Racil Chalhoub Talks Rock Icons, Brexit, and More

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When Racil Chalhoub zeroed in on the tuxedo silhouette, which is the basis for her eponymous label Racil, she had no idea how women would respond – in fact, she was designing purely based on her own instincts and desires. Racil launched in March of 2015 and, in less than two years, has risen quickly through the ranks to become a successful label worn by stylish influencers like Lana El Sahely, Caroline Issa, and Caroline Daur. It is currently stocked at luxury sites like Matches Fashion, Moda Operandi, and Avenue 32.

Chalhoub could not have predicted how quickly Racil would take off, but clearly her languid suiting and mix-and-match apparel possess a rare type of universal appeal. In an exclusive interview, Savoir Flair caught up with the designer after her hectic Paris Fashion Week excursion to find out what influenced her Spring/Summer 2017 collection, how Brexit could potentially affect her production, and what it takes to balance business and creativity on a daily basis.

After yet another successful outing at Paris Fashion Week, you went to Frieze London and are now back in the office, presumably playing catch-up. Have you had a moment to decompress?
You never really get a break! You finish presenting at Paris Fashion Week, and then you just want to sleep, but there are so many things happening in town that you want to go see everything. And then again, Monday morning, you hit the ground running with everything you need to follow up on from Fashion Week. Then you have to start designing next season, wait for orders to come through… there are so many things going on at the same time. You always think that things will quiet down after Fashion Week – but they don’t.

What would you consider the moment that things really started taking off for you?
I actually think this season is the first time I’ve felt that things have really come full circle. I’m not just designing collections. I also run a company, so I do everything on a 360-degree level. Some people have teams split between creative and business, but I do all of it. It is quite overwhelming and, for a while, it was very difficult to find the right balance between creativity while also being a boss, running a studio, etc. It is only now that I am starting to feel like it has come full circle.

Do you consider yourself to be a Middle Eastern designer working in London or a London designer with Middle Eastern roots?
That’s a very good question [laughs]. Sometimes, I don’t know where I’m from. I was born in Beirut, but then I lived in Paris from the age of one to 17. After that, I went back to Beirut for three years, and then moved to London to study fashion design and marketing. I then returned to Beirut and opened my concept store and, while I had my concept store, I was often between Beirut and London – but eventually shifted back to London full-time. I think of Racil as being a London-based brand with Middle Eastern roots. Because I didn’t grow up in Lebanon, I am much more influenced by the Western side of the world.

Do you feel like your Lebanese heritage ever informs your designs, or do you feel like you’re more Westernized in that regard?
I am much more Westernized in my design approach, but my Lebanese influence reflects in other things, like my values and the way I work with people.

Photo: Courtesy of Racil

You’ve found a really successful formula by tapping into such a classic silhouette. Focusing on the tuxedo, did you know that you’d be tapping such a major vein when you first started?
Not really. I always knew I wanted to have my own fashion label, and I always knew I wanted to be a designer. I tried to design a few other collections before actually landing on the tuxedo, I’d sketch and sample, but wouldn’t be happy with the end result. The tuxedo idea really changed everything because it was the first thing I designed that really spoke to me, so I decided to stick by it. I had no idea how people would react, especially because I only had 20 black pieces in my first season. But I was happy to discover so many people telling me, ‘This is exactly what I’ve been looking for. This is what I want to wear every day. This is what I want to pack when I travel. You just made things so much easier.’

I sometimes had this problem in school when teachers would give me a project that would require me to design something completely crazy, but I would do it in a way that was really wearable. One instructor even wanted to fail me, but I said, ‘You can’t fail me, I want to design clothes that are wearable. I’ll never design something I don’t want to wear.’ There are different types of designers: there are those who are creative geniuses and want to create pieces of art – which I appreciate and love – but I knew I was the kind who would create things that people see and instantly know they can wear.

You started designing around the tuxedo because that’s what you wanted to wear.
Exactly, it’s also what I couldn’t find. When I looked around for jackets to wear, everything was too stiff, too formal, or made me feel too mature. Nothing fit my lifestyle, there were no tuxedos you could take from day to evening. I wanted a versatile version, so that’s what I went for.

Because you have based your designs around your own personal style, you have emerged as a sort of style icon. Would you consider yourself to be one?
Oh no! [Laughs] No, I don’t consider that, and the idea is super flattering, but I don’t see myself that way. I see myself as a designer.

