It was a day in January 2019 in Baakleen, located in the gorgeous Chouf of Lebanon. A gorgeous day, despite the weather, where I was so thrilled at the potential of growing our team. I thought about my good luck charm, a hoopoe bird. A symbol of luck and reassurance I have carried with me since I was a child. In my life, whenever I had a hoopoe bird around, literally or metaphorically in my heart, I knew I was going to be alright.
That day, my team and I had organized (what we expected to be a small) talk to raise awareness about the art of the local craft and to potentially recruit some of them to our growing team. When I got to the site, I could not believe my eyes. To our surprise, we ended up hosting 450 women.
The number of women standing and waiting for the day to start, with fire in their eyes. As the day came to an end, I realized I had only brought 50 copies of the application form, when in reality by the end of the day 400 women were interested in joining our team. For two months, I got countless phone calls from women eager to join us on our journey of craft preservation. My heart was so heavy on my shoulders because all I could think about was how I was dying to give every single one of them the opportunity.
After sifting through all the applications, looking at work samples, come February 2019, we were ready to decide who was going to join our team. At this point, I had already submitted my application to the Fashion Trust Arabia (FTA) Ready-to-Wear category. The FTA is a not-for-profit initiative launched in 2018 to support up and coming designers of the Middle East, with HE Sheikha Al-Mayassa bint Hamad Al-Thani and Tania Fares as co-chairs under the patronage of honorary chair, HH Sheikha Moza Bint Nasser.
I knew then that no matter how many women we could end up taking on, I knew in my gut that I had to make the FTA happen in order to take my brand to the next level- and bring as many people along the journey as I could. We called some of them over to Sonia’s house to let them know they had been selected and to celebrate this moment of growing our team. One of them, Joumana, as a way to say thank you – gifted me non other than a hoopie bird brooch.
On my way from Sonia’s house that day, I got the call. The call to let me know that I had been nominated as one of the 11 brands in the Ready-to-Wear category of the first ever FTA prize. I looked up to the universe, holding the hoopoe bird brooch in my hand thanking Joumana.
When it came time to plan my trip to Doha, Qatar, where the judging panels and prize ceremony would be held, I knew that in my heart, without a glimpse into our unique world, the brand would not shine through the way I imagined during the trip. One of my very first embroiderers Weddad, has loyalty, work ethic, attention to detail, and most importantly, kindness – that are unparalleled. It was a no brainer for me to take Weddad with me to the FTA ceremony in Qatar to showcase live our delicate and beautiful craft.
Three days before the flight to Doha, I was at one of my favorite bookstores Papercup, located in the Mar Mikhael neighborhood of Beirut, where I was browsing their gorgeous selection of books and magazines, with a hot cup of coffee in my hand. I pulled out a hardcover children’s book randomly and skimmed through the pages, and to my surprise I stumbled onto a page with an image of the anatomy of non-other than a hoopoe bird. I knew it was the sign I was looking for to, against all odds, keep my hopes up and come back with a win.
Little did we know that once we would be in the thick of it in Qatar, we would encounter 64 judges, have DVF snap a photo of the brand on her little camera, hear Pier Paolo Piccioli speak to me. Even Weddad got to meet the designer of her dreams: Zuhair Murad. We were on cloud nine.
The night before the judges’ panel, I asked the women of my atelier to write letters about what it would mean to win the prize, being a part of the Salim Azzam team, etc., which I then took to make a speech in case we were indeed to win. I did not want to let them down. I wanted to come back with a win, not necessarily for me, but for them. When it came down to the panel, the moment I started speaking, I remember feeling like everything else did not matter, everything but the room going blank. I remember Victoria Beckham, DVF, Pier Paolo Piccioli, to name a few, asking me questions, keeping me in the room longer. Questions like “Why don’t you make shoes?”. “Why not socks?” I remember answering cheekily, followed by “anything to keep the craft alive, I will do it”. With every follow up question, the more I felt a sense of elatedness. Once my time was up, I heard the applause, and more distinctively I remember DVF herself clapping with her hands above her head. That instance alone reminds me in times of difficulty that I am fulfilling my purpose.
Once at the award ceremony later that trip, I made sure to wear a tuxedo, with a hoopoe bird embroidered underneath it on my heart’s side, making sure I had it close to me, close to my heart.
When I heard my name being called as the winner of my category, I was so blissful, so cheery, so emotional. I took my combined speech from my team and remember feeling all of their presence in the room with me.
Looking at Weddad, my day one team member, whom I reunited with later that evening, I could see and hear crying, with her hand on her heart. “Save the crying for later, now we celebrate”, I said lovingly and proudly, making what I later realized was one of the most beautiful moments of my career and my life.
After the trip was over, I was reminded even more so of the power of the FTA. With (my first ever) trip to New York, having DVF, Gabriela Hearst, Tim Blanks, and more still shining the spotlight onto our brand, the pieces being sold on Matches Fashion, etc. I came back home to Lebanon with a fulfilled promised dream to my team. I came back with the validation and the tools to remind us all that our hopes are worth chasing.
It is now, two years after winning the prize I hold so dearly to my heart, that I wanted to take the time to say thank you. Thank you to the FTA for believing in me in my early days, for seeing the potential, what we stand for, and how limitless and sincere our intentions are. I was and continue to be on a mission to preserve the local craft – and the universe has allowed me to do that through fashion. Back then, I felt like I always needed my hoopoe bird next to me. Today, I feel like I am the bird.
Thank you so much, FTA.