BEIRUT: A local fashion designer cashes in up to $10,000 for a one-of-a-kind wedding dress – but Rayya Morcos has little interest in making them.
And she’s not the only one. “I chose to go into ready-to-wear because couture is so hectic. You become just the seamstress trying to do what someone saw in some magazine – all the while trying to make them look taller and slimmer,” said Morcos, the designer behind ready-to-wear line Bird on a Wire. “We’re good, but we’re not illusionists.”
Morcos is one of many emerging local designers who create ready-to-wear clothing in defiance of local market demand for Lebanese-made couture evening gowns and wedding dresses.
Their decision has meant a greater financial struggle, as local and regional women favor well-known European brands when splurging on high-end pret-a-porter. Local designers who refuse or limit couture requests likewise eschew potentially large sums of money and an abundant local client base.
Couture is a fashion industry term that has evolved to encompass expensive, customized garments such as wedding dresses and red-carpet evening gowns that are handmade from top-quality materials. Ready-to-wear, or pret-a-porter, is mass-produced clothing sold in standard sizes – ranging from the T-shirts at H&M to the pricier duds on the racks at Calvin Klein or Chanel.
Growing wealth in the Gulf and around the Middle East has made the region a huge buyer of expensive, couture clothing from the famous ateliers in Paris to the workshops here, said fashion giant Rabih Kayrouz, sitting in his Beirut workshop.
“Couture is easy to sell in the Arab world,” he said. “Couture is still related to a lifestyle, they do have the parties; they still have the big weddings.”
Another local designer estimated a couture dress that cost around $3,000 to make could sell for around $10,000 – making the potential profits off couture very tempting.
But the regional fashion culture has proved double-edged sword for the Lebanese designer. Though there’s a lucrative market for custom gowns, there’s a limited taste for Lebanese-made ready-to-wear. Women with budgets for designer clothes prefer to buy their suits, blouses and day dresses from recognizable designers like Hermes, Lanvin or YSL.
“They’re not ready for ready-to-wear. When they buy it will be from an established brand,” Kayrouz added.
Internationally speaking, high-end ready-to-wear lines have surpassed couture in relevancy because they are practical and less expensive. And as a designer, Morcos said she derives more satisfaction from creating practical clothing for everyday use.
“I like the idea of mass production. As a designer, I like seeing people I don’t know on the street wearing my stuff,” she said.
Kayrouz responded to the growing need for support by founding the Starch Foundation as an incubator for talented Lebanese designers. They display their ready-to-wear clothes in a collective boutique in Downtown’s Saifi Village.
Starch’s very existence underscores the abundant number of young Lebanese enthusiastic about ready-to-wear clothing and accessory design.
The local market’s preference for couture explains, for instance, why two emerging designers who attended the same technical school and who both kick-started their careers at Starch have followed two very different paths to success.
Rami Kadi’s Beirut showroom in Clemenceau is lined with elaborate gowns and wedding dresses. The 26-year-old designer has accumulated prestigious clientele from Arab stars like Myriam Fares and Samira Saeed to elite women in Lebanon and the Gulf.
In comparison, Kadi’s classmate Lara Khoury has found markets for her ready-to-wear – a blend of minimalist and conceptual design – in France and East Asia.
Milia Maroun founded her ready-to-wear brand Milia M about a decade ago and said there were a number of ways local designers could support their ready-to-wear lines.
In the beginning of Milia M, Maroun worked in couture dresses to help support the less lucrative ready-to-wear collections. She was also fortunate enough to have a financial backer, she said.
And for ready to wear, it’s important to find more points of sale and markets in and outside of the Middle East, she said.
“The ready-to-wear suffers more because there are not enough clients,” she said. “In ready to wear, you have to sell a lot.
“My assumption is that if you have ready-to-wear, you have to reach markets in the U.S. and in Europe.”
But local designers have not given up hope that regional tastes are evolving.
“Look, if you do something and you do it well people will get used to you,” Kayrouz said. “I am very optimistic. It’s not easy, but there are not a lot of them and that’s an advantage.”
Kayrouz pointed to Morcos as proof: The adamant ready-to-wear designer finally broke into the luxury IF boutique in December. Sales of her winter collection were better than she expected.
“It took guts for IF to take my product,” Morcos said. “But it’s a natural evolution, this craving for something new. And those of us who do ready-to-wear, I guess we’re rebels in a way.”