Lebanese designers have achieved international recognition in the world of haute couture and high-end prêt-a-porter, in part due to their remarkable ability to drape their dazzling gowns on the world’s most photographed celebrities. Designers like Elie Saab, Reem Acra, Abed Mahfouz, Robert Abi Nader, George Chakra and George Hobeika, have dazzled the world with their Middle Eastern flair.
When Jennifer Lopez stepped onto the red carpet at the 68thAnnual Golden Globe Awards in 2011 in a white silk chiffon gown from Zuhair Murad’s Ready-to-Wear Spring 2011 Collection, fashion writers would never again forget the designer’s name.
When just a 15-year-old boy from Baalbeck, Murad got his big break by accepting an invitation from the Camera Nazionale in Rome to present his collections during Alta Moda Week in 1995. Scroll forward 16 years and it’s commonplace to see both established celebrities and newcomers to the spotlight floating down red carpets in his bountiful designs.
Zuhair Murad Communications Manager Andree Zovighian explained to Executive what it takes to get a dress into a celebrity’s wardrobe. “It is enough that she likes the style, the cut, the tailoring and, very importantly, the service we provide by delivering the dress wherever she is and by meeting her deadlines,” he said.
A relationship must develop with the celebrities or with their stylists “where we exchange styling ideas about the dress to be worn like any other client of ours,” added Zovighian. Though local celebrities don’t get as much press coverage as international stars, like Beyonce and Jennifer Lopez, Zuhair Murad still decorates singers like Najwa Karam and Haifa Wehbe with his designs.
Lebanese designer Reem Acra, based in New York since 1996, is well known for her intricate embroideries and peerless fabric blending. She says that dealing with celebrities is neither simple nor easy, as the dresses carry a certain connotation and shouldn’t end up on the wrong “symbolic” mannequin. “We know who we want to dress and who we don’t want to dress,” Acra said. Celebrities who Acra has dressed, like Selena Gomez, Taylor Swift, Angelina Jolie and Halle Berry, “appeal to the brand” and therefore can represent it well.
For Abed Mahfouz, who has been presenting his collections at Rome International Fashion Week since 2003, dressing stars like Natasha Bedingfield, Michelle Alves, Jessica White and Irina Shayk is not only a complicated process but sometimes also requires an extra monetary incentive. “The celebrity’s stylist decides what she will be wearing at the end of the day,” he said.
Beirut’s edgy fashion sense
Back on home turf some designers in Lebanon complain of an unsupportive state.
“In Lebanon, we are incapable of even organizing a united Lebanese Fashion Week,” said Mahfouz. In other major fashion cities, according to the designer, fashion weeks are regulated by national and international standards, but in Beirut, though there are numerous small independent ventures, a concerted official event is lacking.
Efforts had been made to prepare Beirut’s Fashion Week under the patronage of the Lebanese government of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. “Following [Hariri’s] assassination, no one brought it up,” said Mahfouz, adding that the fashion syndicate in Lebanon was “ineffective”.
“Lebanon’s internationally known fashion designers don’t really care anymore about presenting their collection in Lebanon when they have the opportunity to show them in cities like Rome or New York,” he said.
However, Mahfouz still has faith in Lebanese fashion and considers Beirut the third fashion city in the world after Paris and Rome. “If you take into consideration demographic indicators, Beirut is the fashion capital of the Middle East,” he said, especially given the lack of full-fledged designers in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
A select clientele
Lebanon’s reputation may make it a loadstar in the Middle Eastern design world, but for the most part Lebanese fashion designers’ sales come from abroad. Mahmoud Hamwi, general manager of Zuhair Murad, said his client base was predominantly international, with major markets being China and Japan as well as the United States, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Mahfouz’s clientele remains largely from the Gulf, but markets such as the United Kingdom and Russia are also taking interest in his designs.
However, catering for international markets has its downsides. The global financial crisis dealt a serious blow to consumer spending in GCC countries. A 2009 report from Booz & Company, the global consultancy firm, states that consumers made “fewer shopping trips, [bought] more items on sale, and [put] off purchases of luxuries or other material goods that [required] large cash outlays.”
Mahfouz said that fewer women are travelling from the Gulf to Lebanon to shop. To keep their customers, his group is now hiring field delegates as a direct way of marketing new collections to clients hesitant to come to Lebanon.
Renting dresses is also increasing in the GCC, as is using cheaper alternatives to top-end brands. But Mahfouz says this is placing the exclusivity of luxury in peril. “You can’t get the same quality with less investment in the quality of fabrics,” he said, adding that the problem was exacerbated by the number of new fashion designers, which “are hazardously increasing,” pushing up supply. “Some aren’t quality seekers,” he said.
Recent years have not offered a clement climate for regional fashion markets. The ‘Arab Spring’ has cut into regional fashion sales, according to Mahfouz, adding that Lebanon failed to capitalize on the regional troubles. “If we had secured stability in the country, people would have fled to Lebanon, and we would have profited from tourism and more shopping,” he said.
However, Murad — who relies less heavily on the Gulf market than Mahfouz — found that spreading his net wider made for a less bumpy ride during the economic downturn. Murad said that their Midde East and North Africa region revenues were only “slightly” affected in 2008. Afterwards, business picked up and now the company is aggressively expanding, seeing around 23 percent growth in 2010.
“The couture world has a life of its own and has always survived economic crises,” Zovighian said. “Wealthy clients have not been affected by the last one and will always buy their luxury pieces. We are still receiving requests from clients all over the world interested in buying dresses for big events and weddings.”
Reem Acra, who caters mainly to the American market, found away to bypass some of the effects of the dampening economy by widening her expansion and selling points worldwide. Still, she said: “If anyone tells you that they haven’t been affected, they would be lying.”