Hitting the Catwalk (fashion design in Syria)

 Syrian fashion designers are beginning to make a name for themselves in the global fashion industry, yet they continue to receive little support from local clothing manufacturers and retailers. A proposed Fashion Designers Union hopes to change that.

Photos by ESMOD

Photos by ESMOD

Syrian models hit the catwalk at Damascus’ citadel last July in a cutting edge show organised by the ESMOD Syria fashion institute. The event propelled local designers into the limelight as models flaunted avant-garde clothing ranges before the eyes of Parisian fashion critics. Yet while Syrian designers are making headway on the international fashion runway, they still struggle to find retail space in the country’s high-street shopping markets or attract the backing of local garment manufacturers.

Since ESMOD Syria, the only fashion school in Syria, was first set up in 1995 almost 300 Syrian designers have passed through its doors. Although still new to the industry, Syrian designers have won numerous awards at international fashion events such as the UNESCO Designer Awards in 2000 and the ESMOD Fashion Festival in 2002.

Foreign brands preferred

Despite success abroad, Sulafa Awad, a graduate from ESMOD and designer at Anat Design and Marketing Centre, says working as a fashion designer in Syria is difficult because local clothing manufacturers and retailers show little interest in buying new and innovative designs. “They don’t think about creating their own line of clothes,” Awad said. “They copy each other and flood the market with the same products.”

Awad said the few retailers interested in manufacturing original clothing ranges opt for French and Italian patterns rather than local designs. She said despite Syria boasting a globally recongnised textile and garments manufacturing industry, local retailers and customers insist on buying imported goods because they believe foreign clothes are always better quality. “It’s sad, but people in the West appreciate the Syrian goods that Anat designs far more than Syrians themselves,” she said.

Since the ban on clothing imports was fully lifted in 2005, George Hallak, director of ESMOD Syria, said local designers have struggled to compete with foreign retail brands because they lack the capacity to market their products. Unlike Europe and the Gulf states, Syria has few sponsors prepared to plug vast amounts of money into fashion shows and advertising campaigns.

In addition, Hallak said it is difficult for local designers to compete with foreign clothing brands because Syrian magazines tend to promote Western fashion trends, encouraging their readers to idolise foreign styles rather than local designs.

All of which forces Syrian fashion designers to travel overseas to get their work noticed. “Most of our students who graduate from the institute travel to Lebanon, Europe, the Gulf and even China and Japan,” Hallak said. “This is a great loss for Syria.”

Providing support

To help strengthen the local fashion industry, Nada al-Assad, the founder of ESMOD Syria, is working to establish a Syrian fashion designer’s union. She hopes the union will be able to provide more support to Syrian designers in terms of sponsorship and advertising so they can compete fairly against foreign brands. She is also trying to protect traditional weaving techniques such as Syrian brocade and natural silk from dying out by encouraging local fashion designers to use these unique materials in their clothing ranges. Despite their long history in the country’s textile industry, the production of these handmade fabrics is declining. “Few people know that world famous designers use textiles from Syria,” Hallak said. “These textiles need to be protected.”

Despite the challenges facing Syrian designers trying to break into the fashion industry, many are optimistic about the future. Hallak maintains the fashion industry has come a long way since ESMOD Syria first opened in 1995. Back then the institute had difficulties just trying to find professional models. Students either had to ask friends to hit the runway or else models were bought over from Beirut. Today, Syria boasts a few modelling agencies and professional models, all of whom – including the famous Syrian model Giny Esper – were trained on the catwalk by ESMOD Syria.

Manal Yazigi, a designer who won first prize at the ESMOD Syria 2008 fashion show, said whilst she plans to travel abroad to study, she will return to Syria to open up her own atelier. “Travelling is important to get more ideas and broaden your horizons,” she said. “But I come from Syria and I will return here.”

ESMOD: The world’s first fashion design school
EsmondESMOD (l’Ecole Supérieure des Arts et techniques de la Mode) is the world’s oldest fashion school, founded in France in 1841 by Alexis Lavigne, the inventor of the mannequin and the supple measuring tape. Lavigne’s teaching methods were a great secret and after he passed away his family maintained the school’s tradition by continuing to teach his methods. Starting from 1970, ESMOD created a network of schools in 14 countries across the world – among them Syria, Lebanon, UAE and Tunisia – with a method updated, revised and adapted to each culture.Driven by the belief that “expertise is one thing, but to market is another,” ESMOD formed ISEM, a business administration school specialised in fashion in 1980. Among the graduates of ESMOD are Franck Sorbier, Sébastien Meunier, Nicolas Fafiotte, Lyon Haute Couture, Fifi Chachnil, Dice Hayek and José Gayegos.

For more information log onto www.esmod.com

This article was published in Syria Today magazine

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