The Status of Fashion Education in the Middle East

All eyes are on the Middle East, from the cultural, political, social, and religious matters that remain in constant global focus to its creative renaissance—where the region is firmly establishing itself as a global centre for contemporary creativity. NJAL applies a lens on the state of fashion education in the region, and assesses whether the growing number of Western institutions opening Middle Eastern outposts is actually propelling creativity or simply homogenising it. From Beirut and Istanbul to Tehran and across to Dubai—NJAL spotlights the educational opportunities available, their accessibility and what it all means for the Middle East's creative ecosystem.

Elie Saab recounts the moment he told his father that he wanted to be a fashion designer was one met with complete and utter bemusement. “Fashion design as an occupation was unfathomable because it simply didn’t exist,” says Saab in a recently televised interview with CNBC. The eldest son of a wood merchant who raised five children in a Beirut suburb has most certainly found success in a vocation that was once incomprehensible, and has been actively working to bring fashion education to Lebanon and the Middle East at large. 

In 2013, the Haute Couturier teamed up with the Lebanese American University (LAU) and the London College of Fashion (LCF) to create a new fashion degree. With a view to creating a qualification that is both relevant to Arab culture and international in scope, Saab said: "The vision behind LAU's fashion design program was to offer the region's students an education of the highest possible international standards without having to travel too far from home."

It’s a smart idea, with Saab himself noting that the daughter of every wealthy Arab magnate wants to be a fashion designer, and instead of decamping to the world’s fashion capitals—they can now access a superb fashion education, without having to cross borders. In the West, education still remains an exclusive right for the privileged classes in the broadest sense. In the Middle East, the gap between social classes and their respective access to education only seems to widen when examining the rising trend for illustrious Western institutions opening outposts in the Middle East with eye watering costs of attendance. Are these institutions really pioneering an excellent standard of education or simply franchising the global cache of their academic legacies for an easy buck?

Lindsay Miller, Managing Director at Dubai Design Distrcit (d3) says: ”All of these institutions acknowledge the cultural sensibility of the region, and tailor their curriculum in turn, and provide local talent a global platform in which to develop and showcase.” Miller also adds that, “Dubai has long been shaped by its global trading links and history, and that will continue to evolve in the educational sphere too.” It's a fair point, and the prescence of foreign institutions will mean that more research and development, and eventually pioneering advancement is rooted there. 

Yet back in Lebanon, Rayya Morcos, Creative Director of Beirut-based brand Bird on a Wire tells NJAL, “In general, it’s not that important for LAU’s fashion programme to be propped up by LCF because design as a vocation today is recognised and understood.” However, the designer goes on to say that for the prospective student, “Any kind of association with an institute such as LCF is a major incentive.” Perhaps the zeal of an internationally acclaimed fashion institute is necessary to draw interest, but are these students directly benefiting from an affiliation with the school? Though, this is a critical question shrouded by a veil of ambiguity, Morcos admits, “the institutionalisation of design in Lebanon gives the practice more credibility and in turn, educates the next generation of designers with an authentic and original design mentality.” That’s the key difference. While the heritage of design and fashion is deep rooted in the history and culture of the Middle East, it’s conception as a rarefied vocation, in the context of creativity and business is a relatively young and modern phenomenon. 

While a more modernist and global-industry-focused attention to educational fashion and design programs is an effective way to mobilise an international cadre of creatives, the question of its accessibility to the masses remains. Rayya Morcos applauds the work of Creative Space Beirut (CSB), a non-profit association dedicated in their mission to establish a free school in fashion design for talented individuals who lack the resources to pursue a degree at increasingly costly institutions of higher learning. With funding and sponsorship from industry impresarios such as Diane Von Furstenburg and Derek Lam to Parsons in NYC—CSB is able to ensure their student’s continued free education is sustained. Morcos tells NJAL that this diverse body of students are “exposed to courses such as Philosophy, advertising along with pattern cutting, and design, as well as workshops with esteemed professors and industry icons from around the world.” For Sarah Hermez who heads up CSB, it’s an aim “to make design education accessible to anyone with vision, flair and the driving impulse to create.” It shows that the Middle East is probably much more progressive than its Western counterparts in stimulating diversity in educational programs, and thereby the industry’s next generation through such projects, and it remains a critical issue of global significance. 

