BEIRUT: Another year, another collection from Rabih Kayrouz. It sounds simple enough, but the past 12 months haven't provided much grist for a young Beirut-based fashion designer's mill. Fashion, like architecture, is notoriously slow to react to the immediate circumstances that surround its production. Whether ready-to-wear or couture, collections require time to design and execute. Designers respond more readily to market forces than sociopolitical realities. In Lebanon, fashion tends to reside entirely in the realm of extreme fantasy, anyway. And even if a fashion designer could muster the strength and vision to respond to a year of tragedy and frustration, would anyone really want to wear the clothes? In Kayrouz's case, the answer, surprisingly, seems to be yes.
Wars and political stalemates aren't exactly obvious sources of inspiration. Fiercely independent, Kayrouz has set himself apart from the rest of the fashion pack in Lebanon since establishing his atelier in 1997. But he posed himself an additional challenge this year without even realizing it.
After the siege of Lebanon was lifted last summer, Kayrouz could have easily responded by devoting his collection to Beirut, as Elie Saab did just weeks after the cessation of hostilities and the end of Israel's 34-day bombing campaign.
The problem, however, was that Kayrouz already dedicated last year's looks to the city where he lives and works. He couldn't really repeat himself.
He could, however, retread the same approach. He could conceptualize Beirut as a woman. He could get under her skin and into her head and try to imagine what she was thinking.
Last year, Kayrouz titled his spring-summer collection "Beirut" and prefaced his designs with a famous poem Nada Tueni wrote for the Lebanese capital, which begins with the line: "Let her be a courtesan, scholar or saint."
Each dress was named for an occasion, from "Pluie e'Etoiles a Baalbeck" to "The Chez Tante Yvonne." The color palette was all pale pink, ecru and indigo. The overall atmosphere was intensely - yet serenely - pretty. True, Kayrouz magnified contrasts to suggest that Beirut is something of a two-faced character. But in 2006, she was pulled together, even prim. Looking through the designs for 2007, it is clear that Kayrouz imagines Beirut now as a far wilder child - world weary, experienced, occasionally outrageous and possibly suffering from the symptoms of a mild hangover. It is a testament to Kayrouz's talent that he can convey all of this is an assembly of frocks.
Kayrouz was born in 1973. He was a fan of Yves Saint Laurent by the age of 10. In 1990, he left Lebanon for France and studied at the prestigious Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne. He worked at the venerable houses of Dior and Chanel.
He returned to Lebanon in 1995 for what he thought would be a brief trip. But he got ensnared in mandatory military service. Two years later, he opened an atelier. Designing wedding dresses and evening gowns, his network of clients grew. In 2004, he established Maison Rabih Kayrouz.
In truth, Kayrouz works more like an individual artist than a corporate fashion designer. He has produced a catwalk show only once, at Music Hall in the bowels of the Starco Center. Since then, he has been presenting his collection in beautiful boxes with loose-leave photographic reproductions of each dress. His interface with the public is like an artist delivering a limited edition monograph more than a designer mounting a rousing spectacle.
This year is no different, though the box that holds the details spring-summer collection is done up in eye-popping green. That's the first clue to his latest crazy color palette. Inside one finds an onslaught of fuschia, bright yellow and lawn green. The collection is titled "Waiting for Spring," and the photographs by Nadim Asfar are all shot at night, with a model posing on a circle of concrete beneath a just-budding green tree.
The dresses themselves are looser and more rambunctiously draped than last year. They are also sexier and brassier, with many exposed backs and shoulders. Beirut, this time around, is in a rather seductive state of dishabille. Kayrouz's collection reels with movement and volume. Not for nothing has he titled a gown printed in wild flowers "Majnoune Fik" ("Craze for You"), a dress with a dramatic drape at the back "The Morning After" and a saucy column of green silk muslin ""Behebbak, Ma Bhebbak" ("I Love You, I Love You Not").
This is Beirut relishing her inconsistencies, her flair for melodrama and her topsy-turvy existence. This is Beirut living loud and for the moment, no matter what tomorrow may bring.
For more information on Maison Rabih Kayrouz, please call +961 1 566 079 or check out www.maisonrabihkayrouz.com.