Rabih Kayrouz on Being the Luckiest Man in Fashion

Maison Rabih Kayrouz
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Rabih Kayrouz is seated inside a beautiful bakery in Beirut, enveloped in its yeasty-sweet aromas and warm, inviting interior. It belongs to his parents, who have been perfecting the craft of baking all of his life, but kneading dough and twisting it into beguiling shapes was not in his future. Instead, it was fabric that became Kayrouz’s medium of expression.

One of the only 17 members of the elite Chambre Syndicale De La Haute Couture, Kayrouz first cut his teeth on fashion at the tender age of 16. By escaping the war in Lebanon and finding a future in Paris, he forged a path that led to acceptance as an official member of the couture establishment – one of only two Arab designers to have achieved this highly specific designation. It could’ve gone to his head. In a region where the idea of fashion was either restricted to very traditional garb or high-glamour red carpet design, Kayrouz stood leagues apart. He quietly created his own corner of the market, establishing dual businesses in Paris and Beirut.

The connection between the two cities is not lost on him. In fact, they are as integral to his story as yeast is to proofing dough, considering the influence of these sister cities yields fashion as beautiful and satisfying as it gets. You see, Kayrouz is not only forging his identity in a couture world steeped in Western standards, but also creating ready-to-wear collections of a caliber that his peers simply can’t touch. How exactly? Here’s what he had to say. 

You have such a distinct voice from what is typically perceived to be Lebanese design. What would you say are the pillars of your house?
When I started my work, I didn’t say, ‘I want to be different.’ I always prefer simplicity. I was never attracted by any décor. Looking at architecture, for instance, I was always attracted by the form, not the facade. Obviously, all that mattered to me was construction when I first went to Paris to start my business.

Meanwhile, I had two models in mind: Yves Saint Laurent and Yohji Yamamoto. They are the most important architects of fashion. What is important in Yves Saint Laurent’s work is the silhouette and the woman. And with Yohji, it was the attitude and the construction. When I started to work, 20 years ago, I was young and didn’t have that important know-how, so doing simple things is what started it all for me. I’m in love with women – I love their strength, and I’d hate to turn them into an object.

Women of all ages and sizes look so elegant in your clothes, so fully themselves. You were ahead of the curve when it came to the concept of inclusivity. Is that something you intentionally tried to do?
I only follow my intuition. I don’t follow fashion fads, and I hate trends. I love women, and I love clothes. That is the difference. I prefer to call myself ‘contemporary’, or to talk about women and their attitudes instead. I am trying to express myself and the world around me. Lifestyles have changed nowadays, and I am not here to impose one silhouette on one woman.

My fantasy is to give something that all people of all proportions will feel good in, as if they’re opening a present or receiving a flower. I always try my clothes on different body shapes to make sure my collections feel good on everyone. This is the couture feel I want to bring to my ready-to-wear. It must always be thoughtful. If things are done from a good heart, they will be beautiful.

If things are done from a good heart, they will be beautiful.

As such a creative mind, do you ever find it difficult to grapple with the fact that, at the end of the day, fashion is a business and you have to sell in order to sustain?
There are no rules in fashion. Yes, you have to follow some commercial rules, like presenting four collections a year at the right time and planning collections that can be commercially sold. But they are not disadvantages for me. I keep my creativity intact. I respect the commercial rules and I respect my clients. I also respect myself, and I do what I feel like doing creatively.

I love that you stay so true to yourself and your vision. I think the type of clients you attract are women who also stay true to themselves.
Yes, exactly, my clients love clothes and quality. It doesn’t matter how old she is – she can be 16 or 60. She is not a sheep, she is not a follower.

What is really surprising is that you’ve been doing this for 20 years. Let’s talk about your formative years and how you overcame challenges in growing your company.
The challenges are every day. Since I started my business, I didn’t have this golden age where everything was easy and the money was flowing. I started my business when there were crises all the time. I’ve been born into that. I’ve always been in survival mode. As a fashion designer, I was an entrepreneur as well, so I had to be very creative and run a business at the same time. I had more than 20 people around who I had to pay salaries to every month. I felt that pressure. I had to be able to sustain my business consistently. That is the real challenge.

