BEIRUT: “Men are more fun to dress,” said Chantal Harb, co-founder of budding menswear concept brand Men Just Wanna Have Fun, sitting outside at coffee shop in Downtown Beirut alongside her sister and business partner Beatrice.
The pair has yet to put MJWHF – a selection of imported and locally commissioned pieces – into a brick-and-mortar store, but that hasn’t stopped Beirut’s edgier set from taking notice thanks to one unusual article with local roots: the sherwal.
A style of trousers with extra fabric between the legs to form a deep-hanging crotch, sherwal are swishing their way back into style.
A decade ago, the pants would rarely be seen outside the mountainous regions where some Druze men continue to wear them as part of their traditional dress, now a mere relic of Ottoman-era Lebanon. Since then, however, designers and commercial clothing manufacturers have co-opted the pants for their women’s collections, renaming them in the process. Today the pants are better known internationally as “harem pants” or “Turkish trousers.”
The rebirth of men’s sherwal is thanks to high-fashion designers and commercial sportswear, which have reimagined the loose, airy pants for two very different reasons: the former as a modish alternative to fitted trousers and the latter as loungewear with optimal roominess. While sherwal-style sweats can be seen in gyms around the city, the pants have been slow to emerge on the street.
Menswear has been an oft-ignored market in the region. Even internationally, the bulk of high fashion revolves around a luxury women’s clientele. A new generation of wealthy dressers in the Gulf, however, is making room for more daring, or at least style-conscious, men. A bigger appetite for individual style has developed among Lebanon’s globe-trotting men too.
The Harb sisters have been waiting for that change in the regional menswear market for over five years, planning their return to men’s clothing after more than a decade selling womenswear at their chain boutique Loft by Aspuces – where they’ve sold some 2,000-3,000 sherwal to women.
“I remember the first sherwal I bought was from Miss Selfridges in London more than 10 years ago,” Beatrice said. “I wore it here and I had a very weird reaction. People laughed and smiled, it was a very nice reaction.”
Now, it is MJWHF’s discerning male clientele who are the ones turning heads in sherwal.
Internationally, men’s sherwal have slowly picked up, evidenced by the past 10 days of men’s fashion shows in London, Paris and Milan, where they came in far more adventurous varieties than MJWHF’s sober black and grey. Part of Etro’s collection was a burst of low-hanging pants in silky psychedelic-print with tapered legs and cinched ankles. Roberto Cavalli also presented sherwal Tuesday in similarly electric shades. Armani’s variety was a fusion of low-crotch and classic trouser with a pleated waist in navy and gray.
“All of a sudden, the market seems more open for it because also some mainstream brands have started to sell them,” Chantal said.
With such a global presence, it became easier to ignore the older suit-and-tie generation who may never accept pants that give a goofy, Charlie Chaplin-like first impression. But even the more alternative crowd at MJWHF’s first public exhibit at the STATION in Sin al-Fil were shy about making fashion statement.
“They were trying it and looking in the mirror and saying, ‘No, no I never wore something like this. I don’t know if I can wear it,’” said Beatrice, who let the guys walk away from the stand for a few minutes.
“Then they come back and say, ‘OK! We’ll take it.’”
Unlike the cumbersome name, MJWHF’s selection of men’s clothing has been edited down to a handful of white button-ups and several types of sherwal. Their more sober styles of sherwal are imported from new designers outside of Lebanon, who’ve taken a basic dress trouser and dropped the crotch partway down the thigh. The bolder looks are Beatrice and Chantal’s own creations: essentially skirts sewn at the bottom and transformed into shorts or pants.
“It’s mainly a skirt actually. It’s a skirt converted to a sherwal,” Beatrice said. “We sold a lot of it. It was meant for men, but we have women buying them. They loved it.”
Despite more than 15 years experience selling clothes, the pair said they don’t plan to open a physical shop anytime soon. For them, the freshness of sherwal is matched by the novelty of giving men a one-on-one shopping experience. Men have few opportunities to feel pampered while shopping aside from buying the obligatory wedding suit. Even then, it’s often a solitary affair in a dressing room and a trip to the tailor for a fitting.
“We love these individual appointments with them,” Chantal said. “And they’re loving it because they have three women dressing them ... they feel like kids again.”
“Last time there were three women just sitting like this, and the man, I swear he spent one hour in our stand,” Beatrice interjected. “He wouldn’t leave, he was trying everything, and his girlfriend and her other friends went and came back, went and came back. It was a complete role reversal.”
And why shouldn’t men enjoy shopping? Why should fashion and styling be only for women, the sisters asked. “I swap clothes with my boyfriend. He wears my clothes and I wear his. He wears my trousers I wear his T-shirts,” Beatrice said.
That egalitarian view of shopping is also reflected in MJWHF’s price point. Rightfully so, since Lebanon’s rich and famous – dusty politicians and stiff businessmen – as well as its more macho celebrity set are probably the last to invest in a pair of drop-crotch trousers.
Coming in at $100-$150, the pants aim to attract a young professional crowd with limited dough or an austere approach to shopping, but enough to splurge on an exciting fashion statement.
“It’s about men having fun, it’s now your time,” Beatrice said. “We’re not imposing, we’re just saying try it.”