February 2013
Tala Hajjar: Culturing Creativity

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Tala Hajjar, director and co-founder of Starch foundation, is the kind of person that gives without expecting much in return. Not just because she runs a non-profit initiative to promote young Lebanese designers, but also because of the unsuspectingly generous flair she has, especially in conversation. She won’t stutter in fear of saying too much, or hesitate at answering any question or concern. On the contrary, Hajjar will share everything she knows, which is plenty, thanks to the years of experience she’s acquired in the design industry, in Lebanon and abroad. So you can trust that she knows what she’s talking about. And when she says that as Lebanese, we still have a long way to go before we reach a real design culture that is appreciated the way it is abroad, you can bet that she’s planning on taking part in the change

By Daria El Samad

A graduate of design schools from London’s Central Martins and Paris’ ESMOD, Hajjar expresses her gratitude to her parents who were able to send her abroad for an education in design. ’People here have to struggle to go down that road,’ she explains.

Graduates from design schools in Lebanon end up either working for a big designer or starting up their own couture line, which is why we end up with a surplus of designers that work with ’bling and evening gowns,’ as Hajjar describes it. ’And really, where’s the creativity in all of this?’

Starch Foundation has been a step in the direction toward change. As Hajjar started working with renowned fashion designer Rabih Kayrouz in 2008, they both realized the need for a space that can act like a platform for young designers to kick-start their careers. She explains that in the process of starting their careers, young talents sometimes end up losing their identity while working for other designers.

And that was how Starch was created. Hajjar, with Kayrouz’s more than a decade’s know-how and Solidere’s contribution of a space in Saifi, started the organization, which has grown to become a platform that allows young designers to experiment without worrying about the hassles of doing business in Lebanon.

All it takes is talent, creativity, discipline and passion, along with the ability to produce a professional collection, regardless of previous experience. Hajjar calls the designers they select for the foundation ’diamonds in the rough,’ who have all of these qualities but can get overwhelmed during the process.

What Starch does is takes away all of the ’professional burdens’ as Hajjar calls them, by providing collection development guidance, a retail space, press exposure and various workshops and collaborations.

Designers are given the opportunity to experiment, focus all their energy and creativity on their work and fall back on the foundation. During that year, they’d gather experience on how to sell their products in the Starch space, how to interact with customers, how to work with other designers and how to manage their finances.

’Starch designers are neither students nor professionals yet,’ Hajjar explains. ’They are in between.’

This is especially helpful when trying to find solutions to the barriers to production in Lebanon.

’I give you a broken pen, and I ask you to draw something for me. It’s very difficult,’ Hajjar says as she explains production in Lebanon, ’We don’t have developed production circuits in Lebanon.’

As opposed to the production process abroad, where there is a clear formula with factories, outlets and shows, the case in Lebanon is quite different. Hajjar offers the example of the ready-to-wear factories available in Lebanon, explaining that they’re very ’artisanat -- artisanat is positive -- not international standards.’ That means that in one case, a piece was sent for execution, but somewhere along the way a detail could be altered either because of the lack of material or because the person in charge decided it would look better.

For Hajjar, this offers some justification for why multi-brand stores like AISHTI, Plum or IF don’t carry or showcase Lebanese designers.

’It’s too many unknowns,’ Hajjar says, adding on a more up-beat note, ’which is positive for us Lebanese, because we throw ourselves at risks and we don’t calculate much. But if you had a proper microcosm of design industry, things can accelerate and be much more productive.’

It seems as if Hajjar, who was awarded the Young Creative Entrepreneur title of 2011 by the British Council, wants to be part of the solution but is struggling because, according to her, the solution is much bigger than what she can do at the time being.

’We would need the government to help, to bring in proper infrastructure for production. It’s a huge long-term project. For now, we have to cope with what we have, even if it is more time consuming and more costly,’ she explains.

But, as Starch is gaining more exposure, in both the public and private circles, the importance of design is catching on. ’It’s just another industry,’ Hajjar says, ’We are trying to build a full fledged industry with an incredible potential.’

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