There are regions of the Middle East where fashion’s commercialisation as a key economic industry has been long embedded in its social value system. Turkey—the gateway to Europe and Asia is a prime example, where it has a long been a hub for manufacturing in a fashion context. Yet today, Turkey is equally as invested in renewing its face as a fashion design capital that connects the East and the West with an increasingly globalised Istanbul Fashion Week. With such a dominant legacy in manufacturing, NJAL was curious to know how its education system navigates the strict juncture that separates design and manufacturing courses. Seda Lafçi, Director at Istanbul Moda Academy (IMA) tells NJAL: “Turkey is a country that has shone through its production strength for a long time. The ready-to-wear and textile sectors in particular are locomotives of export and employment. Fashion retail has especially developed very quickly and Turkey has evolved with investments in the fashion industry in the last 20 years, and has now reached a level where it can introduce its own designs and designers to the world."

Lafçi's insightful commentary seems to suggest that it's the fashion companies themselves who have taken crucial steps to strengthen their hands in domestic and international competition, and in turn stimulate opportunities for education. The IMA Director has also observed a fervent rise in youth culture’s interest in the fashion industry at large too. In turn, it would seem that Lafçi’s attitude towards a contemporary approach to design and creativity, as well as IMA’s creative freedom as an educational institute is all facilitated by Turkey’s manufacturing strength and the economic oppourtunities that disseminate from its domination.

Yet, one look at the costs to attend LAU and a string of other institutions in the Middle East such as NYU Abu Dhabi and ESMOD Dubai seems immediately exclusionary but the increasing number of scholarships and financial aid packages are optimistic and fantastically more generous than any Western counterparts. If the arts and design industries remain vocations reserved for the privileged classes in the West, than it’s a little unfair to solely limit this conversation of fashion education in the Middle East to its social accessibility too. Perhaps, it’s equally as important to consider the fact that these vital creative skills are even available in such politically turbulent territories such as Lebanon? If NJAL has learned anything from its enduring focus on Ukraine in recent years, it’s that fashion can also be utilised as a symbol of hope in times of crisis.

For some the political uncertainty plaguing the region is enough of a reason to stay, and the availability of a design education locally gives young people the tools to stay and help build their country’s future, while still indulging their creative leanings. The Middle East’s instability and capacity for tectonic change isn’t just attractive to its compatriots either, and a recent New York Times article notes the bourgeoning trend for American students actively choosing to study and stay in the region. For these young Americans, it goes beyond simply a mission of cultural enlightenment or learning Arabic to better job prospects back home but a clear-cut commitment to cultivate careers in countries like Beirut even though America’s State Department continues to implement a travel warning to its citizens, because that’s where they envision a future that they can mould and make change. Though Lebanon has just been through a war, today it looks more like any bourgeoning, cosmopolitan city, with beach-views, a thriving cultural scene and a relative atmosphere of peace.

Elsewhere in the Middle East such as in Iran, where discontent with the government is intensely precarious—creativity continues to thrive. NJAL designer Mehara Molavi tells NJAL that its politically fraught climate has never been a massive problem for Iranian creatives, and that its restriction has actually helped propel creativity forward. On the question of whether education is readily accessible, Molavi responds with, “There are a wealth of courses covering all parts of the creative industries in Tehran, from painting to graphic design to fashion and music. Yet limitations do remain as dance as a form of art has never been institutionalised here.” Though the availability of these courses is a reality, Molavi believes that both the academic and creative system at work does not allow artists and creatives enough freedom to practice. “It needs a lot of improvement,” adds Molavi, “I mean, when you want to study art—you also want to be free enough to talk and research things but you just can’t do that here.” 