I always told myself that I didn’t arrive here by pure coincidence. I arrived here because I deserve it, I worked hard for it, and I will continue. It’s not enough if I am successful in the press. I had some really challenging moments, and I was lucky to be supported by my team, my clients, and suppliers. Suddenly, I had partners coming in who were putting money in the company, and I had good management. Now I have a general manager who not only respects my freedom and creativity, but also gives me so much help with running the company. Otherwise, I was really lucky to be accepted by the press when I arrived in Paris. I think I’m a lucky person in general. Good things are happening.

I noticed that you just relocated to a beautiful new atelier. Did the relocation intentionally coincide with your 20-year anniversary?
Yes. I am grateful to the last 20 years, but I am celebrating the next 20 years. That is why we’ve opened a new atelier now. This is my new home, with everything under one roof. I have a 19th century palace! I cannot believe it was available or accessible to me. I am happy to celebrate my 20th anniversary in a new place.

How did you find it? It really is a remarkable space.
I was telling you a few minutes earlier that I am a lucky person, and this is the only way I can answer your question. For a year, I was looking for a place where I can have the atelier, couture, and ready-to-wear under one roof. I wasn’t able to find a place. Prices were too high. Suddenly, I found this place because I had a friend living there and, when she called me six months ago, she said she was leaving this place.

When people live somewhere, I don’t think, ‘Oh, I would love to live in this place too.’ So when she was leaving, I never thought, ‘I should take that place.’ Suddenly, I had an exhibition there in December and the place was empty – without her, without her beautiful furniture in it. It was blank. That’s when I thought, ‘Oh my god, I can see myself here.’ I said that to the person curating the exhibition, who happens to be the cousin of the owner, and she agreed. So she called her cousin, and we signed a week later. The owner was such an elegant and chic person who kept the palace so beautifully preserved that I did not even need to clean nor renovate anything. It was absolutely perfect.

I am so happy to have this place, they didn’t even ask for too much money. I was lucky. Everything I have done has happened this way. Even when I opened my atelier in Paris, somebody told me about the place and I went there, and I was able to sign as quickly. I won’t say that everything is written and everything is prepared. I have had lots of happy things and lots of sad things happen to me. But when the worst things happened to me, I would think, ‘Let it be a strength for me, and not a bad lesson. Let me continue, let me go forward.’

Do you think everything happens for a reason?
Yes, of course. You have to have faith. Earlier, I found a place that I loved but wasn’t able to get, and then I am moving into the most beautiful place in Beirut a few months later – one that is even better than I had dreamed.

It seems like destiny that you would end up there.
Yes, and I am saying that with a lot of humility. It’s really amazing.

You have an atelier in Paris as well. Is it hard to divide your attention?
Yes, because Paris is a much bigger operation. That is where my studio and ateliers that make my haute couture pieces are. The studio is where my collection development happens, and where my commercial showroom is.

It’s really interesting, the connection between Paris and Beirut. In the 1970s, they called Beirut ‘the Paris of the Middle East’. You are a representative of both cities that are like twin flames.
It’s so important to me, this combination of the two – the two worlds, the two cultures. I was in prep school in Lebanon, and we always spoke French and had French books. This is what makes us Lebanese, we are a mix of two cultures. We have the sea in front of us and the desert behind us. It is our way. We’re lucky to have the right balance when we accept the two. I cannot live the whole time in Lebanon nor Paris. I’m lucky to be able to move between them when I want or need to.

It really is the best of both worlds. I am struck that you started this journey when you were 16 years old. How did you find the bravery to do that? 
The war in Lebanon helped me to do so because I was unable to go to school. I told my parents that I wanted to leave for Paris. They accepted that, and my father had cousins living in Paris who I was able to live with. I was so happy to live in Paris, to do what I’ve always wanted to do. It was sad to leave my family, but at the same time, I was very happy on a personal level.

