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November 23, 2017
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Is Made in Lebanon Growing at the Seams?

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Made in Lebanon tag from Margherita. Photo courtesy of Margherita

A tug of war is playing out on the design front in Lebanon. On one end of the proverbial rope are local designers, artisans and champions for quality and one-of-a-kind products, from furniture, architecture to jewelry. The other end observes defenders of the status quo: trendy, mass-produced goods hailing from Europe and North America (really, China, Bangladesh and Mexico). When it comes to the design landscape, Beirut is going through a transition. Old guard is defending ground as new guard comes into the picture to sweep away the patina of Beirut's heritage with modernity, steel and Chanel. Recourse, though slow and gradual, is emerging from an unlikely constitution within the old guard. Young, vibrant artisans, who have learned the tricks of the trade abroad, are back in stow defending the Made in Lebanon tag.

Old guard is defending ground as new guard comes into the picture to sweep away the patina of Beirut's heritage with modernity, steel and Chanel. Recourse, though slow and gradual, is emerging from an unlikely constitution within the old guard.

Ghita Abi-Hanna of the eponymous label, Margherita, is one such exponent. Abi-Hanna is a designer of accessories and handbags in Beirut. Her career began in graphic design, which she has not abandoned since becoming an accessories designer. Bound by the graphic design grid, Abi-Hanna manifests the technique by demonstrating on her website how her pieces go from a flat start to a voluminous finish. Her handbags are predominantly made out of leather, many of which are beautifully matched with wood for handles. Aptly named, the Travel suite of handbags is well suited for ladies who want to journey both sensibly and stylishly. Her accessories and handbags involve intricate, yet soft origami-like texture. Her colour palette is earth toned and warm. In essence, Margherita collections involve materials and handiwork that foster an emotional adherence to the pieces. Abi-Hanna's pursuit of accessories and jewelry design took her to the Domus Academy in Milan where she applied theory to the sketchbook. It wasn't until she moved back to the motherland, Beirut, that Abi-Hanna understood the meaning behind "Made in Lebanon" and why defending that honour became a driving force behind her own brand.

Abi-Hanna does not make all her accessories and handbags herself, although she might as well. She handpicks local artisans and craftsmen in Beirut to do the job; an arduous process, she claims. In order to maintain the integrity of her designs, Abi-Hanna is on top of manufacturing, pun intended. "Whatever I can, I do myself, such as leather jewelry, and then hand over the rest to the manufacturer. There is a lot of back and forth between the artisans and myself. I have to be there during the manufacturing process. They [the craftsmen] typically don't work this way. It's a tough job".

Ghita Abi-Hanna at her studio. 

A tough job indeed, but it's one that Abi-Hanna thoroughly enjoys if for no other reason than serendipity. During the production process, both Abi-Hanna and her craftsmen discover new layouts for her original pieces, often by mistake. "A lot of things do not turn out perfectly, and no two pieces will be exactly the same. I embrace it. Imperfections are good. This is the beauty of locally produced goods," Abi-Hanna states proudly.

Craftsmen and artisans have been around in Lebanon for centuries. Indeed the Lebanese, or Phoenicians in early Lebanese civilizations, were better known as merchants and tradespeople. However, evidence of artisanship in Beirut is hard to miss, from local jewelers in the Armenian district of Bourj Hammoud to soap making in Tripoli, North Lebanon. The significance of artisanship when it comes to Lebanese soap, and the history of its production, traces back to the hammam, or public baths, culture.

The Made in Lebanon debate is fairly nascent, yet Abi-Hanna tells me there is already much controversy surrounding it. The tag is not well regarded amongst its own people, mainly because of quality production shortcomings, generally-speaking. High quality craftsmanship is not adequately utilized. Not to mention the classic Lebanese mentality that fashion coming from Europe and America is better. Although local designers, including Abi-Hanna, are pushing the Made in Lebanon agenda, they are aware of the struggling quality at the bottom. It is an obstacle Abi-Hanna feels confident can be overcome if the local design collective pull in their weight. Need we remind you how meticulous Abi-Hanna is with her artisan team? Nada Debs, a known furniture designer making waves both in Lebanon and abroad, is another such champion for Made in Lebanon. Like Abi-Hanna, and the massive Diaspora of Lebanese people, Debs' training and career started outside of Lebanon. Both designers join the very same migratory wave back to Lebanon now that it's slowly re-instating it's Age d'Or, and have currently set up shop in Lebanon. They refuse to produce their work elsewhere. It's a royal pain of a process, but it's one they are charging through in order to set an example in Lebanon. Other groups such as L'Artisan du Liban, a non-governmental organization, aim to sustain Lebanese heritage and handicrafts, and to help preserve traditional methods of work.

There are implications beyond quality that are reflected in the controversy of locally produced design wear. The notion behind fashion and trends is now being challenged head on. Abi-Hanna, for one, is anti-trend. So much so that she purposefully goes against the grain when she conceives of ideas for her collection. How does she sustain her business in a country so transfixed with the fashion gospel of Paris, Milan, New York and London? The answer is simply that it self sustains, and is well received from neighbours with deep pockets and a newfound lust for the out-of-the-ordinary. Gulf countrymen now appreciate the detail and story that go into local design. "Ladies of the Gulf already have everything, all the latest trends and the biggest brands that come from Europe. They seek originality, and they go looking for it in Lebanon. They enjoy the process of coming to Lebanon to buy local design. So if you open a store in Kuwait and Dubai, it doesn't necessarily mean it will sell over there." Lebanese clientele are trailing behind, but not by far. Women in Lebanon will carry their Louis Vuitton and their Chanel purses, but will also invest in one piece that is locally made. Abi-Hanna is firm in her belief that the thought and work she puts into accessories and handbags will speak for itself.

As far as Abi-Hanna's collections go, she's got two to boast about and one on the way. Both her collections, A/W 2011 and S/S 2011, were showcased at Starch, a boutique-cum-design incubator, located in Beirut's trendy (go figure!) Saifi Village. Abi-Hanna, straight out of university, was one of six designers to showcase their handiwork at Starch as part of a seasonal rotation of designer crop.

The Travel Case (L). 

Now on her own, Abi-Hanna, continues to blaze the trail with an upcoming collection, which she will unveil as an independent designer. Willing to satisfy my insatiable questions on her upcoming collection, only slightly, she revealed that we can expect an evolution of her previous concepts and a clue: things are sometimes born by mistake. Do we have Made in Lebanon production glitches to thank? Time will tell.


Marghertia accessories and handbags can be found on: http://www.margheritah.com/

Interested buyers can place orders with Ghita Abi-Hanna directly via telephone or e-mail. Abi-Hanna is currently working on setting up an eCommerce website, which will launch in at the end of January. Stay tuned on her website.  

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