Perched on the Mediterranean coast opposite Cyprus,Lebanon may not (to westerners) seem like an obvious spot for a fashion revolution. However, this small country with its population of just four million, challenged by civil war and unrest in neighboring nation states, has become synonymous with the rarefied world of haute couture. But then creativity and conflict are not always such surprising bedfellows…
Ten years ago, couture’s worldwide clientele was dwindling, and as art form it was largely written off as irrelevant and outdated. Yet today it’s a burgeoning market. Why? Well, for one thing, the rich got richer—but they also got younger: a whole new generation emerged with the means and the social requirements that called for couture creations.
An increasingly important hub of this creativity is Lebanon’s capital city, Beirut. Due to historical French political influence, its traditional mix of cultural influences, and its cosmopolitan outlook, it became known as a sophisticated city with the moniker, ‘the Paris of the Middle East’. It also became spiritual home to a fashion-literate Arab elite whose lifestyle demands a variety of fabulous gowns to suit the social whirl of weddings and parties.
Lebanon doesn’t do casual—‘elegant glamour’ is the required aesthetic, which invariably means something unique and bespoke, since no one wants to wear something that anyone can pull off a rack in Harrods. Haute couture guarantees that no one else will turn up in the same outfit. Typically, a client’s favorite ateliers will know them, their social circle, and their event schedule, guaranteeing that they get something different. Middle Eastern women take eveningwear very seriously in a way that’s not necessarily echoed by their more casual European counterparts; as such, the social scene is more akin to the red-carpet culture of Hollywood. This is why Lebanon’s world-class designers find patronage not only at home, but also from the stylists responsible for dressing the global A-list, stretching from royalty and politicians to stars such as Beyoncé, Rihanna, Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Lopez.
And so the likes of Georges Hobeika, Tony Yacoub, Georges Chakra and Zuhair Murad—all of whom started out in Beirut designing breathtakingly elaborate gowns for local society women—have become global players. They each do two things cleverly: they fully understand that they are competing with the traditional French fashion houses for patronage (their clients travel, therefore they are familiar with the competition), but they also have an insider’s take on what their clients want. They know that they are catering to a womanly figure and fit, and although the neckline might need to be a little more demure, they needn’t hold back on color, drape, elaborate crystalline embellishment, or even the occasional thigh-high slit. This is old-school, full-on dressing up, but the designs are anything but a throwback to yesteryear, and they more than hold their own on the international stage.
Each of these designers shows at Paris Fashion Week, where they have second ateliers in addition to their Beirut studios. There are also some breakouts—Reem Acra, purveyor of exquisitely beautiful bridal and eveningwear, was born in Beirut but studied in New York and Paris. Now based in NYC and a regular at fashion week, she has the pleasure of seeing her high-impact designs worn by the likes of Madonna. With today’s global fashion focus, it’s no surprise that we are observing a fashion revolution happening beyond the traditional fashion hubs of New York, London, Milan and Paris. Lebanese designers have, on their doorsteps, a local market with a well-established appreciation of fine fabrics and beautifully handcrafted clothes. This has served to elevate traditional skills to the pinnacle of global haute couture. Viva Beirut!