There are different types of designers: there are those who are creative geniuses and want to create pieces of art – which I appreciate and love – but I knew I was the kind who would create things that people see and instantly know they can wear.

You’re a successful, young, beautiful fashion designer with celebrity clients and a world-class product. You also attend glamorous events, go on exotic vacations, and enjoy time with famous friends. This all happened in less than two years! Is there ever a time when things feel less than perfect? Do you ever feel like you’ve got too much on your plate?
Yeah, there are so many times that are less than perfect. I am very grateful for having this life and being able to turn my dreams into a reality. I knew when I started this that I would never give up working at it. That is all part of the beautiful picture, but behind all of that is so much hard work.

There are so many times that I don’t sleep at night because I’m so anxious about how people will react to the collection, or because I’m waiting for a shipment that hasn’t arrived that could mess everything up, or because I’m stuck on inspiration and not quite sure what direction to take. There are times where you’re living to work, times where you’re desperate for a break from all of it. Despite that, it’s all part of the great adventure.

What was it like conquering the business side of what you do?
I studied fashion design and marketing at university, so I had a bit of education in it, but hands-on experience came from running a store in Beirut for eight years. I used to do the buying and merchandising for the shop, which means I was on the business side of things for that entire time. When I switched sides and became a designer, I knew what buyers wanted from a line sheet or lookbook, and that helped me shape things on the business front.

The way the retail calendar is structured, there really isn’t breathing room for designers anymore. You have to start designing the second you get done showing the collection you just finished. It’s kind of insane!
It is insane. I came back from Paris on the 6th, which was a Thursday, and then at the beginning of the following week, on Monday, my diary said, ‘Design Fall/Winter 2017’.

So you’re already in Fall/Winter 2017 mode.
I’m trying to shift from the summer to fall. I mean, I have all my books of fabric research next to me for fall/winter.

Photo: Courtesy of Racil

How do you anticipate Brexit affecting your brand and the way you conduct business?
People in the fashion industry are really worried about Brexit because London is a creative hub, but not much is actually made nor produced here. If you’re doing couture or a tailor-made suit on Savile Row, you’re fine. But if you’re actually producing ready-to-wear pieces, Brexit will affect the cost of production because of taxes and import duties.

Right now, we are based in London, but I get fabric imported from several different places in Europe, which I then send to different factories in Europe. Then I produce everything, and then import it to the UK and store it in a warehouse, where I do all of my dispatch. If I then have to pay taxes on every roll of fabric I bring in and send out, as well as production coming in and going out, everything will become extremely expensive.

Yes, that is extremely cost-prohibitive. And it seems like it may either impact your price points or force you to move operations from London. I feel like the latter will rob you of a creative environment.
Completely. I don’t want to move, but an alternative solution I’ve been considering is setting up a small logistics office just outside of the UK, let’s say on the French border, where I can easily travel to by train. I’d also work with a warehouse there, instead.

As a London designer, you’re facing potential outfall from Brexit, but as a designer in general, you’re facing something bigger with the proposed “See Now, Buy Now” retail model. Do you ever see yourself adopting that model?
Our current model works for us but, then again, “See Now, Buy Now” is mainly driven because of demand. The demand comes from things like social media, which creates an immediate want for something. So, let’s rewind a few years. Back then, you’d see something in a magazine, go to the shop, and it would actually be in stores because the magazine was advertising the look at the same time as it was coming out in shops. Now that we have Instagram, we see things when they’re on the runway, and want them straight away.

When I went to see Rabih, he was like, ‘I can see this is coming from your heart. Do it. I will help you.’ He was really sweet, and supportive.

By showing you something now, I am creating the want for it, but I am also risking not selling it to you later if I don’t sell it to you now. You’re going to see a new pair of shoes and want them now, but if I tell you that they won’t be available to purchase for six months, you’re going to be sick of them by the time they’re for sale because you’ve seen them on stylists, bloggers, and influencers for so long. Big brands that have their own freestanding stores can afford to do “See Now, Buy Now” because they’re buying stock for their shop anyway, so all they have to do is produce in advance.

For a brand like ours, we post a picture on Instagram of the new collection and get so many direct messages, like, ‘Where can I buy that jacket?’ But it won’t be out until the end of February, for instance. We are not a brand big enough to support “See Now, Buy Now” at the moment, but what we are doing is shifting our presentation, showing earlier than Fashion Week. So we’ll be showing our main season during pre-collection.

