashion program with the support of Mr. Saab, everybody called, everybody was excited about it, everybody wanted to know more about it.

F-Z: How many students will there be in the program? And how many years of study are there?

Dr. Jabra: Our first decision was to take in only 25 students. But we are going to have a little more than that. The program is part of the School of Architecture and Design. It is a three years program. We begin the fashion program this year, and students are being admitted to enroll in the foundation year where general courses are given to all students in the Design area. After the foundation year, they will begin to specialize in fashion design, and they will have the opportunity to spend a summer at the London college of fashion, or to take some courses there, we will have faculty members coming from the London college of Fashion to offer courses in our program. So it is going to be a cluster of courses in a variety of areas in fashion.

F-Z: Concerning their training, will the university help them find one?

Dr. Jabra: Well, I think that Elie Saab will, and we will as well. And he is prepared to take some of our students in his fashion house here.

It is not an easy program because you have not only the practical, but you have as well the academic component, and students have to do well in both. When people talk about fashion they think it’s very glamorous but there is a lot of work involved. The students at the end of the foundation year will be screened. Those who would specialize in fashion will be really looked at very carefully. They will meet with faculty and try to explain to us why they are interested in going into fashion.

F-Z: Where do the students who where accepted this year come from? Are there any foreign students?

Dr. Jabbra: We have applications from some Arab countries, but for the present time, the majority of applicants are Lebanese. But you know 20% of our students at LAU come from 86 countries in the world. So we’re not limiting the program to Lebanon or to the region.

F-Z: One of the specifics of Lebanon is to have a lot of expatriates, people living abroad, having children, wanting to come back…

Dr. Jabbra: We have a lot of them in a variety of fields, and they come from the Gulf area, from everywhere. Parents love to send their kids to Lebanon, to LAU.

F-Z: Do you think these students will later work with local fashion houses in Lebanon or will they be able to find employment in the UK, the States where there are much more luxury ready to wear brands… do you have relations?

Dr. Jabra: The university cannot guarantee jobs of course but it will help its graduates to find jobs and M. Saab has also his connections, he can help along these lines. I think that they will look at what’s going on in Lebanon and try really to find jobs with the local industry and I’m sure that some of them will want to go overseas.

F-Z: Would you like to tell us about the donors?

Dr. Jabra: Yes, I think it is very important. As you well know, in private institutions, we have always a challenge, in that we depend to a great deal in tuition. This institution is really cognizant of the fact that there is so much you can do. Fundraising becomes major goal for private institutions in order to sustain the expenses that we incur. And therefore we established a unit we call “The Development Office” which task is to raise money from outside sources in order to keep the tuition down. We had the first campaign to support our strategic plan which is to raise 40 millions. We actually raised 67.5 millions. We had a comprehensive campaign we called “The legacy and the promise” that LAU was a legacy and a promise, and completed that. Now we have a new strategic plan and a new campaign with the title “Fulfilling the promise” and it is a comprehensive fundraising campaign to support the academics.

F-Z: We suppose that introducing the new program represents a lot of investments, because the technics of fashion are more and more advanced…

Dr. Jabra: When we established the program, we bought a building, not too far from the lower gate, we call it the “Jazairi building" and that building, to a great deal, will be dedicated to the fashion design program and this coming year, we’re gonna renovate the building. It will be an ideal place for the new program.

You can also read the interview with Dr. Yasmine Nachabe Taan.