Tailors’ benches, each with a built-in sewing machine, line the wall of a long room in the Beirut Souks, in addition to tower shelves packed with rolls of fabric in a variety of vibrant hues. At Creative Space Beirut clients can select a piece of cloth, and then watch as a tailor begins to cut and sew a custom-made garment.
A new addition to the Souks, Creative Space Beirut, a nongovernmental organization founded in 2011, runs a free three-year fashion program for underprivileged students. Its presence in the Souks is part of a new initiative called Khan Al Joukh, which is bringing together local designers and artisans to create links to the city’s pre-war past.
Prior to Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, which devastated the city and took more than 120,000 lives between 1975 and 1990, Beirut’s lively souks were the heart of the city. Rich and poor alike wandered the narrow alleyways where local tailors plied their trade and small shops hawked fresh flowers, household items, vegetables, food, clothes and jewelry.
After the war, the reconstruction of downtown Beirut was entrusted to the Lebanese Company for the Development and Reconstruction of Beirut Central District — a controversial public-private joint-stock company known as Solidere — which expropriated the land, offering shop owners shares in the company in exchange for their property rights. Beginning in 1994, Solidere demolished vast swathes of the war-damaged medieval souks, leveling the land with bulldozers.
Where the old souks used to stand, a new project began to take shape. The Beirut Souks opened in 2009, housed in a new multistory building filled with corridors of shops supposedly mimicking the layout of the traditional souks. Although each section was named for one of the pre-war souks, the $300 million project was stripped almost entirely of local context. A vast shopping mall, it houses international high street brands such as Zara and H&M, along with high-end designers including Emporio Armani and Louis Vuitton, and attracts a wealthy elite.
Launched Nov. 24, Khan Al Joukh marks a new direction in Solidere’s vision for the Beirut Souks. Occupying seven empty spaces in the area known as the Gold Souk, home to high-end jewelry shops, the new project brings together local designers and artisans who have been offered rent-free spaces in which to work and sell their designs for a period of one to two years.
“We worked on the concept of the khan as a place for exchange and trade. Before the war there used to be a street in Beirut called Souk Al Joukh with tailors and embroiderers, so we wanted to initiate a modern approach toward the idea of the souk and the khan where you generate a kind of community interaction,” one of the organizers of the project told Al-Monitor, asking not to be identified as she does not have permission to speak to the press. “The idea was to create a fashion and textile destination where there are not only boutiques but also ateliers and workshops.”
Chrystele Karam, one of the designers invited to take part in Khan Al Joukh, sees the new initiative as a link to the past. “Things are made in front of you and that was an aspect of the souks that was lost when the mall was created,” she told Al-Monitor. “Things are more alive now. It is giving a new aspect to the Souks and I think it is very good for Solidere and also for the collective memory of people who used to love Beirut for its old souks. Now they can see that coming back.”
Trained as an architect, Karam is the founder of Blocksfinj, a company selling modular furnishings made entirely of foam, produced locally in a factory owned by her family. Cut into blocks with curved or straight edges, it can be moved and connected like building blocks to create chairs, sofas and other furnishings for home and office spaces.
Next door are the two spaces occupied by Creative Space Beirut, which moved to the Souks from a small space in Mar Mikhael. The students attend lectures and work on their designs in one of the spaces, while the other houses the fabric store, workspace for tailors and a boutique selling Creative Space Beirut’s in-house fashion brands, which help to fund their education program.
“Our main goal is to provide free creative education … but we also really believe in ethical fashion and we realize that we are operating in an industry that is extremely unethical,” said outreach manager Karina Gourlodava. She told Al-Monitor, “Our tailors receive living wages and ethical working conditions, which a lot of tailors in Lebanon and other countries do not have, so people see this ethical production before they get to the shop and see the clothes.”
Also taking part in Khan Al Joukh is STARCH, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to promoting young Lebanese fashion designers through an annual rotation providing support for four to six designers developing their debut collections. Their new boutique, STARCHed, sells locally made clothing and jewelry designed by 12 alumni of the program.
At Studio 2, Stephanie Nehme runs Lebanon’s first textile pattern design studio, while Sahar Hafda creates handmade jewelry and home decor objects out of recycled paper. Nearby, Gray Gardens is a nursery selling house plants that come in custom-made pots.
The final space is occupied by Salim Azzam, an illustrator and storyteller who is selling white blouses and shirts embroidered with his designs by local Lebanese women. His collaboration is intended to highlight the value of a traditional skill that is in danger of disappearing.
A week after the launch party for the new project, Karam said Khan Al Joukh is attracting a new crowd, among them people who want to support local talent. Like Souk el Tayeb, the popular farmer’s market that enlivens the Souks each Saturday, she noted the project is helping to bring back some of the atmosphere and liveliness of the pre-war souks.
“A lot of people do not like Solidere because of what happened after the war and how they took over the Beirut Central District, and I am one of these people,” she said. “I am sad that the identity of Beirut was a bit lost with the intervention of Solidere but I’m very happy that they are trying their best to fix the image. I think this is a very good initiative and I hope that they will push it further. … It is the first time we really feel it is giving back.”