“See Now, Buy Now” is based on whatever buyers think will sell, which means they are dictating creative direction. It might serve the bottom line, but at the sacrifice of creativity.
Yes, it means everything becomes much more generic.

You often show support for other designers from the Middle East. I saw that you were in attendance at Rabih Kayrouz’s SS17 show. What was your reaction to it ?
It was amazing. It was the only time I left my showroom in Paris! It was so full of emotion. It was such a beautiful mise en scène, and half the crowd was crying. I have a lot of respect and love for Rabih because he is also the first person who pushed me. When I had the idea to launch Racil, I shared my thoughts with a couple of people, and some were not so supportive, saying things like, ‘It’s going to be such hard work, it’s such a difficult and expensive business to run.’

When I went to see Rabih, he was like, ‘I can see this is coming from your heart. Do it. I will help you.’ He was really sweet, and supportive. I’d ask him where to go for fabrics, and he said, ‘Go to Première Vision and, once you figure out the mills you want to work with, just stick with them.’ All of the little questions I had in the beginning, he was there to answer them and point me in the right direction.

Photo: Courtesy of Racil

Your designs for Spring/Summer 2017 are much more colorful than previous collections. What is the reason for this?
I love color. I live in color. My flat is colorful – I have a purple couch, a yellow painting, a bright-pink door. It’s just that when I started my designs, my first collection was an introduction to the world of ‘Le Smoking’, so that could only be explained with shades of black. Color was introduced in my second season, with sunrise blue and sunset pinks and yellow lapels. That’s when I started branching out.

How have you expanded your range over the past season?
I’ve added a couple more dresses and tops, and introduced the waistcoat and accessories like the cummerband. I’ve also introduced a T-shirt, the ‘Rock Legends on Tour’ tee. The idea behind this was, yes, I design tuxedos, but let’s be realistic – you won’t just wear that everyday. You want pieces to build around it. From a shopper’s perspective, I’ve always purchased with the idea of building a wardrobe in mind. Personally, I am always on the lookout for pieces that complete my wardrobe.

In this collection, I wanted to introduce pieces that are intended to mix-and-match with the tuxedo. The idea behind the tuxedo is that my version is quite playful. You’re meant to wear it with boyfriend jeans, as a total look, with flats, and other combinations. We’ve also added more pieces because of the ‘Rock Legends and Wives’ theme. The inspiration comes from Prince, Bowie, and Mick Jagger, and their wives, hence the dresses. All of these legends had amazing style, both on- and off-stage, which explains my ‘Backstage’ velvet robes and jackets. Their wives hung around in tuxedos and shirtdresses. I wanted to reflect that kind of gender fluidity.

The idea behind the tuxedo is that my version is quite playful. You’re meant to wear it with boyfriend jeans, as a total look, with flats, and other combinations.

Can you believe we lost Bowie and Prince in the same year? What kind of impact did their deaths have on you?
I don’t want to say that their deaths inspired me, but both passed away at the time when I was researching Spring/Summer 2017. It’s so tragic to lose them, but it also got me thinking about how much power was in their music and how important they were as style icons. I’m an 80s child, after all, so I have so many memories attached to their music.

When they passed away, all of the media outlets started circulating older images of them, which caused me to go back into their archives to appreciate their insane sense of style. I can’t think of any male artist today that has the sense of style that Bowie or Prince had. The Rolling Stones exhibition at Saatchi Gallery in London also inspired the inclusion of Mick because he was so stylish. I limited the influence to these three icons because I love odd numbers.

Who is on the Racil team? What is your support system like?
On my team, I have two press officers, one in Paris and one in London. I have a great team at my studio in London. We’re like a little family. I have a production manager, and someone else who manages the studio.

It seems like you’re thriving at a really high level. What has been the most surreal moment of your journey so far?
It was the first time I ever showed my collection, and having it be so well-received. When I launched my collection in March 2015 in Paris, I was doing everything by myself. I had no one working with me, no one on my team. I took a suite at The Westin, where I presented my collection, and sort of cold-called everybody and tried to get commercial appointments to come in. Literally the night before I showed everything, at 4 a.m., I was one minute away from taking everything down and saying, ‘I can’t do this.’ But the next day – my first press day – everyone started coming in and saying, ‘Oh, the concept is great!’ I started getting orders, and that’s when it hit me – I actually managed to do this.

Still, it is an insanely short period of time to find the level of success that you have. If I were you, I would be patting myself on the back.
I forget to, but I have friends who remind me to appreciate how far I’ve come.

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