Trailblazer of haute couture to make more firsts

ZALKA, Lebanon: The first Lebanese designer to ever show in Paris’ Haute Couture Fashion Week remembers in detail the gown he made for Sabah: a wedding dress from his first collection.

“I started with Sabah when I was very young,” Robert Abi Nader recalls. “I will never forget, it was beautiful. She wanted to wear a wedding dress for one of her big ceremonies.”

It comes as little surprise that the legendary Lebanese singer has an affinity for wedding gowns. Now aged 85, Sabah’s seven marriages have literally become the stuff of soap operas.

“I don’t know why she chose it, but it was a dream because, for me, Sabah is the only star in the Middle East – I love her very much,” Abi Nader said, pondering the memory in his large atelier in Zalka.

It was a grand start to his private clientele, which now count among them the likes of Monica Bellucci, Celine Dion, Sharon Stone and a number of French stars.

Over the past 20 years, Paris and New York runways have seen a parade of Lebanese designers from Elie Saab to Reem Acra, but Abi Nader was the first and youngest Lebanese to graduate from the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne – the pinnacle of fashion craftsmanship.

With a massive expansion underway, Abi Nader plans to open a flagship boutique smack on the waterfront in Downtown Beirut.

For now, Abi Nader is stationed in the industrial suburb of Zalka, where his 15 years at the top of couture fashion are evident all around his workshop. Mannequins wear several pieces, each worth thousands of dollars, from his 2013 spring-summer collection.

Hundreds, quite possibly thousands, of golden flowers are painstakingly stitched into sheer chiffon, the concept of this particular collection being metals. The depth of detail in the gold appliqué make the dresses in Abi Nader’s foyer look like something from King Midis’ garden.

Around the sitting room, the water-color palette of 19th century Parisian fashion covers the walls. The lifted bustles, full, gathered skirts and lace detail give a clue into what inspires Abi Nader.

Sitting down for the interview after a long business meeting, the designer immediately apologizes for his state – a busy, sunny day called for a practical pair of cuffed jeans and a red tank top.

Plans for expansion include what could total 120 boutiques opening around the world. After Beirut, Abi Nader will open flagship outlets in Paris and Dubai. After 15 years working for private clientele, it’s time to spread his designs around the world.

“I want to see my designs everywhere,” he says.

For the past year, Abi Nader has prepared for this by creating his first ready-to-wear collection for women. The shops will also feature casual collections, which the designer is working on now, as well as men’s and women’s accessories and even children’s clothing.

“When you go into the store, you will find everything: sunglasses, accessories, swimwear,” he says.

The casual line will include obvious staples like jeans, T-shirts, sparkling platform heels and clutch purses, while the ready-to-wear collection will be closer in concept to his haute couture, which he believes is the real identity of his fashion brand.

Abi Nader has even greater plans down the line for a home collection inspired by some high-end interior design work. Abi Nader designed the interior of a multimillion dollar plane for a Swiss client who had big pockets and a big fear of flying.

“She told me ‘I want something inside the plane to make me feel like I’m in my home,’” he explains.

From a home collection to children’s clothing, it’s all about leading the way for Abi Nader. “I like to be the first for everything,” he says with a smirk.

When Abi Nader was 17 years old, he traveled to Paris to simultaneously finish his baccalaureate and study at the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne as the youngest student.

“I went to school in the morning and in the afternoons I did my studies in fashion,” he says. It was no ordinary extracurricular activity. The Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne has turned out the leading designers in the industry.

At 19, Abi Nader returned to Lebanon to set up his own fashion house, beginning with several fashion shows that culminated in his first Paris haute couture show collaborating with Yves Saint Laurent.

“It was a big dream for me: I was using his catwalk and his stage,” he remembers. “It was really successful and then at the end he came to me to [congratulate] me.”

After that, the designer started churning out two haute couture collections a year in addition to working with private clients and on other projects, which included working for Claude Montana and Christian Dior.

These days, the designer is looking to get in with some English royalty, starting with Prince Charles’ wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, on his way to – fingers crossed – Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge.

For having rubbed elbows with royalty from the Gulf to the United Kingdom, Abi Nader is humble and kind. However, it is clear the designer is used to running the show as he shuts up a pair of suited employees chatting too loudly in the corner.

Abi Nader attributes his interest in fashion to his mother, who took the aspiring fashionisto to all of her dress fittings since he was a little boy.

“I went with her to the tailors for years, since I was 3 or 4. I helped her to choose the colors, the fabrics, the cuts, and [because of] that I was very intelligent,” he says.

Back then, women’s affinity and knowledge of European fashion in Lebanon was deeper and more impressive than today, he says. However, he could not put his finger exactly on what had changed.

A close relationship with his stylish mother is what drove the designer to keep his home base in Lebanon, even today, two years after her death. “I was very attached to her [so] I couldn’t leave her. Even now that she’s gone, I feel like I have to come back here. I like Lebanon – I’m crazy to stay here. But I’m Lebanese and I like my country,” he says.

This introduction to luxury tailor-made gowns is still what drives the designer now.

“For me, my favorite is the wedding dress or the dresses for special ceremonies,” he says. “With the ready-to-wear you need to study for the boutique how the dress can fit many sizes. It’s a little bit more like business. But the art for me is the haute couture. You can put the fabric how you want – pick the best fabrics in the world – you can put the embroidery and the stones.”

To inspire him, Abi Nader takes women right off the street, studying the way they move at a cafe or when they walk down the street.

“I always have my notebook,” he says. “Sometimes I’m walking in the street and there is a beautiful woman coming with a beautiful shape and beautiful hair and skirt and it gives me something ... I’m always dreaming.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 14, 2013, on page 2.




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