Georges Chakra initially began his studies in interior design during the Lebanese Civil War, but decided to switch to fashion design because, he says, he wanted to do something “out of the ordinary.” Studying fashion design was uncommon at the time, and Chakra says even his parents were not very accepting of his choice. It was so uncommon that there were no fashion design programs in the country back then, and Chakra moved to Toronto to continue his education, returning to Lebanon in 1985 to begin working on his brand.
Chakra says that operating during that period stretched the limits of his creativity. “You had to make do with what was present in Lebanon in terms of material and equipment because the airport was closed. But this led to designers being more innovative in their work. They had to figure out how to use the found materials in a way to make it appealing enough to sell. But we succeeded,” he recalls.
And succeed he did. In a time when social media did not exist, and traditional broadcast media (TV/radio) was unreliable due to power cuts, word of mouth was king. Chakra’s creative designs swiftly made their mark, eliciting a positive reception. “Because I studied abroad, I acquired a European style of design that appealed to the Lebanese, who also have a bit of European taste,” he says. “There was an almost instant appreciation for my work.”
While at first most of his clients were Lebanese, Chakra says he also acquired many clients from the Gulf through word of mouth from Lebanese women who would be wearing his designs while traveling through the region.
Following the war, Chakra’s business continued to grow, and he held multiple fashion shows in Lebanon. His international fame began when he participated in Paris Couture Week for the first time with his 2001-2002 collection after encouragement from his clients.
Chakra has been showcasing his collections at Paris Couture Week twice a year ever since, and made his first appearance at the Mercedes Benz Pret a Porter Week in New York in 2009 (continuing for five seasons until 2011). “Being present in such platforms benefits everything from sales to marketing because of the exposure we get from them. You’re among colleagues. You can’t be a competitor on the international scene if you’re not in these shows,” explains Chakra.
Chakra’s main atelier is in Beirut, in addition to a showroom for appointments and fittings in Paris. While he worked in Toronto as a fashion designer for two and a half years, he prefers working out of Lebanon for several reasons.
“We have convenience of services here that we don’t have abroad. It’s the little things,” he says, such as the building’s concierge carrying bags up or postal services being accommodating of the unpredictable delivery hours his atelier keeps. Chakra also enjoys the stable and mild weather in Lebanon, as well as its proximity to Europe, which makes commuting between his two work spaces easier.
While Chakra experiences some difficulties working out of Lebanon, he says he has largely learned to work around these issues. “I created my own world and [chose] the people I work with, so there aren’t too many challenges. But, for example, customs at the airport is always a hassle. They stop the crates of material we want to bring into the country and take time to process their entry, which delays our work. It’s chaotic and there are no set procedures to follow, which is a challenge as well,” he laments.
Chakra has a team of a 100 employees, around 80 of whom are tailors, and many have been with him for 20 years, that includes skilled seamstresses and embroiderers, though Chakra is saddened by the fact that nothing is being done to preserve their skills. “We have employees who have been with us for 20 years and have a lot of experience. But the challenge we and many designers are facing is that those people — who largely gained their experience through training and have no formal education — haven’t passed their skills onto their children or the younger generation,” he says.
This is because being a seamstress is not viewed as a prestigious job in Lebanon, and those who do work in this domain today envision a better future for their children, and so do not pass their skills on to them, Chakra says.
This poses a real challenge for Lebanese designers who today are hiring foreign workers to keep their work running. Chakra believes more should be done to raise awareness among underprivileged youth about this career option. “This industry should be promoted by training unemployed workers to do these jobs and make a living. There should be more awareness raised on the different jobs in an atelier and more incentives for people to take them up, but I don’t know if this should be the work of NGOs or the government,” concludes Chakra.