Born into a household of architects, Nour Najem first chose to pursue her studies in medicine at the American University of Beirut. Her true passion; however, lay in more creative pursuits. She left to study fashion design at ESMOD Beirut, graduating in 2012. She interned at several big design houses, including Elie Saab and Rabih Keyrouz, and launched her eponymous clothing line in 2013. In December 2014, Nour was selected by STARCH Foundation—a non-profit organization in Lebanon—to showcase her designs. It was also the year she launched, Kenzah, a social enterprise that runs in parallel to her fashion line and works towards female empowerment. An undeniable talent with an uncompromising focus, I sit down to find out more about the woman behind the label.
What strikes one first about Nour’s creations is how different they are to the cookie-cutter, Lebanese design aesthetic. No form-fitting clothes, no heavy beading and embroidery, clean and fluid lines. I ask her how she describes her brand and the first two words that come to mind are “free and independent”. The description is just as much rooted in Nour’s childhood as it is in the physical designs. “I grew up in a Lebanese household but without a really oriental upbringing. Designing clothes is a way for me to discover my oriental [Lebanese] identity”. Consequently, Nour refuses to place her brand in a box, choosing instead a shifting, label-free identity that allows her the freedom of self-discovery. When it comes to the designs, Nour insists on having comfortable clothing that women can live in. For her, quality, accessibility, and uniqueness are key elements to luxury fashion.
Each one of her collections is inspired by women and their journeys of self-discovery. To date, Nour has debuted three. The first collection, Light of Light, draws on the interplay of light and dark, their yin and yang, visualizing women whose light shines from within, embracing and becoming light in the process. The second, Nafas: Breathings of the soul, searches for the simplicity in the elementary breath, its rhythm that is often lost in the rush and tension of every day life, visualizing women in control of their reality and breathing consciousness. Her Fall/Winter 2016-2017 collection, Zaman : Tale of Time is focused on the Orient’s lost cultural heritage, following a nostalgia for patterns and designs that makeup the fabric of the region, and creating a collection for women who make history. Nour admits that the first two collections were about “discovering Lebanon” but that is no longer the case. “It’s not about nostalgia but identity”, she says. The phrase is repeated several times in the interview as a quasi mantra. “Lebanon today has a certain lightness of being despite the drama that one may face. There is a contrast there; a conflict that is inspiring”. The lightness, she explains, is an everyday occurrence. “You know Kundera’s novel [The Unbearable Lightness of Being]? You can feel that in Beirut. A woman bringing down a wicker basket for the shopkeeper next door to fill up. Things like that make up Beirut’s identity and that’s what inspires me”.
Nour’s designs unmistakably reflect her desire to understand her cultural heritage, showcasing careful craftsmanship and an immaculate reimagining of geometrical patterns, shapes, and lines. On a deeper level, Nour is making a clear political statement. “Men have taken over the fashion industry and that means they dictate how women should dress. This also means that women who come into the industry aren’t always taken seriously. I want to redefine how women dress, giving them loose, flowing clothing they’re comfortable and not constricted in”. Another thing Nour wants to give women is empowerment. She does this through her social enterprise, Kenzah, which she founded in 2014. “I was inspired by a class I took at university. I knew I wanted my line to have a strong social engagement aspect, so Kenzah was a natural step”. As for the name? “The word itself has two meanings in Arabic. It is the sweater your grandmother knits you but also means treasure- the play on words is beautiful and represents what I’m trying to do [empower women] very well”.
Kenzah works with women from underprivileged backgrounds, whose husbands either do not work or do not allow them to work. These women often find themselves in difficult situations, looking to support their households but unable to find suitable work to do so. Nour wants Kenzah to be an opportunity for these women to gain skills and add value to her brand, paying them directly to sew fabrics and patterns together, which she later incorporates in her clothing. “Most women can’t read or write, so I send them videos and pictures of myself sewing so they can get a better idea on what to do”. She finds a unique beauty in the mode of production and chain of events that characterize the women’s involvement in her brand. “It’s like the women of Kenzah live vicariously through the clothes they make. They’re meticulously creating the armor that other women can wear when they conquer the world”. She cannot contain her smile while saying this. The experience of working with these women has been just as much a learning one for her as it is for them. “These are women that live in Beirut, two or three neighborhoods away from me, but I didn’t really know their stories. They are incredibly strong, incredibly proud of the work they do, and always stress how grateful they are for the opportunities they’ve received. It’s been a wonderful lesson in broadening perspectives”.
The driving force behind Nour’s work is a powerful belief in women; more specifically, what women in this part of the world can do. She is strong, ambitious, and focused, creating a line that connects, inspires, and empowers the “Middle Eastern” woman—regardless of her social background. Her love for her craft is evident in the way she speaks about it, becoming more animated and passionate with every story and recollection. As for future plans, Nour is shifting the commercial side of her business to Paris, whilst retaining the same model of production in Beirut (factories in the Lebanese capital and working with underprivileged women). The move is an economic one; however, Nour’s feet remain firmly planted in Beirut. “I think anyone can find themselves [here]”, she muses, whilst taking a sip of coffee. She pauses for a moment, then adds “My next collection is called Baraka (blessing). In a lot of things we do, like taking this first sip of coffee, we’re able to experience small moments of happiness”.
Her commitment to making luxury fashion that captures Lebanese identity, empowers women, shifts the agency of production into the hands of women, and celebrates an artistic cultural heritage is no easy feat. But Nour seems to be doing it all seamlessly.