BEIRUT: Like a graceful twirl lifts a skirt from the ground, a strong breeze pushes a shirt collar against a cheek or cool air fills the back of a cotton blouse, Rayya Morcos freezes moments of clothing in motion in her highly sculpted fashion line Bird on a Wire. “I’m originally an architect, an interior designer,” Morcos said. “I think in 3-D.”
Morcos defies any stereotype one might slap on a fashion designer. The young woman totally rejects denim jeans. She has little patience for sewing and would rather read existentialist literature than watch a Chanel fashion show. But Morcos is dedicated to changing the way people think about clothes, investing her reputation and resources in eccentric designs that move fashion forward.
These days, Morcos is working on a line to launch in September. She’s also perfecting a necklace line built from dozens of copper or wooden pieces that fit together like the bones of a reconstructed dinosaur.
Evidence of the designer’s alternative approach to design lines her brightly lit workshop, a stone’s throw away from the National Museum.
Lightweight wiring lifts the skirt of an elegant black dress, appearing like the mannequin had just leaped from the workshop table. A white blouse’s careful construction leaves the back billowed out as though a floor vent permanently fills it with air. A collection of square blouses comes together to form the designer’s fingerprint.
The original ideas for Morcos’ most recent line “Heterotropies” can be found as chunks of Play-Doh molded to pencils, rather than the typical two-dimensional sketches in a notebook.
“I work a lot in 3-D, with Play-Doh and crunched up paper,” Morcos said.
“We’ve been wearing the same tank top, with the same straps for 100 years,” she added. “It’s time to change things.”
As a teenager, Morcos’ made a less-than-successful debut into the world of fashion design.
“I made my first outfit when I was 16 and decided to wear it to this party,” Morcos recalled. Mid-conversation, Morcos’ outfit became a major distraction for her childhood friend.
“I said to him, ‘What are you staring at?’ and he said, ‘Rayya, you’re naked.’” She had found her attempted-dress crumpled around her ankles.
Since that day, Morcos earned a bachelor’s degree in interior design, featured her work through the exclusive Starch Foundation, worked for five years under fashion giant Rabih Kayrouz, launched her own line Bird on a Wire and teaches aspiring designers at the Esmod Beyrouth international fashion school.
Though her patience for sewing may not have improved, Morcos’ fashion prowess is such that she can contract the sewing of her alternative designs to professional seamstresses.
Morcos sews preliminary versions of her designs in cheap cotton, sending this rough prototype and patterns to a local atelier. Meticulous artisans turn the designs of her imagination into wearable clothing.
“The man at the atelier always says to me ‘Rayya, this is like a puzzle,’” she said, laughing. “He suffers a lot because of me. I owe him some happy pills,” she added.
In a city with a narrow range of street style, she takes a major risk by offering unprecedented shapes and styles.
Morcos discourages her students from looking to other designers or previous fashion eras for inspiration. Through this method, designers are doomed to repeat past trends, she said.
Morcos drew inspiration for Bird on a Wire’s first line from French philosopher Michel Foucault’s theory of “heterotopias” and Lois Greenfield’s photography of ballerinas. Both of these highlight the idea of an imaginary space, such as the make-believe world of small children or the imagined scenes deftly conveyed through ballet choreography.
The result is still fabric that appears in motion. Each piece creates visual tension by appearing to be part of a narrative different from reality: a woman dancing rather than standing, jumping rather than sitting.
Morcos said her whimsical approach to structure is both practical and very comfortable. She was also sure to make her very abstract inspiration translate to light, stylish pieces, she said.
“Fashion cannot be about colors, or spring or summer; it has to be about the human condition, after all humans are wearing it. It’s about love, hate and the varying shades of gray in human emotions,” she said.
“But at the end of the day you have to want to wear it,” she added.
Before money or fame, the hope of moving fashion forward drives Morcos’ work. In addition to selling her Bird of a Wire collection (ranging from $200-1,000), Morcos has a very select group of clients, and little interest in filling requests for conventional clothes.
“I don’t like the client-designer relationship,” she said. “I don’t want people coming to me and saying, ‘Can you make me look skinny.’ If you want that, get liposuction,” Morcos said.
And she preaches what she practices. In the classroom, Morcos’ asks the next generation of Lebanese fashion designers to throw away their magazines and try something completely new, said former student Maryz Abdel Massy.
“She basically taught us to play and experiment ways of coming up with new volumes and prints, like thinking outside the box and forgetting everything we see in magazines and on TV,” Abdel Massy said.
When the work for other classes stacked up, Morcos’ class became a sanctuary away from the stress of impending projects and responsibilities, she said. It took some students a long time to appreciate the abstract lessons in innovations Morcos tried to teach.
“I don’t think all students understood what she was teaching us and why,” Abdel Massy recalled. “But then with time it started to show in the other classes. When we needed to come up with new volumes, collage or anything where you have to be creative, that’s how it hit them the importance of her class,” Abdel Massy added.
“It was different because we felt like there were no limits, like you could do anything, just express yourself to the extreme.”