What next for Lebanon’s Fashion Designers after Beirut Explosion? How would they rebuild their community?
An explosion that rocked Beirut destroyed the headquarters of internationally renowned couturiers like Elie Saab, Zuhair Murad, Rabih Kayrouz and many others. It also came at a time when Lebanon was already facing economic collapse and the coronavirus.
The blasts, believed to be caused by 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored at the city’s docks for six years, rocked the city on August 4, shortly after 6pm, killing and injuring thousands. The impact was so strong that it devastated a large part of the port area, including part of the city’s fashion district.
Lebanese fashion designer Amine Jreissati closed his ground-floor store after being altered by the sounds of a disturbance at the nearby port. He headed up to his home, one floor above the showroom, to turn on the TV news. Three minutes later he was thrown to the ground, the windows and doors blown out, as the second of two explosions rocked the Lebanese capital.
Viewing his premises from the street, Jreissati said “There was no showroom anymore,”. He recalls “The entire façade of the showroom got shoved to the back and it took everything on its way. If I was there, I would have died.” Taken in an ambulance with 16 other people, Jreissati received stitches to his head and hand at a second hospital after being turned away from the first due to overcrowding.
Jreissati says that three-quarters of the stock of his fashion brand Boyfriend has been ruined by the blast that devasted Pharaon Street which also housed design studio David/Nicolas and shoe designer Andrea Wazen’s flagship store.
“Thanks God we are all safe – everybody at the company is safe,” says couturier Zuhair Murad, speaking from his home. Murad’s staff of 200 left the 11-storey office block which comprises the headquarters and atelier of his eponymous couture and ready-to-wear label is situated several hundred metres from the port. “We had left the just 10 minutes before Beirut explosion hits. “We lost everything,” says Murad, “all my memories. I built this building stone by stone, day by day, night by night. It was my dream to build my fashion house in Beirut, in my city, in Lebanon where I was born but in one second everything went and I lost everything.”
Along with clients’ couture pieces and bridal gowns, the company’s 20-year archive has been wiped out, as well as the designer’s art collection. On seeing the devastation, Murad says, “I was crying like a kid,” adding, “no words can express our sadness.”
Murad founded his brand in 1997, and quickly built up a loyal following for his sensuous, feminine designs. In 2001 he began showing on the official Haute Couture schedule in Paris, and soon his designs were regularly worn by singular stars, such as Beyoncé and Jennifer Lopez. In the last year alone he has dressed Hailey Bieber, Tracee Ellis Ross and Kerry Washington in his extraordinarily detailed beaded gowns. Sofia Vergara’s wedding gown, one of his most famous creations, took 1,657 hours to make.) . “I like when women feel sensual and confident and happy wearing my dresses,” he says.
Now, he will have to rebuild from the ground up. “The effort of many, many years went in a second,” he says. “It’s unbelievable – I built these offices stone by stone, day by day. It was a very sad feeling, I cannot express my sadness and my sorrow.”
The pandemic has been a challenging period for Murad, and for Lebanon at large, currently experiencing its worst economic crisis in decades following a period of political unrest. “My line is mostly for red carpet events and weddings. During the pandemic there have been no occasions like this – we skipped resort, and we skipped the couture shows in July, too,” he says. “We want to be ready again in January with a live collection.” Murad’s clients are an international bunch; bridal is one of his biggest revenue “Now, there are weddings for just 50 people. Many brides have postponed,” he says.
Many are leaving the city, too, an option he has considered, but cannot support. “It’s such a beautiful country, full of life and history, but the Lebanese people are suffering,” he says. He has an atelier and offices in Paris, but he doesn’t think anything will be solved by moving the business there. “The pandemic is everywhere,” he points out.
Instead, he is determined to rebuild his business in Beirut after receiving calls and messages from clients and friends of the brand. “I feel very blessed and thankful for those who have offered support. They have encouraged me to be positive,” he says. A 20-strong team is working from his home to strategise and plan logistics, and his 250 staff will be temporarily relocated to new headquarters. Eventually, he plans to rebuild the original office building. “It will be an experience but we need to move forward. So many clients are waiting to receive collections – we don’t want to lose the opportunity to deliver the pieces. We are positive, and ambitious. And we will never give up.”
Roni Helou, one of the most committed ethical young designers said “I’m fine but my house and atelier are destroyed.” The Mukhi sisters, jewelry designers Maya, Meena, and Zeenat said: “We’re fine, but the shop’s badly damaged.”
Rabih Kayrouz was one of several Lebanese fashion designers who posted photos or video footage of the impact of the blast on their offices, ateliers and stores on social media. Kayrouz’s Beirut headquarters appeared to be destroyed by the blast.
Tania Fares, who set up the Fashion Trust Arabia (FTA) non-profit organization to support and mentor MENA (Middle East and North Africa) designers was in the FTA offices at the time of the blast. One of her colleagues, she said, is receiving surgery for an injury. One who was later confirmed to have lost her life is Hala Taya, the fine jewelry designer and one of many women creative entrepreneurs in the city.
At Elie Saab, Lebanon’s most globally recognized fashion house, staff escaped with minor injuries and the business has closed until August 17 in order to make repairs. “By then we will have reorganized ourselves, fixed the damage to the building and go on,” says Elie Saab Junior, the firm’s global brand director.
He continues, “What happened around us is difficult to absorb but it is in our DNA to go on no matter what. Our first choice is to remain in the country, to remain close to our people and to drive our mission from here, at least when it comes to the haute couture craftsmanship that we took 30 years to nurture within the country and that has been passed from generation to generation within our atelier.
“Our business was already on its knees…before the explosion.,” says Salim Azzam, the joint winner of Fashion Trust Arabia’s [FTA].
“No one was shopping. We had almost zero sales locally, and were relying on abroad,” adds the designer who employs 30 women through a social enterprise to embroider his collections. “We were barely surviving before the blast. Now I don’t know what’s going to happen; we’ve kind of forgotten that we have businesses and fashion, and we are just focusing on doing what we can do to clean up and help.”
The tragedy of this latest trauma to befall Beirut on top of Lebanon’s banking collapse, collective protests against politicians and the COVID-19 epidemic is inflicting a toll that the international community cannot now ignore.
If you love fashion, and enjoy being certain your money is going into a community, you can choose to buy to support Beirut’s talented designers at MatchesFashion.com.