BEIRUT, Jan 22 – From the catwalks of Paris and New York to the red carpets of Cannes and the Oscars, Lebanese designers are taking the couture scene by storm, pitching the glamorous side of a country long associated with violence.
For decades, Lebanon has been the fashion queen of the Middle East but with the noughties regional favourites like Georges Chakra, Zuhair Murad, Basil Soda, Rabih Kayrouz, and the man who started it all — Elie Saab — became the darlings of international runways.
Saab shot to stardom overnight in 2002 when actress Halle Berry landed an Academy Award in one of his creations, a full-skirted burgundy gown with a sheer top with strategically embroidered flowers. Today, his clientele includes a slew of A-list celebrities like Angelina Jolie, Marion Cotillard, and Beyonce.
Saab and Rabih Kayrouz are also among the few foreigners who have been admitted to France’s prestigious Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, an exclusive trade guild of top designers and fashion houses.
And despite a flagship store on Paris\’ Champs Elysees, Saab\’s heart — and work — remain faithful to Beirut.
"I always say I breathe differently in Lebanon," the designer told AFP in a recent interview at his office in downtown Beirut as he put the final touches to his latest collection ahead of Paris Haute Couture Week, which runs from January 24 to 28.
"I\’m very attached to this country," said the silver-haired Saab. "It gives me strength — the fact that my parents are from here, the light in Lebanon, even its history."
Long known as the godfather of young Lebanese designers, the 45-year-old is today upheld as an icon in his native country.
But Saab had humble beginnings: as a child, he made dresses for his sisters out of his mother\’s tablecloths and curtains.
Like many Lebanese, his childhood was marred by war and displacement. At the age of 18, he opened his first atelier at the height of Lebanon\’s devastating 1975-1990 civil war.
More than two decades later, he still entrusts Lebanese needle workers — some of whom have been with him for a quarter of a decade — with creating the gowns that grace runways and red carpets around the world.
"Lebanon can be another haute couture capital easily, with all the young talents who are already making a show worldwide," Saab said.
— \’Beirut has unique magic\’ —
A walk through some Beirut districts, largely rebuilt after the war, reflects the country\’s complex history: bullet-riddled apartment buildings and posh shopping centres sit side-by-side.
Though Lebanon\’s political woes remain far from resolved, the country has topped travel destination lists over the past year, and its sidewalk cafes are bustling with tourists and style-savvy local urbanites.
Lebanese-born, New York-based designer Reem Acra recalls her childhood in Beirut, which she says helped form her sense of style at a very young age.
Acra, a leading name in luxury bridal and evening wear, still has a dress in white guipure lace she designed in Beirut when she was just seven years old.
"Since I was five, my mother would take me to the souks to show me how to buy fabrics," Acra told AFP in a telephone interview.
"They were amazing — everything was embroidered and the organzas were exquisite," said Acra, who designed the strapless red inaugural ball gown of US Vice President Joe Biden\’s wife Jill.
"At a very young age, I understood luxury hands-on and knew how to negotiate," she added.
And while some high-end fashion names like Christian Lacroix were dealt a serious blow by the global credit crunch, business for Lebanese designers is bursting at the seams.
"Lebanese designers are very competitive for red carpet appearances because their dresses correspond to Hollywood celebrity standards: feminine, sexy, glamorous, but not provocative, not too personal," said Lydia Kamitsis, a fashion curator and writer based in France.
"Their designs are not only attractive but also wearable."
A fresh face on the fashion scene is 36-year-old Rabih Kayrouz, who trained with Dior and Chanel and has a base in Paris but still produces his dresses at his bright Beirut atelier.
"When I came back from Paris in 1995, everything was being rebuilt, and it was then that I discovered a culture which was more oriental than the Western culture where I had trained," said Kayrouz, who also runs "Starch", a non-profit organisation offering young designers free show space in Beirut.
"I was happy, so I stayed," he told AFP.
Georges Chakra, another red carpet favourite, caught major international attention when his designs appeared in the 2006 motion picture "The Devil Wears Prada" starring Meryl Streep.
Today, he regularly dresses celebrities like Tyra Banks, Carrie Underwood and Queen Latifah and showcases his collection at a private show during Paris Haute Couture Week.
"Beirut has this unique magic — when it\’s calm," said Chakra, who made headlines at the Oscars last year with British actress Helen Mirren\’s floor-length red gown with Swarovski crystal sleeves.
"And when it\’s not, it affects you. When you\’re Lebanese, you live it too," he told AFP, in reference to a bloody 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel.
But Chakra, who is also based in Beirut, insists that the growing number of star designers can offer a different image of the Middle East\’s hottest capital.
"Ten years ago, we said this \’trend\’ of Lebanese designers would die," Chakra said.
"Well, it hasn\’t yet and it doesn\’t look like it will anytime soon."