BEIRUT: For someone who works in a business so focused on selling an image and making such theatrical dresses, haute couture designer Georges Hobeika is surprisingly shy.
When the photographer arrives to take pictures before our interview he is happy for the clothes to be captured, but declines to be the subject of any pictures himself. “He’s so modest. He never wants to be the focus of attention,” says Gladys Saliba, his general manager.
“It would actually help us if he did,” she jokes.
Hobeika’s humbleness perhaps reflects his beginnings in the industry 20 years ago, as an assistant to his mother in her atelier.
“My mother had a small atelier and I was always observing her, so [fashion] was something that I grew up seeing,” he says.
When it came to choosing a career path, however, Hobeika took a different turn, opting to pursue civil engineering at university in Beirut, with a focus on architecture. But upon his graduation, Hobeika was recruited by his mother to sketch the designs that she then created.
Inspired, in 1994 he took a leap and left for Paris, where he interned at several fashion houses, developing creatively and observing how the industry worked. On his return to Beirut a year later, he went back to his mother’s atelier, but this time to develop the brand of Georges Hobeika.
The brand is one built on some fundamental principles: femininity, glamour and sensuality. Hobeika says he’d love to have designed for Grace Kelly, “the George Hobeika woman,” which makes total sense when you see his designs. Unashamedly feminine, his dresses incorporate the embroidery, detailing and dramatic scale familiar to several Lebanese designers, and like many of his counterparts, they have graced several red carpets, on celebrities from Julia Stiles to Eva Longoria.
Hobeika’s latest collection would have been a good fit for Kelly, the classic American actress and princess, with nipped-in waists, short jackets and plenty of floral and lace details. He says the collection was inspired by his favorite flower, the orchid. Like all of his collections, he worked with a team to develop looks that reflected the elegance and fragility of the flower.
Though Hobeika says he values the input of a creative team, he also insists his designs must always reflect his particular vision of a woman who is “very sensual, very soft.” The women who wear his clothes, he says, should be “very distinguished ... very elegant and feminine, and classic.”
“I hope that every woman when she puts on the designs feels ‘this is the best I can get,’” he says.
Though he insists that he stands apart from his peers on the Lebanese design scene, this focus on classic design and evening dress is familiar in Lebanon, and it’s not surprising that, when asked where is more important for his creativity, Hobeika says that Paris was always more of a “platform for international press” than a source of direct inspiration, despite the fact he divides his time between the two countries.
The success, Hobeika believes, of designers in Lebanon, comes from a unique combination of history, climate and outlook, which drive creativity in the country. Lebanese people “appreciate what is beautiful,” he says.
His designs are certainly appreciated at his atelier, in Beirut’s Sin al-Fil district, which is bustling with clients. This is Hobeika’s main base, aside from his Paris showroom, and it is where clients come for one-off couture designs. Now is a particularly busy time in anticipation for the spring/summer wedding season.
Hobeika has brought his brand a long way from the small family business it started off as. Two years ago he branched out into a ready-to-wear line, with more cocktail rather than evening dresses, and another line, GH, with daywear that maintains his focus on classic femininity.
“It’s natural when you’re growing a business, to seek what the market needs,” he says. “I wanted my clients to have the couture experience but at the price of ready-to-wear.”
Though his ready-to-wear designs are already available in countries as diverse as Qatar, Azerbaijan and Germany, this is not enough for Hobeika, who says that over the next five years he’d like to see his brand become “more international, more global.”