Designer Salim Azzam on the importance of preserving traditional craftsmanship.
By Yelena Grelet.
Before sustainability became a buzzword, the practice of making do with what you had was the norm for Salim Azzam and naturally trickled down into his design practice and supply chain.
Located an hour away from Lebanon’s capital is Chouf, a remote mountain region where Azzam spent his early childhood surrounded by his uncles who were farmers and Druze women—an Arabic-speaking ethnic group and religion with a small community of only 1 million around the Middle East. Growing up in a tight-knit community meant that respect and hospitality was imperative. “I was raised in a culture where the neighbor came first, even before your house,” Azzam tells Mission.
Far from a typical Western upbringing, Azzam witnessed craft’s potential: when he wasn’t pestering his mum to teach him how to knit and crochet, you could find him observing his cousin sewing miniature outfits for her Barbie dolls. Despite attempting to pursue a degree in Graphic Design, later on, Azzam could not ignore his knack for craft and felt compelled to revisit his rural roots.
With the introduction of mass production and consumption, a lack of appreciation for slow fashion and artisanal craft has arisen. While the industrial revolution created jobs for many, it has also left small, independent business owners and traditional artisans without a stable source of income. “People lost their interest in those crafts,” Azzam explains. Recognizing a gap in the market for a couture approach to casualwear, the designer founded his eponymous label in 2016. The ready-to-wear designer’s sleek, refined, and minimal aesthetic strongly reflects his upbringing with an ecocentric focus on the embroidered motifs of flowers, birds, and fruits.
Whether it’s sourcing organic fabric or hand-stitching a bluebird, every stage of Azzam’s process is an ode to his village and upbringing. “There is nothing more beautiful than expressing your love to your daughter, your son, or just anyone by hand-making something for them,” states the 2019 Fashion Trust Arabia winner. In Lebanon, there is a profound appreciation of craft and its ability to keep the country’s history alive. Azzam works to champion female artisans secluded from the Western World and preserves his country’s past indigenous craft, “I had the chance to leave that mountain, and not everybody has that chance, so those crafts come in as a link for them to the outside world.”
In Lebanon, there are certain dress codes for occasions such as celebrating newlyweds and mourning the loss of a loved one, so Azzam makes a point of following these customs in his work via stitching motifs. “We believe that death is a new beginning, so even if you are not religious, women have to wear the veil. The rim is made not via embroidery or crochet but with a needle. It’s an expensive technique that requires a lot of patience,” he explains.
Azzam provides in-person physical embroidery workshops and hopes to open his own embroidery school one day. The visual storyteller also provides an online course for his followers on his ‘Madrasa’ Instagram story. Despite carrying the name of his brand, Salim Azzam expresses immense gratitude towards his team. Whenever he discusses a project or collection, his team’s contribution to the work is always stressed. This is just a small but powerful representation of Azzam’s humble character and ethical brand.