Beyoncé on the cover of her Irreemplazable album. Helen Mirren and Jennifer Lopez at awards ceremonies. Queen Latifah and Katy Perry on the red carpet. One thing all these glamorous celebrities have in common is an eye for what Jocelyn Abdel Malak calls the ‘event dresses’ made by Lebanese designer Georges Chakra. As for the cast of The Devil Wears Prada, well, there was more Chakra than Prada worn in that movie.
‘Lebanon is not a market for us because, ironically, our couture is too expensive,’ says Malak, the co-founder and general manager of the Georges Chakra brand. ‘As a brand here we’re considered different, extravagant and original. But our sales mostly come from outside of the country.’
That situation is now changing: while Georges Chakra may have built a reputation on designing exclusive, show-stopping evening gowns for a select group of wealthy clients, in 2009 it launched Edition, its first ready-to-wear dress collection. As a result, the label is finally starting to prove popular at home as well as abroad. Indeed, some of its new customers in Lebanon are so impressed that they are now ordering bespoke dresses too.
Launching the ready-to-wear collection – this season features long, satin gowns with sequined straps, diaphanous chiffon and draped jersey – has properly established the Georges Chakra brand as a fashion contender. And the press coverage generated by the couture line’s celebrity following is helping to boost ready-to-wear sales as well.
And even though going into the competitive ready-to-wear market amid a recession was deemed risky, Malak says, the move has paid off. ‘Even very wealthy people are affected by recession, so they might buy one couture dress every season instead of 10, and buy high-end, ready-to-wear evening dresses to fill the gap,’ she points out.
The brand hopes to bring out a more casual line of cocktail dresses and an accessories range in the next two years. This expansion has been a long time coming: Chakra originally trained in interior design, but after two years went off to study for a fashion degree in Canada, before starting up his label at the age of 22. In 1988 he met Malak, a Lebanese business woman also living in Canada with her husband. Chakra later moved his fashion house to Lebanon, with Malak in charge of the business side. The couture collection made its Paris Fashion Week debut in 2002, since when it has flourished.
Chakra’s success has helped to raise the profile of Lebanese fashion in general, with the likes of Elie Saab, Zuhair Murad and Rabih Kayrouz also among its current stars. Its couture attracts attention, being something of a curio, while at the same time still busily proving itself on the world stage. As Malak says, ‘Couture is widely associated with Italy and France and, more recently, the US. But even the US has found it challenging to spread the message that it has its own fashion sensibility, and that is the stage Lebanese designers are at now – they must keep pace [with European and American designers] and, in time, will be accepted for their own art.’
What is emerging is a distinctive east-meets-west aesthetic: it stems partly from Lebanon’s time under French rule in the mid 20th century, which contributed to Beirut becoming one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the Arab world. But along with the slick European influences, there remains a tradition for embellishment, as Lebanon has a strong association with embroidery. Georges Chakra even suggests that the world should prepare for what he has dubbed ‘the Lebanese invasion’.
Chakra’s designs successfully fuse hyper-glamorous and feminine styles with high-tech fabrics, such as metal and plastic, that add a futuristic look. ‘Though often these pieces don’t make it beyond a catwalk show,’ Malak says. ‘Clients are unpredictable and don’t always want to buy the more progressive designs; they are harder to sell because they’re not commercial.