BEIRUT: If or whenever you tune in to the coming month of fall-winter fashion shows starting Thursday in New York, you’ll find at least one Lebanese designer unveiling a collection on runways around the globe or on their periphery. For such a tiny country, Lebanon’s design industry has penetrated every fashion capital’s seasonal showcase from Haute Couture shows in Paris to the ready-to-wear weeks of Milan, New York and London. Reem Acra in New York; Lebanese accessory designers in London and Berlin; couture giants Elie Saab and Zuhair Murad in Paris; Basil Soda in Milan and the list goes on.
Little more than two decades ago, young Lebanese designers were concentrated in Paris, where they could be found working in the ateliers of Dior and Yves Saint Laurent or studying with the Chambre Syndicale and Esmod Paris.
For trailblazers such as Robert Abi Nader, who is French educated in Lebanon, Paris was a natural choice for pursuing an education and apprenticeships in fashion. And so the first of Lebanon’s fashion stars began their ascent between Paris and Beirut. Today, Paris Fashion Week continues to draw the greatest concentration of Lebanese designers, but more and more of them are looking to markets outside the French capital.
Take celebrity designer Georges Chakra, for example. Chakra – best known for his opulent red-carpet couture – splits his shows between Paris and New York City. The decision to show his couture in Paris is an obvious one – it’s the haute couture capital. However, he presents his ready-to-wear each season at private showings in New York to reach a different market, he told The Daily Star from his Jal al-Dib offices several months ago.
Chakra studied in Canada, and returning to North American each ready-to-wear season is a bit like a homecoming, he said.
Red carpet dressmaker Basil Soda also hosts itinerant fashion shows. He will unveil his fall-winter ready-to-wear collection in Milan on the Feb. 17 and then pack up and showcase in Paris a week later. Soda made news not long ago for being the first Lebanese designer to travel to Australia in order to show his collection, which has so far been well-received by the market there, a staff member at Soda told The Daily Star.
Musing in his Sin al-Fil offices at a winter collection cocktail event, Soda said he thought it was “our Phoenician blood” that moved Lebanese designers to travel the world in search of new markets.
Indeed, the breadth of the Lebanese diaspora in general – who have sizable communities from one side of the world (Brazil) to the other (Australia) – has a lot to do with their presence in the different fashion capitals. The draw of opportunity abroad has led a number of Lebanese designers to base their businesses entirely outside the country.
Aiisha Ramadan is one of several Lebanese fashion and accessory designers who’ve established their headquarters in Dubai and cater to the luxury-loving Gulf markets. In the past, Ramadan has flown all the way to New York Fashion Week to present her collections.
The expansion of Lebanese designers into new fashion capitals is growing, as the younger generation, many of them English educated, study in London and New York or head to East Asia for the wealth of clientele in China and Japan.
This season, jewelry designer Dima Kamal will participate in London Fashion Week, while Margherita, a conceptual accessories brand by Beirut-based designer Ghita Abi Hanna, launched her “Structures and Stones” collection at Berlin Fashion Week in mid-February.
Young designers have been pragmatic about finding opportunities outside the big four Western fashion capitals. Lara Khoury, a conceptual designer of casual womenswear, participated in a fashion show in California in 2013 and she’s found a market for her modern wares in Japan.
And Ronald Abdala got a boost recently from a spate of celebrities sighted in his conceptual formalwear. Abdala, a British-Lebanese designer educated in Los Angeles but based in Beirut, showed last season in London and will show this season in Paris. He’s an example of how a new, globetrotting generation of Lebanese designers has been primed to scout out the best opportunities – wherever they may be.