Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Nawal from Depot-Vente: The guardian of the memory.

Artwork by Tarek Chemaly
One of the first things you notice about Nawal - basically the woman behind the famous Depot-Vente second hand clothing store - is how affable she is. The second thing you notice about her is how generous she is. I had a meeting with Nawal - who does have a family name but who goes by her first name to anyone who knows her or heard of her - and five minutes before she phones me I noticed her on the street recognizing her from a rare photo of her on the shop's Instagram account - there is a facebook too mind you which allows her to interact with fans and clients alike.
Nawal is certainly an extrovert who volunteers personal info, which for anyone speaking to her makes asking questions a little redundant. Several years back, Nawal was the best kept secret in town. "I was once having a drink at Demo and two girls next to me were discussing how they should go to Nawal's to buy a jacket. So I intervened and asked who is this Nawal? And of course they were speaking of me! "I am Nawal! I am Nawal" I told them". But little by little, the secret ceased to be one and she became one of the coolest women in town with an instagram account with several thousand followers, and trust me, she always answers any queries there even pointing out to the reverse: "no reservations today please" she ushers to the many people (of both genders) who drool over her vintage goods.
"I source my stuff locally and from abroad - I buy by the kilo and from dead stocks. Khabisa!" - Khabisa is the Arabic word for "mess" mind you. There are several layers to read Nawal's work. The most obvious is that she has a grown up girl and found herself with a lot of time on her hands and wished to employ it smartly. "I had bought this place for next to nothing and for a while I was renting it to students and the like, but eventually I stocked it with the second hand clothes, and bit by bit it took off. But mind you the first five years were really tough to get it going!" but of course as with anything else there are hidden meanings.
"We had two cases of deaths related to cancer in the family. My aunt and eventually my father. So for me it was a way to take the revenge on the disease on behalf of all the family. And to me, the clothes - used or of dead people - are a way of continuing that legacy. Of keeping people alive through their clothes. Because clothes are also the way we present ourselves socially. So to find a top where a woman embroidered her name or monogrammed it is very touching", that was for me, the second time I heard Nawal say the word "touching" after she found a shirt in one of her bails which had "Beyrouth, Milan, Berlin" on the tag. Her Instagram post about it said "from a stock that came from Belgium. So it was made in Beirut in the seventies and traveled around the world to end up here" - in a private correspondence over Instagram as I wondered about the shirt she replied "it's touching, isn't it?" which indicates how organic her relationship to the merchandise is.
"Many of clients come from a bourgeois background. But there is a new generation which, despite their family money, wants to wear something which is not expensive, which is unique, which cannot be found in shops and also something that has history in it. These days I get my clients to take over the pop up shop and make it their own for a weekend" - the Instagram gets flooded with reposts from friends of such clients who play dress up with Nawal's goods. "Politically, I am also on the left, so the idea of have and have-nots bothers me immensely. So offering clothes for everyone suits me well." Nawal has fast fashion items - Zara or H&M - for as little as 3000, mostly the vintage stock goes for 10,000 or 20,000 Lebanese Pounds (today's equivalent of 6,33-12,66 USD). Only leather items or rarities such as a Versus dress found in the bails fetch higher prices. But the audience laps it up, to them this is barely the price of anything they find at their peer's usual hangout stores without even mentioning the cool factor associated with a one-of-a-kind merchandise.
Nawal also gets involved with local designers. "Anyone who has interesting ideas in terms of what to do with clothing is someone I wish to support and encourage. I give them the clothes for free, but I have a simple condition - they can do whatever they want with them but the only thing is that I do not wish for the clothes to be thrown away". Celebrated Lebanese designer Rayya Morcos from the Bird On A Wire brand collaborated with Nawal for a lovely collection.
Depot-Vente as her shop is known also recycles or rather upcycles certain garments. "My house help does it for me. Very very basic items. But it's fun and it gives a new life to old items. Sometimes I fall on a pair of shoes which has a small defect and Liana Mouradian embellishes them with her personal touch. I love what she does."
Nawal's idea of beauty - not surprisingly - "is not something perfect. The more the imperfections the  more the interest" and naturally, this trickles down to her clientele and creates a new buzz and identity for a millennial generation in search of one.

Directions: At the end of Mar Mikhael el Nahr, towards Burj Hamoud, turn right in between Mandaloun and the Bank of Beirut, then take the second on your left, at the intersection you will find a garage called Auto Clinic. The store is above on the first floor, no sign. For more info call Nawal: 03200620 or Liana: 70 512 669
Please note the opening hours of Depot-Vente: Monday to Friday, 2 -8.00pm. Saturday, 12 - 5.00pm.