This month, 14 fashion design graduates took over Beirut’s La Magnanerie, an 18th century silk factory, to showcase their bold new designs under the theme “New Wave.” This graduate fashion show has become an annual tradition at the Lebanese American University (LAU) that acts as a launch pad for emerging creatives and marks their completion of the four-year Bachelor of Arts in Fashion Design, in collaboration with Elie Saab and London College of Fashion. Following the 160-look presentation, Vogue Arabia sat down with Elie Saab to talk about the future of Lebanese fashion and how the couturier built his own international empire, even without formal studies.
How did your involvement with the Lebanese American University start?
Since I played a major role in creating the dream and putting the fashion industry in the region on a pedestal, today more than ever, I feel the need to help and encourage young talents who would like to pursue a career in design. It is a big responsibility and it is one of my missions to give back to the region who fostered my growth. I was approached by different universities to create this program, but I felt that the vision of Dr Joseph Jabbra, president of LAU, was very similar to mine. The faith and energy he showed for developing this program convinced me that we should join forces to bring world-class fashion design to Lebanon.
What do you think about the collaboration with the London College of Fashion?
The objective for launching the fashion design program with LAU in collaboration with London College of Fashion, an outstanding institution known for graduating notable designers globally, is to provide Lebanese students with high educational standards to further improve the fashion scene and grant students with a reputable degree. Some families don’t want their children to live abroad or don’t have the means to do so. By offering this program in the region, we will also promote the country and make Lebanon a cultural destination again.
How involved are you in the program and the actual teaching?
The academic side is not my specialty and I leave this responsibility to LAU, which will ensure the creation of a world-class program. I will offer any assistance that might be beneficial for the program and the students. I am present at the end-of-year jury for the students’ final presentation to give them guidance and recommendations as needed. My workshop is open for potential talents to gain further experience in practice.
This is the second graduation year. How has the experience been so far for you?
I take this program to heart and it gives me great pride to see the students graduating year after year. Last year was very special, a “first” as it was called, a real achievement. This year it’s even more rewarding to see how students are more eager to learn fashion and are looking at the industry from a wider perspective.
Being a self-taught designer, do you believe a traditional university program can make a difference? Or are talent and creativity still the basis of success?
Education is the first milestone to create an ecosystem that can support and incubate young talent and prepare them to go global. A university degree is an essential starting point to thrive in today’s competitive world. Talent and creativity come are tools to create uniqueness but the main key for success remains managing and orchestrating your talent. It is the focal point to ensure growth and achievements.
You did your first show and opened your first atelier at the young age of 18. What do you wish you knew then?
A lot of things… Working in fashion was more of a destiny and since the beginning of my career, I had a very clear vision of where I was heading. I made a projection of setting the brand worldwide and I aimed for success. Yet I thought that once I’d grown the business, it would be easier on me, since I’d reached my goal. I never knew that the responsibility would be bigger, the target even higher, and the effort boundless.
Which is the most common advice the students ask for?
I would like to tell you instead the common advice I give to students: Work passionately and believe in yourself. Think big to realize your dream and mainly create your own identity.
You have three children. Do you get attached to the young students almost from a paternal point of view? Do you see yourself in these aspiring designers?
I am not involved on a daily basis; I don’t have the luxury of time, as you can imagine. However, I definitely identify with how the parents enjoy seeing their children staying with them and getting a high-quality education. I am more of a mentor who gives them the proper guidance to trace their path. The students are at the very early learning process, exploring and discovering where to fit in this industry, trying to understand what suits them best and where they see themselves most. Some of them might change their route and others will develop their skills further. My situation was completely different, I didn’t have the same education or a system to support me in developing my abilities. I had to teach myself the business every day. Today, these students are in one of the best universities, they have lots of facilities to enrich their knowledge and extend their horizons. Some of them remind me of my early beginnings – a stage full of eagerness and hunger for knowledge.
Personally, do you also learn from the students?
Life is a journey that teaches you every day and from every encounter. These students represent faith in a brighter future. We have lots of talent and we should nurture their creativity and capacity by opening new perspectives and helping shape the future of fashion in the Arab world.