BEIRUT: It takes only a handful of celebrity clients to move a dressmaker out of obscurity and into the limelight. Meet Rani Zakhem: One of Hollywood’s most recent fashion love affairs.
His name echoed across American entertainment news last month when the awards season cued the usual slew of “who’s wearing who” stories. Kaley Cuoco, star of “The Big Bang Theory,” was spotted at the Golden Globes wearing a strapless gown in an ephemeral floral peach. And TV personality Maria Menounos wore two of Zakhem’s couture gowns during the season.
One of Lebanon’s younger couturiers, Zakhem started his label in 2009 after graduating from the fashion program at New York’s Parsons The New School for Design.
Zakhem’s Beirut workshop occupies the seventh floor of Zakhem Plaza, a skyscraper in Sin al-Fil housing the offices for his family’s myriad global business endeavors: gas and oil infrastructure, construction, hotels and investment banking. Zakhem’s artistic gene is a bit of an anomaly, he admits.
“I grew up in Africa, in Nairobi, because of my family’s business – which is a completely different business,” he says.
But it was there in Kenya that Zakhem’s interest in fashion grew as his father returned from regular business trips armed with the latest Vanity Fairs, Cosmos and Harper’s Bazaars.
Some of his most pronounced memories took place in the library of their Kenya home, flipping through pages of elite fashion.
“I found it so fascinating. The glamorous, beautiful women.”
Even as an undergrad in architecture and interior design at Lebanese American University, he knew he would go into fashion design.
“I hate math. I literally used to doodle fashion sketches during math class,” he says.
“Then, during my third year, I applied to fashion school.”
At Parsons, Zakhem’s first creations were for friends looking for something special to wear to family weddings. He recalls his first made-to-order dress as a backless gown with straps covering the breasts and a full chiffon skirt.
Fashion designers have the imagination and the general skills to run design houses but often can’t actually sew or finish a dress personally. Zakhem started in university as a one-man design house, an attribute that has made him – to the ire of his now 50-plus staff – a perfectionist.
“I have a team of 55 people – Lebanese and Syrian-Lebanese. I have about 35 seamstresses, four patternmakers, eight embroiderers,” he says. “They’re my family. ... Every time a public figure wears one of our dresses, I call the tailor to give him the satisfaction.”
Recently, Zakhem’s been able to do that more. And he’s finally had the pleasure of looking at his creations among the pages of fashion publications.
Rather than one of the bombshell actresses that so infatuated a young Zakhem, it was, perhaps ironically, a 1.6 meter 90-year-old who first launched Zakhem onto the red carpet. In 2011, Golden Girl Betty White wore Zakhem to the 17th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards. “She’s one of my favorite actresses,” he says.
As the ball keeps rolling for this rising couturier, which stars does he dream of dressing?
“Charlize Theron. I think I would drop dead if she stepped out in one of my dresses,” he says. “Kylie Minogue – I think she’s a childhood obsession because when I was a kid I was literally stuck to the TV watching ‘Neighbors.’ And the ultimate, ultimate for me, because she was the fashion icon in the era that I grew up in, is Joan Collins. I love her.”