George Azzi and Assaad Osta are the brilliant designers behind the couture and ready-to-wear label Azzi & Osta, and what they have built is astonishingly beautiful. The incredible savoir-faire of their collections are outdone only by their mastery of art history, fashion history, and refined design. Azzi & Osta has been worn by the likes of Nadine Labaki, Queen Rania, Cardi B, Beyoncé, Kendall Jenner. They have been named rising stars of the Lebanese fashion industry by Forbes magazine, they have become darlings of the red carpet circuit.
From soaring heights, it looked like Azzi & Osta couldn’t do anything but climb even higher. However, on August 4, 2020, when a horrific explosion rocked the city of Beirut where their atelier is based, the trauma left deep psychological damage. The gorgeous new atelier they had just renovated was destroyed, and along with it, much of their new Fall/Winter 2020 Couture collection. They surveyed all that they built, and found it in tatters. Yet, George and Assadd were not done. They would not relent. In fact, they found an emotional way to tell an even deeper story of the collection through its vivid colors and optimistic beauty, by including one truly extraordinary detail.
We don’t want to give away everything up front, but in our exclusive interview with the design duo below, you will discover the meaning of true resilience and true ingenuity. When you find this detail, take a look again at the images of the collection above and be awed by what they created in the midst of devastation.
With your Fall/Winter Haute Couture collection you were responding to the pandemic and the feeling of isolation, but then the Beirut explosion happened, which added another layer to what you were doing. What impact did the explosion have on your studio, on your business, and how did you pivot to be able to release this collection?
Initially, [the collection] was a response to the pandemic and the lockdown that we all had to go through, and the need to have something positive, something beautiful, something alive to look at. You can see the collection inspires a lot of happiness, a lot of hope. It was especially about the need to go to the outside world because we were all locked in our houses. This is the idea and the theme behind the collection.
Then it made all the more sense after the explosion. Everybody was talking about the disaster that happened to the Lebanese, and we were among the people that were really affected because our atelier that we moved to very recently – that we just renovated – was 100 meters away from the port. There was nothing between the port and our atelier. The atelier was really damaged. We were in a period of mourning, but we wanted to adjust very quickly.
Honestly, this is what fashion is all about to us, creating beautiful things. And people on Instagram sent us messages, appreciating that, saying, “thank you for making something beautiful, we need it right now.” Art and fashion exist to beautify, and this is why we added more color to our collection, which was shot at de Gournay in Beirut. It’s a wallpaper brand we all love – it’s really the couture of wallpapers – and they opened a showroom here just before the pandemic. It’s a bit like us, their showroom was affected.
It’s very beautiful to see something positive come out of devastation that not only has this story told in vivid colors, but has emotion to it as well that people can connect with.
Thank you so much. In fact, what can’t be seen in the photos is that many of the pieces were damaged because of the blast. The dresses were bruised and had pieces of glass in them when we retrieved them. We decided to shoot them in the lookbook anyway.
To know that what we’re looking at when we see the lookbook is damaged designs makes it even more beautiful in my eyes.
The collection that went through exactly what we went through, what the Lebanese people went through. Some were damaged, some died unfortunately and others survived. But at the end we wanted to go ahead. We have a lot of reasons to mourn here everyday so it’s better to show some positivity.
I wanted to know more about what happened to your business. Did you open a different showroom, what kind of adjustments did you have to make?
Well, we had to move quickly. The second day we were on the ground moving our things, dealing with everything. Looking around we had to take stock of what happened, what’s left, what’s not left, and we had to find a new location.
We had lots of friends that helped us with the move so we moved quickly, and we had to set up quickly so that we could continue. The first week was chaos, honestly.
It must have been so hard to deal with the reality of the explosion in your personal lives, while ensuring your business stays alive.
I think we blacked it out. I think our coping mechanism is to keep on moving, to find solutions. That’s why we were on the ground the next day moving our things, and figuring out our new space. The buildings were really damaged. We had to clear the glass and damage before we did anything else.
Is your brand currently being produced fully in Lebanon?
Yes. Even prior to the explosion, Lebanon was undergoing an economic and political crisis, as well as social unrest. But, we had orders that still needed to go out. We were in the middle of a collection, and we needed to source fabrics so we can produce and deliver on time, and we couldn’t do the transfers because of all the regulations the central bank imposed on the banks. It’s been very difficult.
In looking at your Fall/Winter Haute Couture collection, I was so struck by how saturated it is with these brilliant references to art history like Hoogstraten, Van Gogh and Rembrandt.Who between the two of you is the art historian?
It’s both, but to be fair, Assad is more interested in the study of fashion itself. I [George] am interested in history in general and we combine them together but we are art history freaks.
How did you two meet?
We went to University together. We weren’t that close to be honest, we were regular friends..school mates. We had an opportunity to do an internship with Elie Saab for two weeks and we were so lucky it got expanded to a job and we worked there for a year and a half. We bonded there more. We became closer and we found a lot of common ground.
When did you decide to start a brand together?
After we left Elie Saab. We didn’t have time to do our own collection, but we found it interesting to collaborate. We discovered a lot of things in common, and it was fun to create together. So, we said let’s give it a try and see where we are. It made a lot of sense and we enjoyed it.
What were some of the things that you and in common initially that made you realize that you saw eye to eye.
History, art. Also, we hate the same things.
Yes, what we each bring to the table is very cohesive.
Can you talk about your recent digital presentation at Milan Fashion Week? What did that do for you guys? Did that help elevate your profile to have that presence at Milan Fashion Week?
It was an amazing opportunity, specifically after what we went through and not being able to physically present because of the pandemic. We used to present every year in Paris. When you have this kind of an opportunity to bring visibility of the brand to other people or more people to see it – especially when our slot was just before the Valentino show – it gives you more exposure.
Let’s look to the future. What are you guys working on, what are you thinking about, what are you planning to do?
We are constantly planning for our expansion. We have a lot to reveal.