Perhaps, that’s the reason why Molavi herself chose to eschew Tehran in favour of studying design at London College of Fashion. You might think cross-cultural conceptions of the West and East are crystal clear in a globally, networked society yet Molavi’s utopian ideas of London as a promise land for unhinged creative freedom were bitterly broken by its expensive living costs. However, Molavi emphasises that London offers more than simply education, but the all-important, vocational opportunities. She adds, “to work in small and big fashion companies in London as an intern has made me a better designer.”

While that might have been a reason to decamp the Middle East a few years ago, the emergence of urban centres in the Middle East such as Dubai and its mission to relocate and root creativity is proving successful, with fashion luminaries such as Dior establishing regional headquarters at Dubai’s Design District (d3). Today, Dubai is the second-most important destination for global retailers, and initiatives like d3 are gunning to establish Dubai as a hub for both global and regional talent. Perhaps for designers similarly positioned to Molavi today, they would consider Dubai as a place to hone their design skills with the growing availability of industry experience now available, instead of eyeing up London. If d3 succeeds in its mission to create a hub fostering creativity, through a mix of commercial spaces, brand flagships, galleries, workshops and studios—then perhaps the Middle East’s mission to become a global pioneer for design will no longer be a pipedream. 

NJAL closely collaborated with d3 earlier this year to stage a landmark, three-day pre-cursor event at the Dubai Design District itself, where the digital fashion platform debuted an immersive experience pavilion to showcase the best of global, contemporary creativity over 800 square metres. The objective was to enable and catalyse creativity and indeed it did. Dubai Design District has a solid plan for a creative ecosystem that understands the blank fact that creativity cannot be cultivated without educating and nurturing the next generation of creative classes. It also seems that the UAE seems to recognise this in all its multiplicity with the recent establishment of the Dubai Design & Fashion Council (DDFC), set up by the Government of Dubai (though not the government authority on education) who have internationally and regionally benchmarked educational options in the market to assess what is missing. 

The culmination of these efforts will be the Dubai Design School, a new institution with both fashion and design degree offerings, with a commitment to international standards in education but also with a firm eye fixed on commercial stakeholders to target Dubai's pool of talent. The DDFC have reached out to the design community, and industry players to identify what their talents needs are, in order to formulate the most effective and industry-ready educational offerings in the Middle East. Nez Gebreel, CEO of DDFC notes that, “This is not currently being done because the courses or institutions just do not exist,” and the difference at play for DDFC is making an international education relevant to the Middle Eastern region, as well as welcoming the right standard of international education to Dubai in the context of design.

Following a study carried about by Teacom Investment in 2013 (d3’s parent company)—Dubai Design District (d3) was able to identify that UAE, and the Middle East at large needed a more diverse compendium of educational opportunities. The study acknowledged everything from how culture was evolving, to where the gaps and opportunities in education lay to even what parents wanted for their children’s prospective educations. Similarly, the DDFC is in the final stages of its own Workforce Planning and Design Education Study conducted with Deloitte. Though the final results remain under review, a roster of global brands landing at d3, as well as key commercial stakeholders all asked the surprising question of how they can access the talent base in the Middle East, and the answer seems to point to education. 

Dubai Design District's (d3) Managing Director, Lindsay Miller goes on to tell NJAL that: “It’s by looking at the whole value chain of the industry at large, and all of its facets and components, where we can identify where the gaps are and what the needs are in education, and in turn integrate more socio-economic diversity. It goes beyond education in the traditional sense too, it’s about creating engagement opportunities, workshops and hands-on training with different communities to catalyse creativity, and extend this to industry figures too. “ This all goes to show that the Middle East is probably and actually much more progressive than its Western counterparts in stimulating diversity in its educational output, and thereby stands in good stead to generate the industry’s next iconic creatives through such projects.

In any case, the growing availability of design programmes in the region means that creativity can be honed domestically, and in turn procure more promising visionaries with the enduring global iconicity of somebody like Saab. Yet, success can only be measured following the introduction of these programmes to identify whether there’s actually a decrease in young, creative Arabs decamping the Middle-Eastern for Western creative capitals every year, and whether a new model of education in the Middle East will change the fashion system.