The fashion scene in the Arab world today benefits from an inexhaustible source of talent and creativity. But when it comes to marriage, all eyes turn to Lebanon, or Lebanese designers. Here, we discover their secrets.
If we look at history, we see that as early as the 1920s, Beirut, under the French mandate, began to adopt a Western approach to fashion that was unusual in the Arab world. In each household there was a sewing machine, and women made their own clothes and those of their children. They also used the services of small, local seamstresses who came at the beginning of each season to transform the fabrics arriving on the market on boats from Europe into small collections of clothes chosen from magazines. The men used tailors who competed in skill to create the perfect fit for jackets and shirts with a know-how that they would soon adapt to creating women’s clothing.
Elie Saab: So that joy remains
There was therefore a well-established sewing tradition in Lebanon, including many famous names, some known across the Arab world, that we were proud to drop when we received a compliment on our outfit. At the end of the 1980s, while the country was still bogged down in a seemingly endless civil war, a young couturier attracted a Middle Eastern clientele who he succeeded in seducing with sumptuous models from Paris and Europe. Elie Saab, a refugee, living with his family in Beirut after fleeing his native Damour, which had been the site of a massacre, still wanted to believe that beauty and celebration were possible. He designed dreamy dresses for fairy tale princesses, and quickly found an international market. War or not, his catalog under his arm, he gradually became celebrated across the region, becoming, in 2002, the first designer in the Arab world to dress an actress at the Oscars ceremony, Halle Berry, who received the Oscar for best actress that year.
Rabih Kayrouz: “The Lebanese were a good intermediary”
The war in Lebanon came to an end in the early 1990s, signaling the return to the country of a whole generation of young creative people who had trained abroad, and who were both haunted by nostalgia for a golden age that they had never known and who had found success and a fresh outlook. “The majority of my clientele was Lebanese”, confides the couturier Rabih Kayrouz, already a leading creative at the time. “I observed what was happening and I believe that Lebanon has benefited for years from a very beautiful image in all areas of creation, whether it is architecture, decoration, jewelry, clothing, all these trades related to creation and service made Lebanese [the] suppliers to Arab countries.
“I believe that, due to its geographical location, Lebanon has always represented a cultural crossroads between East and West. French couture conveyed a culture that was too foreign to Arab culture, and the Lebanese were a good intermediary, they understood the Arab language and culture and they could serve these clients with everything that could allow them to be the most beautiful and more elegant. This was exactly the same in the other professions, everything we supplied to the Gulf countries was monumental, even in advertising and cinema. We weren’t smarter than the others, we were simply citizens of a more cosmopolitan country at that time.”
Azzi&Osta: Flexibility and personalization
Lara Moubarak, managing director at Azzi&Osta, tells us that Arab clients have long loved Beirut and Lebanese taste. They have this notion that the Lebanese mix so many cultures, histories, colors, that they have seen so much, and that their designs reflect this, be it interior design or fashion design.
We should also mention service, “When a client contacts a European brand, there are often very long delays before they deliver a dress. They tell you six months, eight months…They are so strict. And they want to apply couture rules on the client, as if no one can break them,” says Moubarak.
“In Lebanon, the team members work around the clock, the deadlines are much shorter, we are open to last minute changes, we have a flexibility with the fittings, adjusting to emotional changes, the roller coasters ride the bride-to-be goes through, listening to the family and friends… Even the language. The language is very important, you need to understand each-other. Today the European brands hire Arabic speakers to handle couture clients. So it’s the flexibility in the service, the craftsmen and craftswomen, and the fact that the main Lebanese brands design with the bridal in mind. They make sure that the library that is being created for the 20 or 50 looks of the collection can all be turned into a bridal look.
“At Azzi&Osta we even name the dress after the client. It is created and named for her. We like to name dresses. We also create the bride’s bridal book, where she gets the journey, how it all started, which look she wanted and how it was transformed, and she gets pictures of her material, her fabrics, her fittings, a calligraphy description of her look, and her real sketches, all put in a very nice box.”
Sandra Mansour: The importance of support
Designer Sandra Mansour, hard hit by the explosion of August 4, 2020 which destroyed her workshop and showroom, says, “I also think that the country itself is such a source of inspiration that all Lebanese designers constantly want to do something new. In any case, Lebanon inspires me enormously. When I’m in Paris or Switzerland, I don’t have that same inspiration. Lebanon’s resilience also makes people want to work with Lebanese people.
After Covid, after the explosion especially, I had many Lebanese clients based all over the world who called me to tell me, “I’m Lebanese, I live in America, in Hong Kong, but for me it’s important that a Lebanese designer make my wedding dress”. I think they wanted to keep close to them a part of their country, as a way for them to keep a connection.
“I have a lot of Saudi clients, a lot of Emirati clients. I am making a wedding dress for a Gulf princess. I don’t know how they find me, I think it’s through social networks, or through friends of theirs who have worn my dresses. So they contact me directly or by email and I will meet them. Our clients crave attention. They know that by coming to us they will have much more attention, that we accompany them from the beginning to the end of the process, that we will also dress them on their wedding day. My foreman stays with them, making sure everything is fine…
“Recently, I dressed Dima Al Sheikhly, an influencer from Dubai who is also a muse for big brands like Dior. I made her wedding dress, and I asked her why she didn’t choose her dress from Dior, and I think what she was looking for was to have a wedding dress made by an Arab designer, especially a woman.”
The new rage: Ready-to-wear bridal collections
A sign of the times, most Lebanese fashion designers are now preparing ready-to-wear bridal collections for the 2023 season. Sandra Mansour has announced hers, which will be made with fabrics she says she has been hiding for two years. “At the time of the explosion, I thought they were torn apart, but they were finally spared. So I was already ready to start the collection, but there was Covid and then the explosion. Precious embroidery, wrapped in tissue paper, was torn by the shards of glass, but we were able to repair it. It is a collection that touches me enormously because it announces a return to life,” she said.
As for Azzi&Osta, Lara Mubarak says, “We saw the young “destination” bride, the many parties organized before and after the wedding, the civil marriages, and our ready-to-wear products are really of interest to them because we transform white looks a lot, and in our ready-to-wear, one of the most popular colors we sell is white. That’s why we’re launching a bridal ready-to-wear collection, hopefully at the end of the year, and it is going to have a very cool, modern edge, not your typical traditional bridal offering, which is what a huge audience is looking for and not finding.”