For some, being a fashion designer means creative expression through a reflection of the past, present, and future. Design can inspire working with local communities, identifying areas that need progress and change, and more recently, accountability in contributing to the greater good. For emerging Lebanese designer Roni Helou, these guiding principles have been part of the brand code since day one.
Helou’s slow-fashion label is proactive in its engagement of ethical business practices and hyper-aware of the impact of the industry on our planet.
“I’m an animal rights activist, human rights activist, and environmentalist. I want my brand to make a difference, to have meaning,” says Helou.
The label has grown to be a namesake brand of the Creative Space Beirut School of Design alumni, a fashion school that is part of a social enterprise with free education and job creation at the heart of its mission. The School of Design was founded in 2011 by Sarah Hermez, and her mentor Caroline Simonelli, the Lebanese-American designer and professor at Parsons The New School for Design in New York.
Helou was one of the first students to complete the three-year fashion program and was provided support through investment and brand development services from the social enterprise for two years. Today the designer has landed in boutique stores (most recently MatchesFashion), made his mark in prominent media outlets, and scooped one of the Ready-To-Wear prizes at Fashion Trust Arabia’s inaugural gala dinner in 2019, the non-profit initiative supporting designers in the Middle East & North Africa region.
The cultural diversity and complexity of his hometown Beirut inspire his work. “It’s a very personal process… I think of rebellion, strength, independence, and experimenting,” Helou explains. Such qualities are considered to be part of Lebanese DNA, a society that has proven resilient in the face of persistent turmoil. The progressive designer made regional headlines when his FW19 collection touched on a sensitive issue in Lebanon, the garbage crisis. In 2015, Lebanon’s waste management suffered further when the country’s biggest landfill was forced to close due to overcapacity.
For years the country has been producing waste more than it could handle, with an inability to effectively manage waste due to political reasons. Helou chose to stress the state of environmental concern in his collection through his campaign images, which were shot in South Lebanon’s Saida on ‘Garbage Mountain.’ His collection was made using deadstock materials, and discarded fabrics that would have gone to waste otherwise. “I want to find a way for us all to be more aware of the environment and waste,” says Helou.
Helou’s activism was supported by Creative Space Beirut School of Design, as founder Hermez believes in merging creativity with social justice. “There is so much talent in Lebanon that is wasted due to a lack of access to education,” says Hermez. “Free education is so important in order to foster the talent that exists in Lebanon and to provide creatives a space to pursue their passions with dignity, giving them a greater sense of agency and purpose. The School of Design is a three-year program providing talented individuals with free design education and alumni support.”
For many, it has become a home. I’ve been lucky enough to visit often and see this first-hand. On any day of the week, day and night, students and alumni come together in their home away from home to create devotedly.
Establishing the Creative Space Beirut School of Design gave Hermez the ability to promote inclusive design education in a competitive and elitist industry. Since its inception, the school prioritized admitting talented youth who lack the resources to pursue an education at otherwise increasingly expensive institutions. Palestinian or Syrian refugees, hopeful students from the Armenian community, or Lebanese students otherwise priced out of design and fashion programs in the region and beyond. Providing quality education is at the core of the school’s mission through a comprehensive curriculum of progressive teaching methods that cultivates an opportunity for students to break into the industry.
To nurture the Creative Space Beirut School of Design ecosystem, contributing to the growth of the school means giving back. Helou teaches design development and provides mentorship for the students. “I was one of them, and it feels great to work with the students. I believe strongly in the purpose of Creative Space, which is free quality education. We’re a family,” says Helou.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19 the fashion industry has faced a devastating hit, putting independent designers under pressure to stay afloat. In Lebanon, the talented youth and local fashion community are additionally faced with the economic downturn the country has been coping with since October 2019. Anti-government protests are continuing to fight against issues such as withdrawal restrictions from banks, limited US dollars, and fluctuating exchange rates, to name a few. “A few months ago, I was in the middle of producing deliveries for the season. I started to feel the pressure when the dollar started fluctuating with a different rate every week,” Helou explains.
But the pandemic has also led to an improvement in the path to slow-fashion. Many long-standing industry standards have begun to shift on a global scale, such as brands moving towards season-less fashion, fewer shows, and producing smaller collections.
“These are new challenges, and we’ve all been forced to re-strategize and adapt,” Helou explains. Since opening his atelier in February amidst the breakout of COVID-19 in Lebanon, the designer is now focusing on B2C, his e-commerce platform, and like most designers today, collaborations in the age of sharing.
Such measures will also encourage sales abroad, which can assist in generating fresh dollars for suppliers and reduce the pressure of production.
Despite these challenges, Helou’s brand standards persist. He has also just introduced Survivor Items, pieces from previous collections at discounted prices in an effort to reduce waste. “As an activist, I feel responsible. I care about the animals here, the land, the environment. I care about the country,” he explains. The fragile state of Lebanon remains uncertain, but Helou is hopeful and committed. “I would never leave. If I look for change, I need to be the change.”