What is it like to live in a pressure cooker? If you want a real answer to that question, you might want to ask someone from Lebanon. Although it is one of the Middle East’s most beautiful countries – after all, Beirut was known as the “Paris of the Middle East” in the 1970s – it has also been ravaged by war for decades. In a recent interview with Savoir Flair, the Lebanese television personality and documentarian Diala Makki spoke to the rise of Lebanese fashion designers by remarking on Elie Saab’s self-made status, saying, “He grew up during the war, but he was the first one to open the platform for Arab designers and gave them the hope that they could have global success even coming from the Middle East. He actually made it, even though he didn’t come from a rich background.” Considered from that angle, it makes sense that the world’s leading red-carpet couturiers would all happen to hail from the same country; a path of peace exists in contributing beauty to the world. Beyond their shared heritage, these designers are tied together by a common thread: their creations are magically spun from glittering embroidery and embellishment.
Elie Saab, the spiritual grandfather of this new generation of Lebanese designers, was the first to break out when Halle Berry wore one of his couture gowns to the 74th Academy Awards in 2002. Since then, his fame has opened doors for other designers like Georges Hobeika, Zuhair Murad, Reem Acra, Rabih Kayrouz, and Jean Louis Sabaji. Although they all represent the category of feminine eveningwear, they each have their own unique aesthetic and story to bring to the table.
Read on below to get to know the six astonishing designers who are responsible for putting Lebanon’s fashion scene on the map.
Georges Hobeika opened his first atelier in Beirut over 20 years ago, but it wasn’t until ten years later that he was officially recognized by the fashion establishment when he was invited to start showing his collections at Paris Fashion Week. For the past two decades, Hobeika’s exquisite creations have been worn by a long list of celebrity clients, including A-listers like Jennifer Lopez, Emmy Rossum, and Marion Cotillard. The designer, whose mother was a seamstress in Beirut, was eventually forced to leave his home during the Lebanese civil war. This led him to move to Paris, where he began interning at various ateliers, including Chanel. Later, the country he was forced to flee from would eventually become the epicenter of his empire. Now, at the height of his power, Hobeika has four lines: Georges Hobeika Couture, Georges Hobeika Bridal, Georges Hobeika Signature, and GH by Georges Hobeika.
In an interview with Savoir Flair, Zuhair Murad shared what conditions gave rise to the Lebanese fashion scene as it exists today, stating, “The fusion of a cosmopolitan European know-how and a rich Middle Eastern cultural heritage are ever present within the lifestyle here. But, most importantly, elegance is a Lebanese lifestyle. Everybody is into fashion and on trend and women are beautiful and so stylish, so it comes as no surprise that every season my collections celebrate feminine beauty.” This is a fact that Murad tapped into early; he started sketching dresses at the age of ten. A few short years into launching his fashion career, he was embraced by the Italian industry, thereby earning the nickname “King of Italian Catwalks”.
Although Murad insists that all the women in the world are his ambassadors, the truth is it’s the world’s most glamorous A-listers who flock to his atelier for their red-carpet appearances. Although some designers from the region choose to relocate after “making it”, Murad has stayed firmly rooted in Lebanese soil with headquarters in Beirut. It seems in the past few years that his name has been everywhere, but that isn’t to suggest he doesn’t deserve the attention. As the skilled designer behind some of the most beautiful clothes in the world, it’s no wonder he has been hand-picked by women like Sofia Vergara and Jennifer Lopez to design looks for their most important moments.
Although the remarkable Reem Acra is from Lebanon, her parents sent her to New York City when was 21 so that she could study fashion design at the Fashion Institute of Technology. With no friends or support system around her, NYC became her proving ground, and she succeeded beyond her own wildest imaginations. After mounting her first fashion show ever in just ten days, Acra was confident in her chosen path. This confidence led her to root herself in New York City, where she would not only establish her brand identity, but also become one of the most respected bridal designers on the New York Fashion Week calendar. Although she launched her career in the bridal category, she later expanded into eveningwear in 2003 and ready-to-wear in 2008. She may be based in New York City now, but she has always stayed close to her home city of Beirut, where she owns two homes, and continues to acknowledge the influence of the region in her work. In an interview with Agence France-Presse, she once declared, “When I am designing, I have to think about the woman in Saint Tropez, I have to think of the Chinese woman, and I have to think of the Middle East all in one dress. My woman is not of a particular age. I erase her age in my mind.” When she isn’t designing, you can catch her on television on the show Fashion Star on Dubai One as the judge who helps guide the careers of young, emerging Middle Eastern designers.
For his entire life, Rabih Kayrouz has existed between Paris and Beirut, a fact that translates into his gorgeous collections, which fuse Arabic style codes with haute couture and modern design techniques. At the unbelievably young age of 16, he fled the strife of civil war in Lebanon and went to Paris to study at the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne. Later, he returned to Beirut where he was embraced as the designer of choice by regional royalty and celebrities. Although he has flown somewhat under the radar, he has also grabbed the attention of some of the industry’s leading media personalities and was invited to become a correspondent for the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture in 2009. While couture is in his DNA, Kayrouz was able to advance his brand further by launching a ready-to-wear line in 2012. He has also been instrumental in helping emerging Lebanese designers launch their brands by initiating the Starch Foundation – an incubation program that helps shape and promote the work of young designers.
Jean Louis Sabaji
Although the luxurious output of Lebanon’s glamorous designers is well established, one newcomer is changing the haute-couture codes of the country. Jean Louis Sabaji, regarded by many as the “Alexander McQueen of the Middle East”, has proven in a short period of time to be Lebanon’s most forward-thinking designer. His avant-garde collections are a jaw-dropping blend of sculpture, architecture, art, and fashion, with vibrant 3-D elements that create show-stopping looks. While Sabaji began working in fashion in order to follow in his father’s footsteps (who was a designer to the Saudi royal family), he forged his own unique design identity early on – one that continues to evolve and defy the status quo. He earned his degree in fashion design in Milan, but his atelier is set up in Beirut. While he is of the emerging class of Lebanese couturiers, Sabaji is also one of the most promising talents to emerge from the region in years.
Elie Saab is – without a doubt – the single most important Lebanese designer in the history of the country, but he also happens to be one of the world’s most sought-after red-carpet designers. As we mentioned in the introduction, Saab was the first designer from Lebanon to reach international acclaim, and he has been careful to give back to the country that shaped him every chance he gets. He was a self-taught sewer as a child, which later led to him developing his natural talents in Paris. By the age of 18, he had a full atelier established in Beirut, which employed 15 people. His craftsmanship and keen eye for detail helped support his growing fame, but in 2002 his world turned upside-down when Halle Berry selected his couture gown to wear to the Oscars. For the past 16 years, Saab has been the name in red-carpet design, although lately we’ve noticed that he’s been transitioning toward more wearable, youthful looks in order to accommodate a growing millennial fan base. Saab has earned every ounce of the respect that has been given to him – both as a person and as a pioneering designer – and, without him, Lebanon may never have been discovered as the hotbed of fashion innovation that it is today.
Promo Photo: Courtesy of Rémi Procureur