I’d speak to my parents every night and be sad to be alone, but I was also happy to be on my own. It was something beautiful and exciting. I was suddenly discovering this amazing city. During this new chapter of my life, I discovered who I was while walking in Paris, seeing its people wearing beautiful clothes, visiting museums and libraries. It was all so different for me. I did not grow up like that; I lived in a rural village in Lebanon. In Paris, there was inspiration everywhere. I grew beautifully doing this.

Photo: Courtesy of Rabih Kayrouz

You show during Paris Haute Couture Week, but you don’t show couture collections, although you have been made an official member of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. Why is that? 
Actually, to clarify, I show both. We show it as a ready-to-wear collection, but my know-how and techniques are couture. During the show, 50 percent of the pieces are special haute couture pieces, technically, and the rest are commercial ready-to-wear.

I like to mix them because, for me, this is my contemporary way to look at the business. I have built a couture house that feels like ready-to-wear because while the clothes are so simple to wear, they are made to couture standards. I want everyone to wear my clothes. I don’t see it as two separate worlds. My way is more modern.

So you’re breaking the rules in a really exciting way. No one else is mixing ready-to-wear and couture, and you’re not even giving couture designation to pieces created to couture standards. That’s radical.
You’re right, but it can be confusing so I should be saying it more, explaining it better. I am lucky to say it to you, to have a journalist talking about it. We should proclaim it!

What are the requirements to become an official member of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture? What did you go through to get there?
I worked for ten years in Paris, and my major investment was towards that goal. I developed a beautiful atelier in Paris, where almost all of my people – the seamstresses and tailors who work with me – had graduated from couture school. When you apply for membership, they don’t accept you based on the price of your clothes.

No, they accept you because of the technical perfection and skill it takes. I had to meet every requirement. They visited and saw the know-how of my atelier, and we were accepted because the quality is there. The skill is there. It’s not fashion people just voting for it, but people from the Ministry and the arts community.

How did it feel to be recognized by such a prestigious institution?
It’s very moving. It was a dream for my team as well. This label is for them as well because it’s their work and their know-how that is being emphasized – so the celebration was for all of us. It’s a beautiful validation of my 20 years of work.

Arabs are now working in the fashion industry because it is acceptable – this is what is beautiful.

You are always giving back and elevating the people around you – you’ve worked with the Alba Fashion School and helped start the Starch Foundation. What do you offer as a mentor to young designers? What kind of help do you give them?
I love the craft and, when I love something, I want to talk about it, I want to share it. I love to teach, but I’m also learning from my students. I go and share, but they give me a fresh perspective – a new and innocent way of looking at things. I share with them my experience, but I see it as an exchange. It is beautiful. I will share with them my suppliers, my friends, and fellow designers, along with other things that can actually help them. I’m not selfish because it’s good for my friends and then it becomes good for the supplier.

I believe in competition, but this is exactly why I want to be surrounded by good people. I worked in Lebanon for ten years, but I didn’t see one young designer coming out of Lebanon during that time. That is why I wanted to help them, to give them a push – let’s stand up and help them. It is beautiful to see a movement grow. It’s not a monologue, it’s a dialogue.

The Middle East fashion industry has been undergoing a lot of changes, and you’ve contributed significantly to the reshaping of that conversation. Twenty years later, what is your opinion of the industry?
Twenty years is a long time. We didn’t have a fashion industry when I started. Communication has changed a lot because of social media. You can now spread your message in a matter of seconds via Instagram. When I started, we had two magazines in Lebanon, no internet, no e-mail. And there were only five Lebanese designers in the region. 

Now you have Bahraini designers, Kuwaiti designers, Saudi designers. It’s beautiful to see. Everyone is much more open. Families now encourage their children to study fashion, to see it as a career. Arabs are now working in the fashion industry because it is acceptable – this is what is beautiful. 

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