In 1982, Abed Mahfouz starting working with his sister designing evening gowns and got his first taste of creating his own designs that way. In 1995, he decided to branch out with his own brand.
While Mahfouz initially showcased his collections locally through fashions shows at venues such as the Al Bustan Hotel in Broummana, or the Phoenicia Hotel Beirut, his first international appearance was in Milan in 2000.
Following the fashion show in Milan, Mahfouz approached the then president of AltaRoma, Fashion Week Rome, to display his collection with them. “I went alone with no appointment or support from anyone, but I convinced him with my passion and promise of commitment to AltaRoma,” recalls Mahfouz, explaining that before him it was not very common for Lebanese fashion designers to participate in AltaRoma, so the then president was reluctant at first.
However, Mahfouz quickly proved himself in Rome and developed a strong presence in the eternal city. “I chose Rome because I felt valued there, and I built a name for myself. I did the best fashion shows of my career there,” he says.
After 15 years of shows in Rome, and two years in Paris afterwards, Mahfouz pulled out of AltaRoma and decided to concentrate his efforts on Lebanon and the region, returning to Beirut in 2015.
Even while showcasing his work in Rome, Mahfouz’s atelier has always been in Lebanon, which he says is perceived as a prestigious location for fashion production by the Gulf, where the majority of his clients hail from. “Our clients brag among their friends when they have their dresses done in Lebanon. Lebanese designers are dressing celebrities and influencers, and this has a big effect on the way they are perceived regionally and internationally,” Mahfouz says.
In trying to explain this allure of Lebanese designers, especially in the region, Mahfouz starts with what he calls their good taste and creativity. “In the region, and because of this boom in Lebanese fashion designers, they are now the trendsetters, and we can see their influence on the fashion industry in general. This is because of their good taste, but also because of the quality of their work and their creativity in developing modern designs, which the region appreciates,” he says.
The region is indeed appreciative of Lebanese designers, while European designers have only recently woke up to the lucrative potential of clients from the Gulf and begun catering their designs to their tastes, according to Mahfouz. “Previously, Europeans were not very strong in embroidery and the style of design preferred by the Gulf. But if you look at the world today those that buy the most luxury products are from the Gulf, China, or Russia. So the European designers are now catering to the Gulf market; for example Dolce & Gabbana is making abayas and Valentino is designing higher necklines to serve this part of the world which has a high purchasing power. Meanwhile, the Lebanese designers already have a touch of that style in their designs,” he elaborates.
Another aspect which differentiates Lebanese fashion designers from their European counterparts, according to Mahfouz, is the quality of service they provide to couture clients. “When you go to an atelier of a fashion designer in Lebanon, it’s unlike the service you get anywhere else in the world. When a woman pays a large amount for a couture dress, she’s also buying the service of dressmaking, and she wants to feel pampered and catered to as an individual,” elaborates Mahfouz.
Despite the advantages Mahfouz cites for working in Lebanon, and the level of comfort and familiarity he enjoys in his home country, he believes the political instabilities of the past five years have negatively impacted his business.
Since his workshop is in Downtown Beirut, it was in close proximity to the 2013 Starco bombing, in addition to numerous demonstrations and sit-ins. This not only hindered Mahfouz’s access to his work; his atelier also suffered from material damage when the 2013 assassination of ex-finance minister Mohamad Chatah occurred directly below it.
Lebanese fashion designers, they are now the trendsetters, and we can see their influence on the fashion industry in general
The decrease in touristic activity during the last six years also put a strain on Mahfouz’s availability to his clients from the Gulf. “When the Arabs used to come here it was much easier and faster to design for them. Instead of the three days it takes to finish a dress when they are here, it takes me three weeks when I go visit them as there is a lot of back and forth, not to mention additional expenses,” says Mahfouz, explaining that demand for couture dresses decreased by 80 percent because of this.
As a result, Mahfouz has downsized his team of 120 employees to 45 and says he is taking over a large number of tasks himself. He continues to focus on his couture and bridal lines, but says that his ready-to-wear line is more financially accessible and widespread (being available in points of sale in the United States and Europe), and therefore brings in more revenues and helps him stay afloat during this period.