On the 4th of August 2020, a cataclysmic explosion ruined Beirut’s port and all of the surrounding neighborhoods. The investigation to determine who was to blame for both improperly storing 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate at the port and then letting it catch fire that day is still ongoing. In the meantime, the death toll has increased with the passing of some of the 6,000 injured. The city itself still hasn’t fully recovered.
In addition, the economic crisis that started one year earlier has continued to result in a constantly falling GDP (it has more than halved since 2019), while the local currency has lost 95% of its value. Facing a high unemployment rate (30% according to the most recent official statistics), half of all young Lebanese are willing to leave the country for opportunities abroad, as revealed in a report published in April by the Arab Barometer network.
Despite this dreadful context, some entrepreneurs are still seeing the glass as half-full. That’s also true for the local fashion industry where many designers, manufacturers and distributors that were hit hard both by the crisis and the blast have managed to cope with the damage and move forward. However, it must be noted that the textile and leather industry contribute only 1% to GDP.
Not everyone was lucky as we were”
“It was a traumatizing afternoon, but not everyone was lucky as we were”, says Arthur Bizdikian, co-founder and CEO of the online shopping platform Lemonade Fashion, which promotes 300 designers – mostly Lebanese – and sells their products in 12 countries. Located in the Beirut Digital District (BDD), next to the capital’s downtown, his company’s office was destroyed on the 4th of August, but luckily, no one was injured. “Most of the staff was already home and the office door was opened so the blast didn’t do as much damage as it could have. Most of the hardware was safeguarded and the data was recovered. The BDD staff took care of the repairs”, said Bizdikian.
The office remained closed for two months and the chaos made it difficult to maintain the platform’s activity. “Many professionals in the fashion industry had their stores, warehouses and workshops damaged or destroyed. Supplies became an issue and we had a hard time answering all [our] pending orders. But, more importantly, a lot of people we were working with suffered both physically and psychologically for a long period of time after the blast, while some lost members of their families”. One-fifth of the 100 designers who worked with Lemonade Fashion back then decided to quit. Some came back, some left the country and some decided to sell their stock and turn the page.
Alaa Najd, a designer who won the 2016 edition of Project Runway Middle East, launched his own eponymous, customized ready-to-wear luxury brand the following year. Najd considers himself very lucky, “I’d had my workshop relocated from Mar Mikhayel (in Beirut, directly facing the port) to Antelias (12km north of Beirut) a few months before the blast. I only lost part of my products, those that were displayed in a shop located in downtown Beirut that was obliterated”, he says. Things turned out to be harder for Najd after the blast as his orders decreased drastically. “I couldn’t work anymore, for about a year anyway. I needed time to process what happened. Now, everything – work and mind – is back to normal”, he says.
War mode and Ottoman features
Others, like the interior designer and jewelry artist Nour Tohme, bounced off the trauma to develop their art. Founder of the art-inspired jewelry brand, Black Odalisk, launched in 2018, she’s currently putting the finishing touches to a brand new collection – her third – inspired by Ottoman architectural elements in Lebanese houses. “My workshop wasn’t located in Beirut and thus was spared. But our apartment in Gemmayzeh, just next to the port, was blown away. It’s a miracle that no one was injured,” she says.
She remembers how her mother, who was also staying in the apartment switched to “war mode” to pull her daughter far from the window when the blast occurred. “It happened at the exact moment the first explosion, the smaller one, occurred. I’d never seen her move that fast before”, remembers Tohme. Unharmed but utterly shocked, Tohme couldn’t continue her work for almost a year, but eventually found the inspiration for her new collection in the traditional streets of Beit Chabab, in the mountains north of Beirut.
“It took us several months to repair our Gemmayzeh apartment. In the meantime, my mother, my brother and I had to move to the mountains. If was the first time in my life I had to live in the village for so long, I guess I finally took the time to be moved by the place and it helped me deal with the trauma”, concludes Tohme.
Reboot and expand
The story of Joanna Andraos and Selim Ters, who launched a high-end couture brand, tailor-made and ready-to-wear, during Covid-19, is also a one of a kind. “We had our office and workshop in Horsh Tabet (Sin el Fil), on the ninth floor of a building with a view of the port. Everything was destroyed, but thank God, no one was there at that time as our working hours back then ended at 4 PM (the blast occurred at 6 PM)”, says Ters. “With the help of our families, we’ve rebuilt everything from scratch. Luckily, we had all the patrons’ backups at our homes. We finally launched our brand and it became one of the fastest growing on the international markets”, he claims, before adding, “ We are now located in Lebanon, where we recovered this summer from a 50% fall of our sales in 2020, but also have customers and partners in Cairo, Dubai, Qatar, Los Angeles and London.
Joanna Andraos is not the only company for which the multiple crises in Lebanon, the Beirut Blast included, acted as a catalyst to accelerate development, whether through enhancing its international exposure, realigning or diversifying its activities. Fouad Zarzour, owner of the Phibraco factory in Zalka (on the coast, north of Beirut) and the store franchise Zed, which sells clothes and other garments, decided at the beginning of the economic crisis to expand his store network.
When the blast occurred, the factory sustained minor damage but the main shop, located in Beirut’s Achrafieh district, was completely ravaged. “I had two employees on shift that day. One of them contacted me via video call and I could see he was bleeding. I asked both of them to leave work to treat themselves and check on their families. Then I gathered employees from the factory and went straight to the shop to clean as much of the mess and store what could be saved in the warehouse. At 2:30 AM, the job was done”, recounts Zarzour. “It was a heavy night”, he adds.
Despite the challenges, he says that his company, founded by his family in 1991, was able to get the best out of the crisis and could manage the damage done by the blast. “We saw at the beginning of the economic crisis an opportunity to fill the gap left by some foreign brands that decided to limit or suspend their presence in the country, our fashion department manufactures products of quality and our prices were in line with the downgrade of the purchasing power of our targeted customers, but we keep the quality up. The blast didn’t affect our plan much, but we still had to reorient the manufacturing process of our products, due to the decline of the number of designers that used to manufacture their pieces in our factory”, he noted.
Like many members of his industry, Zarzour didn’t open the doors of his shop on August 4th. He hopes that one day justice will be done, so that the story of the Beirut Blast can finally have an ending.