BEIRUT: One of only two Lebanese fashion designers to be included in the official calendar of couture fashion shows in Paris, Rabih Kayrouz and his forward-looking, wearable designs are shining a new light on the industry.
Alongside Elie Saab, Kayrouz is at the cutting edge of Lebanese fashion, and his fashion house Maison Rabih Kayrouz competes with the best on offer in Paris.
Born in Jounieh in 1973, Kayrouz left for Paris at the age of 16 – a chance to leave the country during the Civil War but also one which let him pursue his passion for fashion design, a dream of his since the age of 12.
“I don’t have a specific story,” he says, “neither my grandmother nor my mother introduced me to clothes design. I’ve just always loved clothes, the fabrics, and folding fabrics.”
After studying at a fashion school run by the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, Kayrouz then joined what are possibly the city’s two most prestigious fashion houses: Chanel and Dior.
However, a holiday visit to Lebanon in 1995 persuaded him to return home.
“I think this was the moment to come back to Beirut. I was attracted by all this energy, it was the reconstruction, it was the after war period, everybody was coming in ... I hadn’t known Beirut at all before, as it had been the war, so I was really discovering Beirut for the first time in 1995.”
With no real plans of how to progress in his chosen career – Kayrouz insists nothing in his career has been planned, but rather it was a happy mix of intuition and coincidence have helped him along – upon finishing obligatory military service, Kayrouz decided to return to France.
However an invitation to design a wedding dress for a friend in Lebanon led to his first direct work with an atelier, and his own label Maison Rabih Kayrouz was established in 1997.
After working on the label in Lebanon for 11 years, Kayrouz once again returned to Paris. Now, he divides his time between the two cities, and says he draws different inspirations from each city.
“It’s two completely different activities: In Paris I have my studio; I work on the collection, purely, and I create, and I develop my ready-to-wear collection and my couture presentations. And then here in Beirut my time is completely devoted to the clients; special orders; wedding dresses and evening gowns,” he says.
For Kayrouz, after moving back to Paris, it has remained important for him to maintain this link to Lebanon’s capital. “It was important to keep this – it’s my city, it’s where I started, and I wanted to be close to the clients, and that was important.”
Today, Maison Rabih Kayrouz creates sophisticated and modern designs, full of subtle lines and shapes.
“For me it’s important to respect the body and the fabrics, and to feel comfortable in clothes. Those are the principles I follow in my design. It has to be worn in the street as well as at a party.”
This philosophy is evident in his latest Spring/Summer 2012 “Bulles” collection (bubbles) – which features structured broderie anglaise bodices, paired with a full skirt, lemon loose knit sweaters over gray silks – which seems defined by an obvious devotion to unique cuts and shaping.
Inspired by “the freshness of water and champagne – that attitude, I wanted it fresh, summery, happy,” Bulles shimmers, from its pastel lacquered cottons and silks, to gold detailing and opaque elements. When the collection was presented in Paris, the models seemed to glide down a catwalk submerged under several centimeters of water.
Of one stunning design by Kayrouz, in which a woman’s shoulders are emphasized through the particular cut of the sleeve, he says: “This is just so sexy, you just see the appearance of a curve of a shoulder. It’s subtle but it’s so feminine.”
At the beginning of his career, he adds, people would complain about the lack of attention to cleavage in his designs but he is insistent that subtle nods to the body are much more feminine than larger displays of flesh.
“Things like this shoulder cut out ... it suits everybody and it’s so sexy, it’s Monaco, and it’s very feminine,” Kayrouz adds. “I find it much more elegant not to reveal everything – it’s much more sensual.”
Being invited to join the official calendar of the Paris season in 2009 has been the defining moment of his career thus far, Kayrouz says, but for all its excitement it brought added pressure in an already high-octane environment.
“I didn’t believe it at first, and it’s such a responsibility as well, because you’re on the scene and everybody’s watching you and waiting for your designs and your work, and you have to make sure that you can do it.”
As someone who doesn’t make plans, Kayrouz is unsure what the future of his fashion house will entail.
He wants to develop his brand, and expand his collections, and would not rule out experimenting with menswear at some stage. But for now, he is happy to be following his passion.
“I’m just happy to be part of the story ... but it’s not my story, it’s the story of Maison Rabih Kayrouz and I’m part of it. In a way I’m a servant to this. I have to be up to that and to continue working, and I don’t take it as a pressure, because it’s a passion for me – it’s a happy thing – but I don’t just rely on any success. I’m not going to sit back.”
Kayrouz remains modest about his success, and believes that while he has always been completely committed to his work, he has also been lucky to have been handed many opportunities, and has always been surrounded by the support of his family, friends and the media.
It was the realization that not all aspiring designers necessarily have such chances in life which led Kayrouz to co-found in 2008 the Starch Foundation, with a corresponding boutique in Saifi Village in Beirut. With an annually rotating cast of emerging Lebanese talents, Starch helps the young designers launch and promote their debut collections.
Too often in Lebanon, Kayrouz says, people are content with sitting back and complaining about the problems in society.“But we do nothing ourselves, we just sit there with our coffee, filling the restaurants.”
“So it’s our duty, if we want to make a change, to be part of that change.”
And, he says, it is natural that “In any business, if you love your work, you want to spread it.”
The time will come when the Lebanese government can offer sufficient networks of support to industries such as fashion, but for the time being it understandably has other priorities, Kayrouz says.
The Culture Ministry, he adds, “have enough schools to build before helping fashion designers, but we can help them now, while waiting for the government later on. It’s not a problem, things happen at the right time.”