It may appear as though Lebanese couture starts and ends with a well-known handful of red-carpet designers. Among these, Elie Saab is the unquestioned king and Reem Acra, with her sumptuous wedding gowns, reigns equally supreme. But in Beirut itself, the rising stars are different; not seasoned fashion royalty as yet, but an assortment of fresh-faced princesses and the occasional prince.
Over the past five years, Beirut’s younger designers have moved away from high-street franchises and taken to independent boutiques in ever increasing numbers. From the contemporary Saifi Village to the upper-crust haunt of Verdun, now slightly passé, fashion outlets created and run by local entrepreneurs are on the up, driven by a crop of 20-something style mavens who design and sell their own lines.
‘I definitely think there is a strong trend of Lebanese designers in Lebanon at the moment. A few years ago there were only a few very well known brands such as Sarah's Bag and Sunflowers; now almost every girl in Lebanon is trying her hand at designing,’ says Tala Habbal. Habbal herself is one such; the 28-year-old Beirut resident has a degree from the prestigious Parsons New School for Design in fashion marketing, a day job at a popular fashion and lifestyle magazine, her own online shopping company and an eponymous line of bags and accessories. Her first collection, Tala, debuted last September and can be found in a range of Beirut’s independent boutiques, including the well-established Kulte in Verdun and the relatively new but equally cutting-edge Birdcage in Saifi Village. Tala is also available in select Dubai outlets.
According to Habbal, Lebanese women are extremely creative and business-minded. There are also advantages to working in the region, she adds. ‘Production in Lebanon is extremely easy. There is a plethora of places to source materials and many artisans willing to work, so, in theory, anyone who wants to design, can.’
Like many of her contemporaries, Habbal conceives her own pieces and then works with trained tailors to make them up. Karen Al-Zaatari, the 24-year-old behind La K Design, has been particularly successful working in this way. Her flagship La K Boutique on Abdel Wahab el Inglizi Street opened in December 2007 and her debut collection of 90 or so pieces received an overwhelmingly warm reception. They sold out within the first two weeks so Al-Zaatari had to scramble to find other local designers to stock. ‘I always had the passion for designing, the different material intrigued me,’ she explains.
For Al-Zaatari, couture began as a hobby and then evolved into a successful business, following encouragement from friends and family, a fashion design course at the Russian Cultural Center in Verdun and then private lessons. Al-Zaatari’s work continues to sell well and she recently expanded her fashion portfolio to include co-ownership of Label Queen, a boutique in the hip Gemmayzeh area which carries multiple labels, including her own.
‘We are experiencing a wave of new designers. We live in Lebanon, a country that recognises beauty; the Lebanese society loves fashion and everything that comes with it. No wonder, we Lebanese have taste and our designers are among the best in the world,’ says Al-Zaatari. Consumers also benefit from wider choice, she adds.
Ceem Haidar, the equally youthful designer behind the Chafai brand of handbags and jewellery, makes a similar point. ‘I think it’s absolutely great that so many talents are taking the initiative and moving forward in a direction that inspires them,’ she says. ‘None of the designers shares similar tastes, styles or designs. That just goes to show you the variety that exists in the market. And the market can definitely handle diversity.’ Founded in 2007, Chafai is stocked at Beirut boutique Over the Rainbow, as well as stores in Jeddah and Dubai.
Haidar says she occasionally hears that ‘everyone is a designer now’. Her response is robust. ‘So what? Where is the problem in wanting to share your sense of style and taste with the rest of the world? And at the end of the day, every designer started from somewhere.’ There’s absolutely no reason, she says, that her Lebanese contemporaries shouldn’t scale the heights of design – and, judging by these examples, Beirut’s young designers are well on the way to international recognition.