Holding a fashion show to commemorate one of the biggest explosions of this century might seem absurd, if not inappropriate. To put on a show a stone’s throw from the site of the explosion, that of the infamous Beirut Port, in a gallery located at the foot of the Eastvillage building, whose architect died under the rubble, may seem indecent at first glance. But the collection presented by Alexandra Choucair shows, more than ever, that clothing is a means of expression, and perhaps also an instrument of healing. The collection, entitled “The Unfolding”, was presented as “A visual dialogue with trauma”.

The Unfolding is actually part of Choucair’s thesis statement and was presented as an end-of year performance project, mostly about art therapy and catharsis through art. “Having grown up in Lebanon, a country defined by chaos, I search for answers on how to cope with trauma and attain a sense of belonging through art; redefining the personal into the universal, the destructive into the constructive. This has pushed me to embark on a creative journey; expressing myself instinctively in a language without words or numbers”, says the designer. “During my four years of Fashion Design at Parsons School of Design, I built an imaginary realm, a world where unusual and surreal combinations of different memories from Lebanon coalesce to create a new dialogue through which people could connect”, she confides.

For my thesis, I was mostly stimulated by the transactions between individuals and their surroundings. Perhaps the reconstruction and ‘collaging’ of a garment is in fact a metaphor of restructuring a shattered environment and a destroyed self in order to finally heal the latter”, explains Choucair. Thus, “The collection ultimately embodies the transition from chaos to order, with tradition and culture being the catalysts for an attempt at emotional healing”, she says.

On July 26, a few days before the 4th of August, the pain of which Beirut was preparing to commemorate, a small crowd flocked to Galerie Tanit, which had decided to mark the occasion with a cathartic ceremony, highlighted by this particular fashion show. Models had volunteered to present clothes and accessories, the role of which was not so much to cover the body or to add beauty to the silhouette, but rather to denude the soul and free the spirit.

Inside-out

For a long time, fashion has tried to shake up its Victorian heritage, that still lingers in the rigidity of dress codes, by bringing out lingerie and showing off the intimate, therefore displaying “outside” what is made for “inside”. In Choucair’s work, the embroidery patterns take the form of a scar, the fabrics those of the quasi-nuclear cloud that destroyed Beirut, and the patterns knot together words in Arabic like incantations. The designer goes further by trying to give a portable form to inner demons. She extracts them from the depths of the unconscious where they lurk, evil and inaccessible. Alexandra Choucair uses the traumas thus unearthed to define, like sewing plans of a garment, four parts to be treated.

1 | Order

The arrangement or disposition of people or things in relation to each other according to a particular sequence, pattern, or method. “I would like my own personal message to have a universal significance, reaching all those who have witnessed insecurity and distress, thus showing that art can forge a way to a brighter perspective of the world. I aim for it to provide strong emotional experiences that ultimately lead to a sense of purification and restoration of Self, to an emotional closure and catharsis.” This point is addressed through an asymmetric felt jacket, a power net bustier and a drawstring puff skirt.

2 | Trauma

A deeply distressing or disturbing experience. “There is an emphasis on this dynamic of deconstruction and reconstruction through my work, revealing a shattered inner Self hoping to be healed and reconstructed. The haunting instability highlighted by multiple collisions of abstract forms and textures became a mirror of my weary inner self caused by the identity crisis following the trauma of the August 2020 Beirut blast.” The look that goes with this idea comprises a puff coat and a “Collision” Skirt.

The concept of being “Adrift” is part of the trauma concept: “The eyesight reflecting fear, the sound of the blast and the cries, the taste and smell of the dust, metal, and saltiness of tears, the feel of blood and shattered glass, were suddenly all summed up into one frail body immersed in geometric shapes.” The pieces that illustrate it are a plaster torso and shorts with entangled tubes.

“Torment” is part of the same topic, through the shape of a “raw” abaya and a pleated skirt.

3 | Catharsis

It’s the process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions. “Art contributes to one’s emotional catharsis, promoting understanding and empathy. Its cathartic effect can be a catalyst in the emotional healing of the artist, but at the same time, it pushes the audience to identify with the condition of the artist and the representation of his/her actual state of mind, leading to a purging and a purification of his/her emotions.” It is represented by a ruffled turtleneck and ruffled harem pants, and also by a corset and a puffy accessory.

4 | Impermanence

It is the state, or fact, of lasting for only a limited period of time. “Perhaps the last process and the reconstruction of a garment is in fact a metaphor of restructuring a destroyed environment, a destroyed Self in order to finally heal it. It would embody the transition from a chaotic to an orderly state; tradition and culture being the catalysts of this emotional healing, offering comfort, and taking one back to one’s roots”. This concept takes the shape of a deconstructed jacket and a collage skirt.

Each of these titles was written on a fan carried by the models. In the final picture, the colors of the Beirut explosion were clearly visible. One wonders what it’s like to have these strange yet perfectly wearable, even beautiful, pieces in your wardrobe. Do they have a healing power? No doubt, if one confers it to them.