BEIRUT: As a child, Salim Azzam, who is now 28 years old, used to linger beneath the trees of his village Bater-Al Chouf with a sketchbook and a pencil in his hand. While sipping tea from a cup, that does not match the pattern of its plate, and sketching down whatever experience his village allowed, the young boy grew rooted to the traditions to soon become an illustrator of people’s lives.
As he grew up, Azzam thought that the most distant place he would ever reach is Beirut, until he found himself in 2012 packing his suitcase and on his way to Canada to pursue an MA in visual communication.
“I found myself on big roads of wheat,” Azzam told Annahar. “It was in this very moment that I questioned what I’m doing here,” he added.
FROM A DESIGNER TO A STORYTELLER
His path to illustration began when the young enthusiast decided to major in Graphic Design.
“I grew up in a family that did not understand what graphic design is really about,” said Azzam. “So, I always wanted to prove to them that I can do so much in this major.”
After graduating from the Lebanese University in 2011, Azzam felt that a BA was not enough. And so, the graphic designer embarked on a new adventure to Alberta University, Canada, where he discovered his other path that this time led him into storytelling.
Beyond all challenges and the struggle of getting over the cultural shock, Azzam managed to complete his MA, which provided him with an introduction to design practices that serve the community.
“It shifted my exam practice from being a designer that does commercial work into someone who has a bit more of a purpose,” he said.
By the time he reached his second year as an MA student, Azzam started thinking of a topic for his thesis. While everyone had an idea of what to do, he had nothing in mind.
“I remember really well that I closed my eyes and thought to myself that if I want to prove to people that I can tell things without written words, why don’t I go back and interview all the elders that I know in my community?” Azzam recalled.
As scary as it felt, Azzam packed his bags once again and returned to his home country to collect people’s stories. His fear did not last long, and to his surprise, people of his village interacted and engaged with him, telling all their stories with an open heart.
“They never asked me why I was doing this or what I was majoring in,” Azzam told Annahar. “For them, I was a person transporting their stories to a much bigger world: Canada,” he added.
From that moment on, Azzam no longer remained a designer, but became an illustrator of people’s stories.
“This was when I figured out that I want to be a storyteller; it is what I love and what I want to venture in,” he said.
STORYTELLING THROUGH FASHION
Being labeled by Bater locales as a storyteller, Azzam soon adapted himself to this title.
“I bring people’s stories to life through embroidering illustrations,” he said.
The medium chosen to tell his assembled tales is fashion. For the time being, the illustrator found it as the best medium to spread stories in the fastest way possible.
“People love clothes, and I believe that there is something about fashion that creates this ‘moveable story’,” he said.
His work on clothes represents a mix of illustrations, stories, and social skills. His team consists of women from the mountains, who have embroidery skills but had had never previously been provided with a platform to present their talents.
“As a designer, I feel responsible for my community,” said Azzam. “I take any project that would allow my illustration and designs to empower someone or make a small kind of change,” he added stressing on the fact that his design practice focuses on need and not on consumption.
Starting from the basics and without even having a fashion degree, Azzam threw himself into a new world of fashion. In a short period of time, he managed to grow his brand. Noticing his success, he was offered a shop in Khan Al Jukh, the project by Solidere, in October.
“It is amazing to know that the country is giving a chance for talents like us,” said Azzam.
COLLECTION AND THEMES
Since he began working in fashion in 2016, each of his collections mirrored a unique theme.
Under each theme falls a bunch of tales. Some of his pieces carry the stories he managed to gather while listening to people during Matte nights; nights where relatives and friends gather to drink Matte, a herbal plant drank mostly in Chouf, and share their stories. Other pieces function as a reminder of one’s childhood, through reviving ancient utilities previously used by the older generation.
Stories are illustrated mostly on plain white shirts that are treated as sketchbooks.
“I’m not a fashionista; I have this plain and simple shirt that has a poetic story on it,” said Azzam.
According to the storyteller, Arabs love stories and especially those that they can relate to; and, for Azzam, it is always the story that matters most.
“It’s the story that sells the piece not the fashion aspect of it,” Azzam told Annahar. “If Salim Azzam creates a piece that is not embroidered; it never sells.”
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