Did we ever take the time to feel time, until now? Suddenly forced apart, this year made us face the present. When worldwide lockdowns were imposed in the Spring, mindfulness emerged as a tool to confront our discomfort. Old habits felt irrelevant and somewhat irresponsible, activating new practices, and a craving for creativity. In the mountains of southern Lebanon, the local craft of embroidery has been preserved as a meditative and storytelling tool for centuries. The slow craft requires focus, stability, and being entirely in the moment. Lebanese Designer Salim Azzam works to preserve this delicate craft by providing women in his community with a platform to document their stories. Currently, the global fashion industry is at risk of losing an entire generation of independent designers. Still, in this transparency-desired period, fortune will favor the authentic and the community conscious. And while most designers and labels are re-questioning creative purpose, the designer is simply reaffirming his.
Salim was raised in Bater, a village 45 minutes from Beirut located in the historical region of Chouf’s valleys and mountains in Lebanon. The bio-diverse district is a natural wonder made up of wildflowers, exotic fruits, and cedar forests. “I’m so connected to my village, it’s where I feel most like myself. What I have here, I don’t have anywhere else in the world,” says Azzam. After completing his Master’s degree in Visual Communication Design at the University of Alberta in Canada, Salim moved back to Lebanon in pursuit of designing for social change. “That experience really changed my perspective, and I decided I wanted to do something for my community. As a graphic designer, I asked myself, what if my illustrations could be embroidered? I believed it was the perfect medium for stories from the village to live.”
He began initiating different projects in his village, collaborating with low-literacy elders to illustrate their stories. With white as their baseline fabric, Azzam began to bridge his illustrations with embroidery for the first time, working with local women who he describes as keepers of heritage, holding centuries of culture and stories. Four years later, local women continue to be the heartbeat of the brand. “I’m nothing without them, Salim Azzam is just the vessel through which these crafts are preserved and reimagined.” says the designer. Embroidery is traditional in Lebanon’s culture and history, but the Civil War resulted in a major dip in demand. “It wasn’t just about a nice pattern, like the way we see it now. It was a refined and slow work that was used to decorate homes and as gifts to reflect special family occasions, from births to weddings and even deaths. It brings peace, calm, and connects us to our roots,” Azzam explains. He believed there was an opportunity for preservation through modification, but introducing this new perspective was initially a challenge for women within the community. Shifting the intention behind crafting embroidery from a display piece to a wearable piece was radical. Despite this, many were curious to join his journey as the brand grew.
In 2019, he received 400 job applications from women who were eager to work. “Suddenly, I became the person responsible for the continuation of the craft,” says Azzam. Growing up surrounded by women from the Druze minority who dressed in modest black dresses and white veils, where fashion has limited room, embroidery now served as an alternative way of expression. His Fashion Trust Arabia Prize win in 2019 allowed him to open his atelier in Chouf and stock pieces from his F/W20 collection on global retailer MATCHESFASHION. Opening the atelier in the fall brought his team together under one roof, surrounded by the nature that inspires each collection. Within a month, the political uprising in Lebanon was triggered. October was full of hope for the Lebanese. By January, Azzam was forced to close his Beirut Souks store amidst the ongoing protests, located just across the Lebanese parliament, where thousands would gather for anti-government rallies. Despite the demonstrations, dwindling economy, and the outbreak of COVID-19 in the country, his team carried on. “Room for more creativity was one of the best things about being in quarantine. My team was motivated to work. I decided to introduce the slow and almost-forgotten craft of crochet and work on the new collection.”