Cynthia Chamat Debbane is a pioneer. It’s as simple as that. The self-taught designer has not only launched her own line – Urban Sense – but has taken the Lebanese fashion industry by storm thanks to her collaborative concept store Boutique Hub and her unique view on the fast-fashion scene today. Here we speak to Cynthia about being a clothing caterer, a fashion revolutionary and the politics behind her brand.
Tell us about yourself, Cynthia, and what inspired you to start your line.
I am not trained as a designer – I actually majored in Political Science and Law and worked mainly in communication consultancy. My interest in the anatomical aspects of sophisticated garment creation is thanks to my father, who was a retailer of high-fashion, Mugler, Gaultier, Beretta, etc., and then the first generation of fast-fashion brands such as Kookaï and Naf Naf. I grew up witnessing the evolution of fashion and fashion retail specifically, learning the market through my father’s own experiences.
So almost naturally I eventually found myself in retail, running a mono-brand store. One summer, the supplier decided not to send me merchandise. I could not fail my large and loyal clientele base, so with $2,000 in hand, I found a tailor, bought fabric, draped it and gave birth to Urban Sense – a serendipitous accident!
I made a rather small initial order. My then-tailor did not take me very seriously and delivered at the end of summer. The high-quality matching bottoms and tops were so functionally designed that people continued to demand more. I received and processed orders on that first summer collection until January of the next year.
All of the money I generated was reinvested into Urban Sense and Boutique Hub, which began as my brand showroom and quite organically became a consignment retailer for relatively established emerging fashion designers and an incubator for newer, promising Lebanese designers. I did not have the budget to buy products wholesale. I only had a determined vision and strong sales strategy, which the initial designers I worked with courageously trusted and helped nurture. Five years later we have over 35 local brands.
What’s the story behind your brand? What does an alternative clothing line mean and why is it important in today’s world?
What makes Urban Sense an alternative line is manifold.
My lifelong struggle with weight and my resulting marginalization by the fashion and retail industries really instigated in me a fierce desire to mold Urban Sense into a culturally and gender fluid urban wear brand inclusive of most bodies. After all, we live in a world that is growing more and more aware of different shades of nudes, varied body types and plural beauty ideals.
When I accidentally started the brand, my mother was going through the early stages of menopause. Her silhouette changed so drastically over three months that she could no longer find clothes that instantly fit her new contours. I found her body inspiring and decided to make flattering clothes around variant body shapes and types instead of concepts that bodies are forced to fit into. My creative process starts from the very specific and concrete point of the end-wearer’s body. Urban Sense Is not prêt-à-porter (ready-to-wear), but a re-visitation of it, what I like to call semi ready-to-wear that is only finished when fitted on people.
Fast-fashion is bad for the environment, bad for the pocket, bad for the economy and bad for body image, as it molds and creates unattainable standards through mass production – a dangerous boomerang effect. Urban Sense does not prioritize aesthetics as much as it attempts to ethically and transparently work around local challenges, be they socio-economic, cultural, industrial or even weather related. I work with home-grown tailors and artisans and source locally available – think carbon footprint – sustainable fabrics imported from countries with minimal confirmed labor rights such as the UK, Belgium, Italy and Japan.
I refuse to impose an aesthetic and make a statement and, as a result, I see myself more as a “clothing caterer”. How clients effortlessly make simple, minimal and humble pieces their own is what Urban Sense is about. I want to give my clients and wearers something to think about too. I like to think that I am using fashion as a spring-board to engage people in questioning their own everyday consumer choices that have far greater reach and impact than they think. To me, it is doing politics in a subtle context.
Tell us about being selected by the British Council and Fashion Revolution as one of seven ambassadors?
I do not focus enough on media and even forget to archive press coverage and interviews most of the time – now I have a great team to remind me! I get more hyped-up engaging with everyday people, mentally impacting one person at a time, rather than getting the attention of influencers or being featured in magazines.
What really gets me excited is being acknowledged and recognized by activists, academics, media and institutions that engage and contextualize the socio-political impacts of fashion – like when Reina Lewis, Professor of Cultural Studies (London College of Fashion) dug me up all the way from the UK three years ago. Along with two renowned pioneers of the Lebanese fashion scene, Sarah’s Bags and Johnny Farah, I was invited to take part in her Faith and Fashion Talks series as a speaker. This is the kind of credibility and discussion that really matters to me.
Being chosen as one of seven global sustainable fashion ambassadors – what an honor! Fashion Revolution today represents one of the biggest authorities on sustainability in fashion and is among the most active NGOs holding the global fashion industry accountable – think about their Who Made My Clothes? a famous campaign. To be acknowledged by such an impactful organization really reinforces what I do – it moves me and inspires me to continue my work. I must be doing something right!
The idea of a concept shop has spread wide, but Boutique Hub stands out. Tell us more.
Boutique Hub is not a concept store per se. I always envisioned Boutique Hub more as an experiential store where everyone is actively involved, from designers and artisans, to the sales team, customers and supporters. The experience we offer transcends the usual concept store’s main concern for aesthetically “putting together” and showcasing variant products from different design genres. Boutique Hub. “brings together”. It is a living space where people meet and synergize – there is a lot of two-way communication going on. Specialized and grounded in Lebanese fashion, we work communally as a meeting point and supportive space for established designers and an incubator for up-and-coming ones. We are also active experts in bodies and fitting, which is not what concept stores are really known for. In the event that we begin to include other forms of Lebanese design and become more of a concept store, we would only take in products that we could provide advice and expertise on.
How do you choose the designers that showcase alongside your work at Boutique Hub?
I only work with Lebanese designers that are operational and work in Lebanon, benefiting the local economy. If they produce outside of Lebanon, they must have strong justification as to why. I also choose them according to the quality and originality of their work and my clientele’s need. I categorically dismiss copycats and people who work with copycats. I also dismiss designers that do not have a strong sense of collaboration or do not try to belong to the community that we collectively form.
I work on exclusivity of style and design so that I reinforce each and every brand. As an active retailer, I identify market gaps and hence needs, and share this information with relevant designers so that they can better direct and manage their product and work. A more active industry and collective industry benefits us all. Healthy competition is good.
What do you think each one of us can do at home to make a difference?
Open your closet, go through your wardrobe and make a selection of items that you wear and appreciate. Donate the rest. Before heading out to shop, make sure you absolutely need more clothing and accessories – or whatever else you want to purchase. Try to honestly justify to yourself why you need to buy something new. Next, go to your locally made, family-owned businesses and try to buy from them even though they may be more expensive. If tempted to buy cheaper, mass-produced items, make sure to remember that when you pay peanuts it is because someone down the supply chain has not been paid decently or at all. We like smart and conscious consumers. I would rather lose a sale rather than a client.
Anything we should know?
I am committed to #YourLocalNinjas. Have you read the pledge (https://bit.ly/2MHOPgQ)? Take it. Share it. Spread it. Live it.