Beirut is making a name for itself. Until very recently a war-ravaged city (Lebanon’s fifteen year civil war, the Israel-Hezbollah war in 2006 and further conflicts in 2008), the capital is rebuilding itself and has become known as an exciting, multi-cultural and open-minded capital. Thanks to recent economic growth, Lebanese designers are taking the world of haute couture by storm. While the likes of Christian Lacroix and Japanese avant-garde designer Yamamoto ended up bankrupt in 2009, Lebanon’s designers started to make waves. After the despair of war, the country was ready for to fight for something else. They were ready to feel proud of their country again.
Internationally renowned Zuhair Murad, Elie Saab, Georges Chakra and Georges Hobeika have all presented spectacular haute couture collections internationally. The leaders of Lebanese couture are still conquering the runways. Zuhair Murad’s collections remain enchanting, year after year. The AW11 collection is edgy – black gothic designs with metallic embroidery, baby pink dresses with edge – think of a more elegant David Koma garment and you’ve pretty much hit the nail on the head. The pieces are a lavish hyperbole, even in the world of haute couture, and this extravagance defines the established Lebanese garment-makers. And all of this has helped to inspire Lebanon’s young designers, many of whom trained under the great Elie Saab.
Unquestionably, the best-known Lebanese couturier, Saab is a name synonymous with sumptious luxury. Nine years ago Halle Berry introduced the world to Saab with her memorable Oscar gown, and since then Saab’s collections have been snapped up the world over. If there’s one argument for Beirut’s innovative style, Elie Saab is it. With each season he presents fresh ideas, a strong palette and new looks. Georges Hobeika is also among Beirut’s well-known fashion exports, and along with Saab, Chakra and Murad, focuses on elegance and sophistication. Beirut has set the bar for traditional majestic elegance and the so-called New Generation gives us its own take on elegance – with unfinished hems, conceptual designs and bold statements. London-based designer Karen Karam believes that “the older generation of designers like Elie Saab and George Chakra has really showed us that there is a way to break into the international market”.
A friend of Karam, British-born Ronald Abdala has recently set up shop in Beirut, after training under Rabih Kayrouz (another internationally recognized designer, Kayrouz spent time working in the house of Dior). Kayrouz is something of a pioneer in Lebanon, coining the term “nouvelle couture” – following suit, many designers from the new generation combine ready-to-wear with couture. Twenty-nine year old Missak Hajiavedikian also trained under Kayrouz and developed his label under Starch, which Kayrouz launched three years ago. Alongside Tala Hajjar, Kayrouz helps to promote young designers with his Starch boutique in downtown Beirut. The boutique first opened in March 2008, with four Lebanese couturiers (among them Missak Hajiavedikian) promoted by the store. The boutique provides a springboard for these young stars to develop their careers in the industry, as well as providing practical help with accounts and marketing.
Lara Khoury is one such exponent of Starch and Kayrouz’s prêt a couture trend. She, as many others from the new generation, trained under Elie Saab before setting up her own label and promoting her designs in the boutique. By distorting shapes and twisting them, she creates something very minimalist, very conceptual. Her latest collection, inspired by global warming, is now available in her own atelier in Beirut, as well as in NJAL’s online store. Starch’s 2010 designers are also innovative and exciting – Racha Abbas produces superb RTW garments focusing heavily on draping and strong fabrics. Interestingly five of the six Starch 2010 designers have all had extensive international experience – either studying abroad or growing up abroad.
Another graduate from the School of Saab and resident in Starch in 2008 was Beirut wunderkind Krikor Jabotian, who presented at Dubai’s fashion week in 2008 for the first time. His designs combine creased floating dresses meeting modern and striking eveningwear. Jabotian has his own views as to why the Lebanese fashion industry is thriving, stating; “I personally believe that the Lebanese excel in what they do due to the fact that we have been suppressed for years and years now. We learnt how to survive from the bare minimum, to act and react, produce and create art that stands out for the sake of living and showing the world what we are capable of doing.”
Young designers (they’re barely out of their teens) Georges Azzi and Assaad Osta launched their first atelier Azzi & Osta in November 2010 in Beirut after training under Saab. Saab’s legacy in Lebanon is not to be scorned at; he’s helping produce a new generation of exciting young designers – and they’re not just following in his footsteps and producing high-end gowns. Azzi & Osta’s pieces are classic with a modern edge (strong cuts and bold details) and as with Khoury, they’re not afraid to experiment with colour. Another Saab protégée is Sandra Mansour – who focuses on RTW and stresses a modern feel. She has said herself that her designs are less about the glamour (when compared with Saab) but she maintains this distinguishable elegance that the Lebanese so like to propound.
So what’s the raison d’être for this new wave of refreshing Lebanese designers? There seems to be one prevailing reason: the chaotic, diverse nature of Beirut – a country desecrated by war meant that many people travelled abroad for a while, and this open-minded disposition and ability for designers to take aspects from different countries and different cultures helps create something fresh. Mansour was brought up in Geneva, Abdala was born in London, lady of the moment Karen Karam was born in Beirut then studied in London’s Saint Martin’s, before working for Chloe, McQueen and Galliano. The amalgam of cultures the designers have experienced (Beirut itself is a hodgepodge of Europe and the Arab world) helps to generate interesting, unusual ideas.
Starch protégée Karen Karam is now based in London, but her heart is still in her home country of Beirut. She agrees with Jabotian that the past has led to the development of Lebanon’s fashion industry, and says that the most important reason for Lebanon’s success “is a sort of awakening that has happened. My parent’s generation was burdened by a war-torn country – trying to provide for their family and keep them safe was an essential daily effort. There was no time to strive in terms of arts and personal hobbies. You had no choice; you either became a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer. The reason for that was that no matter what happens in Lebanon you will always find work elsewhere in the world. When I first told my father that I wanted to become a fashion designer, I don’t think he really understood what it was. But I think with Beirut now way past its war torn time (regardless of its political situation), people have time to flourish, to think about arts, to be creative, to believe that they can create something and succeed in it. The new generation wants to create a new Lebanon – a Lebanon that they believe the previous generation messed up. There is an energy and a certain power in knowing you can create something new, you can change things.”
With Beirut’s past and present as a source of creativity and thanks to Elie Saab’s legacy, these designers are producing ideas which are modern – and will keep on coming.