Storyteller Salim Azzam connects the people and memories of his village to the outside world through design.
Growing up in the small village of Bater in Mount Lebanon, Salim Azzam was surrounded by women who used embroidery as a form of expression. In his own words, he describes the experience as being “surrounded by stories.”
After the Lebanese civil war and the ensuing economic strain, the demand for embroidery dwindled. The beautiful craft of the village suffered, and what was once the bread and butter of this talented community of women soon became an outdated tradition.
Azzam left Bater for Canada, where he studied visual communication design. There, he realized he wanted to find a way to use design to make a change. For his master’s thesis, he returned to his native village to collaborate with 10 low-literacy elders. Together, they developed these women’s stories into comic book strip-style visual narratives. “Because of the civil war […], most of my relatives have low literacy. So I said: ‘Let’s draw your stories.'”
Azzam has taken the memories of his village and childhood, from the romantic story of the bride Em Atef — who rode to her wedding on a white horse — to the ritual of collecting delicate herbs that Azzam’s mother describes as “the language of the land,” and turned them into colorful embroidered motifs on white blouses and dresses. The blouses are paired with full skirts in navy and black reminiscent of the dark skirts local village women wear or with cropped navy pants.
Azzam currently runs his own workshop in Shouf, documenting more rural tales and sharing them with the world through fashion lines. His brand supports products made fully in the mountains, from tailoring to embroidery.
“Our main objective is job creation and empowerment of the women of these villages. It has been most humbling to see how our brand has not only empowered these women financially but has also seen them reclaim their voice, channeling it to the outside world. The people of Mount Lebanon are a minority who live humbly and close to nature. Our illustrations and the themes of our collections tell the stories of how we live and grow as one community.”
Embroidery is a traditional local craft, and Azzam carefully selects the women of Shouf who produce the finest, most precise needlework to stitch the embroidery for his collection.
The continuity of this craft is so much more than just a stable source of revenue. It represents our heritage and our identity, from the type of stitches used to the patterns of pieces inspired from our traditional attire
“The most exciting part of this project is working with the women. The female embroiderers — the keepers of the craft and those who have woven the fabric of our history for decades and centuries — represent the core of the brand and it is a privilege to work alongside them.”
It is clear that Azzam has a genuine bond with these women, for whom he has provided a precious platform. “Each woman who joins brings with her a story, a history, a perspective, a talent, a life’s worth of dreams. Salim Azzam is simply the vessel through which all of that is revealed, made real and tangible.”
Follow Salim Azzam on Instagram to learn more about his work.