(Daily Star, The (Beirut, Lebanon) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Aug. 14--BEIRUT -- A London-based website has become one of the most indispensable platforms for young Lebanese designers to build an international audience for their budding fashion brands. Dozens of local names -- from the ornate dressmaker Kirkor Jabotian to Mira Hayek's sporty womenswear -- have added their profiles among some 16,000 brands on Not Just a Label, arguably the world's most influential website for contemporary fashion.
"For young designers, it's the best platform in the world," said Lara Khoury, the first local brand to sell on NJAL.
In the old days, or the '80s, Lebanese fashion designers started locally, usually expanded to the Gulf and then looked to European or U.S. markets. But now, with online startups like NJAL and the explosion of fashion retail sites, young brands are finding international exposure at lightning speed.
Lebanese brands, most less than a decade old, are spread across retail sites, each receiving millions of clicks each month: notjustalabel.com, Polyvore.com, Farfetch.com, Avenue32.com, and Colette.fr.
NJAL accounts for about 30 percent of Khoury's sales, and the international platform has provided more than funds to grow her young women's brand, she said.
Khoury's avant-garde women's clothing -- voluminous floor-length skirts made from layers of tulle, loose geometric T-shirts and conceptual inspirations -- make her pret-a-porter a difficult sell back home.
"My work is not really targeted to Lebanese," she said. "Not Just a Label showed me that my work could be sold easily abroad. They opened my eyes to a new business strategy, to an online shop."
Thanks to that online shop, the brand Lara Khoury has sold in China, the United States, Canada, Colombia, Brazil, "even in Africa," Khoury said.
NJAL's concept focuses mostly on providing its ever-growing roster of designers a place to showcase themselves but not necessarily sell.
Only two (including Khoury) of the dozens of Lebanese designers featured on NJAL actually sell directly through the site.
Accordingly, the site has a pretty hands-off approach when it comes to inventory. Khoury, for example, ships orders coming from NJAL on her own from Lebanon. It's a system that works for small brands that produce in small quantities or upon order, she said.
There are other international retail sites that have given Lebanese designers more reach. Nathalie Trad, a bag designer known for her solid, nature-inspired clutches, has seen rapid success a little more than a year since she launched her first collection of purses in April 2013.
Trad, who is based in Dubai, now sells in dozens of boutiques across the Middle East, as well as in India, Europe and the U.S. Two of her house-name retailers, however, are online: Farfetch and Avenue32.
Farfetch, globally one of the top fashion retail startups, operates by putting online the merchandise of over 300 independent boutiques. Trad's bags found their way on the site through the traditional brick and mortar store Fivestory in New York.
"For Farfetch, it was through the store Fivestory in New York that they were on the site," Trad told The Daily Star. The exposure from global platforms like Farfetch and Avenue32 has been great for expanding her clientele.
"It allows us to be more international and cater to different tastes," she said. Through trusted websites that ship worldwide, Trad also has a way to reach interested buyers in locations far from her boutique carriers. "We can direct them to Farfetch and Avenue32."
The same goes for Vanina, a Lebanese accessories brand that started in up-cycled jewelry. Vanina sells in more than 70 boutiques worldwide, but sometimes it's easier to direct a client to one of their big online retailers like Luisaviaroma.com and Colette.fr.
"Every day of the week we get contacted by people from places where we don't have resellers or they're on the road," said Joanne Hayek, who founded the brand alongside friend Tatiana Fayad.
It's not all about expanding West. Vanina's biggest market is in Japan, where the brand sells in eight boutiques and online through Faila, a shop available through the Rakuten.com.jp marketplace.
International exposure comes from more than the main designer page, Hayek said.
A website will also promote a brand across their social media accounts to sometimes thousands if not millions of its own followers.
"Definitely through our accounts with Colette and with our other online partners, they market it through their social media and it's instantaneous exposure. You seem you're a part of it, it's very powerful," she said. "It's not our main marketing tool, but it's something that we can't not embrace."
For Trad, it was an Instagram shoutout by Saudi boutique chain D*NA that launched her own path to success, she said. "Online has played a huge role in raising awareness," Trad said. "There's no way it [her success] would have been the same."
In the past two years, Lebanon has also seen a blossoming of its own online retail startups focused on promoting local and regional design. The most successful, Mooda.com, is a part of the Diwanee beauty and lifestyle sites founded by Lebanese entrepreneur Delphine Edde; they receive more than 5 million unique visitors monthly.
As the site has grown, so has the reach of its featured brands, most of which are young Lebanese clothing, jewelry and accessory designers. Mooda.com or NJAL's endorsement has afforded designers without the funds to run their own storefronts a place to sell and build a following.
"Online there's not as many costs. You don't have the rent, the electricity, the water," Khoury said.
And for Khoury, online retailers have made it possible to work in her home country while making clothes targeting a more adventurous set.
"I can target whoever I want my customer to be and I never forget my roots," she said.
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