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November 23, 2017
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Looks from Lebanese designer Nadine Mneimneh's "Definition" collection. Photography by Johanne Issa.

Conflict and creativity coexist in Lebanon; a country plagued with political instability and an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. The recent Syrian civil war has meant an influx of refugees have spilled over the border, and financial resources are tight as a result. Those to suffer most have been the cultural institutions, with the fashion industry failing to rank highly among national concerns.

Despite this, local designers have kept on working. "Since we've had to put up with the war for as long as I can remember, we always look for possible solutions to problems," muses independent designer Krikor Jabotian when speaking with The Genteel. It would seem that those living in the Middle East are capable of demonstrating exceptional resilience and an ability to remain proactive despite facing otherwise unimaginable obstacles. For many years, through innovative methods, they have still managed to build their businesses alongside the discordant turmoil of war and violence.

Krikor Jabotian's design from his F/W2013 collection, titled "Closure". Source: krikorjabotian.com.
Krikor Jabotian's design from his F/W 2013
 "Closure" collection. Source: krikorjabotian.com.

In order to preserve their business during the last decade of the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990), well-known designers such as Elie Saab and Rabih Kayrouz chose to move their ateliers to safer places outside the Middle East, relocating primarily to Paris.

Meanwhile, in more recent times, the ongoing civil war in neighbouring Syria has meant communicating with clients has become problematic. As Jabotian explains, "Whenever there is political instability, the Gulf Countries' governments do not advise their citizens to visit Lebanon. It is illegal for Lebanese businesses to [have] relations with countries which [they] were at war with."

As such, Lebanese designers have found themselves turning to the digital world for answers instead. "We contact our clients by making announcements via social media and e-mails stating that we will be in a certain city during a certain period of time, and arrange back-to-back meetings with them. In some cases we meet our clients in their country for their fittings," notes Jabotian.

If Lebanese designers want to stay in business, then it would seem neighbouring countries such as Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Jordan are central to their survival strategy. The advantage for Lebanese designers, explains designer Nadine Mneimneh to The Genteel, "is that they are neighbours with the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries, [which are] major fashion enthusiasts. This is why there are still fashion houses in Beirut, who are thriving thanks to their Kuwaiti, Emirati and Saudi clients."

To help promote and sustain their business, some Lebanese designers have also exhibited their collections in receptions abroad and dressed top celebrity names for international events. Elie Saab's collections have been worn by high-profile actresses such as Angelina Jolie, Milla Jovovich and Bérénice Bejo at the Academy Awards, and by Beyoncé at the Golden Globe Awards. Meanwhile, fashion designer Zuhair Murad has dressed Jennifer Lopez and Kristen Stewart numerous times; Ella Zahlan's creations have been seen on Fergie and Nicki Minaj.

Related: Beirut Design Week: Version 1.0

In many respects, moving business abroad has seemed like the only viable option. There is a certain sense of hope and success for designers leaving their home land for Europe and the United States. After all, in the last five turbulent years, market conditions for young designers in Beirut have not seen any positive change. However, focusing on this as a survival strategy would mean overlooking the positive developments that are occurring within the fashion industry in Lebanon. For example, there are many events happening under the name of Beirut Fashion Week. Jabotian notes that this is not officially financed by the government as a cultural initiative, as is the case with other fashion weeks. Yet it does certainly offer local designers a platform when presenting their collections.

The fashion industry in Lebanon would seem to be in dire need of a face lift [...] private investors and large corporations offer the best chance of financial support at the moment. The results would be worthwhile though.

Similarly, many high-paying private clients commission bespoke couture gowns, which can become lucrative work. As The Daily Star reported in January 2013 after speaking to a local designer, "a couture dress that costs around $3,000 to make could sell for around $10,000 - making the potential profits of couture very tempting." To a certain extent though, even these solutions present themselves as complex problems.

As Jabotian confirms, the demand for haute couture evening and wedding gowns is predominant in Beirut. Yet the Lebanese focus on couture has "caused a certain kind of negligence towards ready-to-wear. Our technical know-how is more specific to couture designs (i.e. artisanal work) since we don't have the right means and machinery for mass-produced or RTW designs," explains Jabotian. "Probably that's why most Lebanese designers end up having couture-like RTW collections while very few of them with non-couture-like designs outsource their production."

Also offering solutions to the complex problems faced by Lebanese designers are projects such as the STARCH organisation, which was founded in 2008 by Rabih Kayrouz and aims to give emerging talents in Beirut fair visibility. It is a non-profit platform that offers four to six young designers the opportunity to showcase and promote their collections in rotation each year. Krikor Jabotian's career took off from STARCH; he was part of the first group that showcased their designs at the STARCH boutique in Saifi Village, downtown Beirut.

Jabotian's creative maturity over the years is evident. In his previous collection "Chapter I", he chose white as the colour representing purity and a new beginning; voluminous dresses with accentuated waists were decorated with minimal embroidery. However, his recent haute couture Bridal 2013/14 collection, entitled "Closure", is addressed to a modern and sophisticated bride looking to attract attention. Besides the classic white, Jabotian used beige and gold colours matched with feathers and lace in his luxurious designs. In any one dress, he enhances different fabrics, shapes and lengths.

Related: Is Made in Lebanon Growing at the Seams?

Nadine Mneimneh, who was born and raised in Paris and pursued a degree in business administration at the American University of Beirut, also launched her own ready-to-wear label with the help of STARCH foundation in 2010. Mneimneh is actually one of the few young designers specialising in the ready-to-wear segment in Beirut. Through the use of refined menswear, dark colour fabrics, as well as basic shapes cut in linen and wool, she gives her collections a minimal and comfortable style.

Krikor Jabotian's design from his F/W 2013 "Closure" collection. Source: krikorjabotian.com.
Krikor Jabotian's design from his F/W 2013
"Closure" collection. Source: krikorjabotian.com.

Being a designer in Lebanon is not easy and it also means constantly renewing one's inspirations. Nadine Mneimneh concludes with a sense of disappointment: "Sadly the market is invaded by commercial trends and ladies are copying each other. I [would] love to see more experimental looks on the streets, or people expressing their individuality. Social media [is] worsening the phenomena, with hordes of "fashionistas" wearing the same outfits, and posting alike pictures on Facebook and Instagram. Fashion is getting shallower by the day, and style is just fading away."

The fashion industry in Lebanon would seem to be in dire need of a face lift. For young, emerging designers it is a hard path, and more institutional support and funding would definitely facilitate in accomplishing their goals quicker. Beirut is a port city, which makes it a medium between East and West. Its geographic position is advantageous to becoming a regional fashion hub - and this potential should be harboured further.

The Beirut fashion industry is also in need of sufficient investment and support, which could start with an official Beirut Fashion Week. Of course, at the current time, the government focus is predominantly upon establishing political stability. As such, private investors and large corporations offer the best chance of financial support at the moment. The results would be worthwhile though.

On a national level, such investment would bolster a nascent sector with employment opportunities and would allow home-grown talent to better meet market demand for haute couture, as well as develop a wide selection of ready-to-wear collections. Ultimately though, a prominent fashion scene would also attract retailers and fashion enthusiasts beyond the Gulf Cooperation Council, bringing back the long-lost clientele that once flocked to Lebanon in order to splurge on couture and clothing.

Related: Bathtub Break in Beirut

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