Spotlight: Salim Azzam

Lebanese designer and one of Fashion Trust Arabia 2019 winners.

Spotlight: Salim Azzam
Nasri Atallah

Lebanese designer Salim Azzam sits on the terrace of his atelier in Symkanieh, a town in the Chouf district of Mount Lebanon, when YUNG catches up with him. The 2019 Fashion Trust Arabia Award winner discussed his connection to his roots, the land, the women of his community and what the future holds in a country facing a constant crisis.


Nasri Atallah: Oh wow, your background is so much nicer than mine!

Salim Azzam: I was going to tell you, I’m on the terrace at the atelier, so if you hear chickens and cockerels in the background, just ignore them.

How’s life?

Life is good. I’m happy. Any time the season changes, I get excited. I like to come up with new things, so changing the weather gets me excited. Especially spring. We have new things coming. I know Beirut can be exhausting, but I’m very grateful for what I have, being in this cocoon away from the hustle and bustle.

I wonder though, because the creative community is so clustered in a few areas of Beirut, professionally, what motivated you to set up your atelier so far from where other things are happening?

Listen, I had no choice. I started this wanting to celebrate and revive the techniques of the women of this region. At the beginning I would split my time between Beirut and Chouf. And you know how it is in Beirut, there are no production houses, you just have to figure it out on your own. Two years in I realised I needed a system. We don’t really produce anything in Lebanon, so to go to a rural area and build a production house for luxury work, with people who haven’t done this kind of work before, I knew it would be a challenge. But I knew we’d get to an amazing place.I needed to put all the production in one place, which allowed me to flourish creatively and it gave opportunities to people in the region to work. I have so much pride in where I come from and I want to prove that we’re a mountain of possibilities and opportunities.

And you specifically champion the women in the area, right?
I grew up my entire life in the Chouf region. All my family members that succeeded from around here are those who looked around them and knew how to use the resources they found. When we moved back here in the 90s after the war, I was alone with my mom because my father was working abroad. And my mom didn’t drive, so I remember she just used everything she had around her and made the best of it. Since I was a kid I was surrounded by women who worked in crafts. There was always a woman in a corner making some sort of craft. These women saw crafts as a celebration of love and life. As a way of expression. And they made money out of it! I’ve always looked up to the women of Chouf. I’ve always looked at this project as a collective project. I was lucky to get out of this mountain, even though I love it, to see the world and how people react to the brand.

Speaking of that, where do people engage with the clothes and the brand the most outside of Lebanon?

It’s so random. Sometimes on the site we get orders from Brazil, a lot in the United States. Europe. I’m still at the stage where I’m trying to understand where my audience is. But to be able to connect with people across the world who are excited about the brand is special. We’ve sold at Matchesfashion in London, DVF invited us to exhibit in New York. I was able to take the name to different places. If we’re talking regionally, we sell a lot in the UAE and Kuwait at the moment. The dream is always to go further and be in different places.

The brand is obviously from somewhere very specific, and is telling a very specific story. But do you see your pieces fitting into global trends? Basically what I’m asking is, what’s the plan for global domination!

Look, when I started this project, I had no plan. My only intention was to jump into this journey and see where it takes me. Early on my illustrations were very nostalgic because that’s what I knew. And when I started meeting people I started to understand I could translate my personal story into a global story. Now the collections have themes that speak about different things, and the original themes are in our classics collection. Now my collections are still personal – and they make you think about where they come from – but they leave room for people to connect to them. It’s a learning process. I don’t think ‘how am I going to make it?’, I just believe I have a unique point of view in terms of where I come from. And I believe the best way to go global is to be authentic and true to where you come from while being smart and adaptable. I’m doing it slowly and it’s working!

So of course I want to ask about the financial crisis, which beyond being difficult on a personal level I’m sure for you, your family and those around you, must also pose challenges as a business owner. How do you solve that?

This project is self-made. I started it with 3,000 dollars of savings from my work at Leo Burnett. And growing up in this mountain with this humble family, surrounded by people who lived simply, I always had a mindset of working with what I have. When the crisis hit, I realised I had developed a business plan so based on humans, and a collective, that we all understood that if we make it, we make it as a group and if we fail, we fail as a group. That removed a lot of pressure. It gave me sanity. It created a space for us to adapt to the situation. It’s been very difficult, still. We had to adapt. But it felt good to see the women able to provide for their households during the crisis, while a lot of their husbands hadn’t wanted them to work in the first place. We have faith in what we do. Sorry if that sounds too poetic! I have hope.

Photography Aline Deschamps