Dazzling haute couture rises from Lebanon's ruins
By Sophie Hardach
PARIS, Jan 28 (Reuters Life!) - Lebanon's new star couturiers face the typical problems of people working in fashion: snarled deliveries, cancelled trips, delayed fittings.
Georges Chakra - Photo: Pixel Formula
Only in their case, such hiccups are caused by war.
At the Paris haute couture shows this week, a crop of Lebanese designers charmed private clients with sparkling gowns and wispy wedding dresses, produced in Beirut ateliers that have survived decades of bloodshed.
These days, helped by a period of political stability and strong economic growth, Lebanon's fashion houses are taking the elite world of haute couture by storm.
And while storied French names such as Christian Lacroix are in financial difficulties, the Lebanese are flourishing thanks to a style and service that wealthy Middle Easterners love.
"The Lebanese love fashion, we love going out, we love eating, we love books and cinema," designer Georges Chakra told Reuters before his show. "After a difficult time, we see things afresh, we have even more energy and we want to fight. That's life."
Beirut was known as the Paris of the Orient before the gruesome 1975-1990 civil war. Recent upheaval includes a 34-day war with Israel in 2006, a militant Islamist revolt and political killings.
ONE BRIDE, TWELVE DRESSES
"When the situation in Beirut is not normal, when stuff happens, it's not easy to work or even get to work," Chakra said with an understatement characteristic of Lebanese couturiers.
Chakra's dresses cost $20,000-$50,000. A Middle Eastern bride, he said, may easily order a dozen: one for the wedding, the others for the 11 nightly parties that follow.
And that's not counting the dresses for her mother, sisters and cousins.
Most Arab countries are expected to record an average 3.6 percent economic growth this year as the price of crude oil rebounds, according to a United Nations report.
That kind of market is a dream for couturiers. However, exploiting it takes more than a show in Paris and a boutique in Beirut.
For a start, there is the question of style. French haute couture prides itself on being innovative, avant garde. But this does not necessarily translate into the kind of fairytale gown a Saudi princess wants to wear.
"Lebanese fashion is a lot more feminine. If you look at French designers, they stage a big show but it's not wearable," Marianne Helou, a Frenchwoman married to a Lebanese lawmaker, told Reuters backstage at Chakra's show.
"And in Lebanon, we dress up. That's over in Paris, it doesn't exist anymore, people don't dress."
Women like Helou, who was wearing a glossy fur coat, her blonde hair perfectly coiffed, filled the front rows at Chakra, Elie Saab, and Zuhair Murad this week.
They applauded the swishing organza and heavily embroidered silk, then contemplated how it would suit their own wardrobes -- Helou, for example, may ask Chakra to close some revealing slits in a dress to adapt it to Beiruti tastes.
FORCED ABROAD, RETURNING IN TRIUMPH
European aristocrats have had a similar relationship with Parisian brands. But even Princess Caroline of Monaco only orders so many dresses a year.
Parisian couturiers whose business is going well, such as Stephane Rolland who had a turnover of 5 million euros in 2009, have managed cultivate a strong following in the Middle East also due to the enduring appeal of French tradition and craft.
Many other fashion houses here are struggling. Christian Lacroix, whose baroque dresses once wowed the fashion world, was placed under creditor protection last year.
The advantage of the Lebanese is that they are seen as somewhat of an Arab-European melange -- partly because history has forced them to be.
"Because of the war, many Lebanese studied abroad, and that makes them very open, very adventurous," Dalia Kamel, whose husband is Egypt's ambassador in Paris, told Reuters. "Among Arabs, the Lebanese are very well known for their finesse."
Sitting in the front row at Elie Saab, the most famous Lebanese designer, Kamel recalled the 10 years she spent in Beirut in the 1990s, when her husband was a diplomat there.
"In the beginning I was really scared, but then over time I made a lot of Lebanese friends and I took on their lifestyle, going out, dressing up," she said with a smile.
Around the catwalks in Paris, that exuberant aspect of Lebanese living, spiced up with a little irony, was in full bloom.
"The security situation is really good right now," designer Elie Saab told Reuters among a throng of photographers, before adding with a laugh: "Let's hope it lasts."
Backstage at Zuhair Murad's show, held in the gilded halls of Paris's coin museum, the designer air-kissed fashionistas while next to him, an assistant was helping a naked model climb into a camouflage-patterned ballgown.
The theme of the show: military chic.
(Additional reporting by Yara Bayoumy, editing by Paul Casciato)
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