The Genteel
November 18, 2017
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Blanka Matragi (Photograph courtesy of Blanka Matragi).

In 1982, Blanka Matragi swooped down on to the streets of Beirut, an elegant bird with a shock of red hair and sparkle in her green eyes. The young fashion designer arrived from what was then Czechoslovakia to explore the creative and intellectual cradle nestled between Syria to the north and Israel to the south. She would open Haute Couture Blanka Matragi in the famous Souks shopping district, manage several ateliers in neighboring Hamra, and claim Beirut as her home.

Pret a Porter 2012 Collection
(Photograph courtesy of Blanka Matragi).

"I learned everything in Lebanon," she says of the country known to many Arabs and Christians as the fashion and business gateway into the Middle East. Beirut's cosmopolitan swagger, big personalities and resilient market not only gave her confidence, but also inspiration. Matragi guarded her post during the Civil War, and remained loyal to a thriving fashion market that was rich with style and etiquette. "Women spend a lot of time thinking about what to wear for dinner," she says, referring to the consciousness of Lebanese women who spend hours putting themselves together, resulting in an army of neatly pressed gowns and complimenting make-up heavily layered over barely noticeable plastic surgery.

Matragi's design palette for the past thirty years has retained the sense of craft she developed in Czechoslovakia from painting and glass blowing, with foreign artistic settings that speak of nature, poetry and aristocratic novelty. She carefully balances her creativity and at the same time caters to market demands for fine silk, colourful patterns and lush gems, all the while staying removed from the global trend of making cloths from cheap materials for mass consumption. She dislikes synthetics and socks in shoes. Matragi has expensive taste. Her designs can have price tags normally reserved for diamonds; for example, 1001 number, an evening dress that costs several thousands of dollars.   

Swiftness, not just courage and wit, is a defining part of her work. From within her ateliers located near American University, the fashion empress conceives of ideas within a couple of hours - fast for a perfectionist who believes that anything longer is archaic. If a client wants a wedding dress in a week, Matragi delivers. Her ritual dance begins with sketching designs from imagination, painting them on fabric, before weaving and sewing fabric into high-end dresses adored by Persian royalty - wives married to Gulf sheiks, sultans and presidents. She has designed evening gowns for the wife of the former Lebanese President, Rafiq Hariri. Her perfectly tailored dresses are favourable to the figure and fragile like butterfly wings, flow like a bride's veil and mirror her perfectionist personality.

Evening Gown Collection
(Photograph courtesy of Blanka Matragi).

Women have given Matragi far greater inspiration than the Middle East. She admires confident, strong and spontaneous women, who care about their appearance and don't fear showing their intelligence. Matragi, who is celebrated for her frankness and wit, prizes femininity - and that's why her dresses are, like women, airy and delicate. Because she believes fashion isn't age-specific, she designs dresses which all women find marvelous. Matragi is also inspired by nature and music, which give her greater perspective for women's cravings.

Matragi recently flew to the Czech Republic where Prague's Municipal Hall is archiving her collection. Since the opening of her exhibition earlier in October, on any given day, 500 people rush inside. Following the opening of her first boutique shortly thereafter, Matragi has taken a casual approach to fashion with her ready-to-wear line, contemporary and practical, inspired by Czech painter and graphic designer, Frantisek Kupka. Her new approach, using prints and patterns designed on the computer, shows her ability to keep up with new developments in the fashion industry. Despite her recent contemporary approach, Matragi stays true to her Lebanese formative years without forgetting her Czech roots. "It takes courage," says Matragi, showcasing her latest art project in the Hall, porcelain and bronze statutes of unclad women in their simplest form.

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