There is a group of couturiers from the Orient who are knocking heavily at the well guarded doors of France’s governing body of haute couture. No other country in recent years has been able to insert itself into the Paris couture scene quite as well as Lebanon and Beirut in particular, which not only has a long history of dressmaking, but can also boast several prominent fashion houses that stayed open even during its 15 years of bitter civil war.
Many of these designers began by presenting their collections during Rome’s couture week and gradually edged their way onto the Paris Couture schedule. Elie Saab, whose notoriety grew after dressing Halle Barry for the Oscars, is the most well known of this group of Lebanese couturiers. But there are also many others, including George Chakra, Zuhair Murad and George Hobeika. Although the later two are not as yet invited members on the Chambre Syndicale’s official calendar, they present their collections with the same pomp as the big houses, and exhibit the same level of craftsmanship and attention to detail that couture is known for.
Despite this, they are frequently called out by fashion critics for concentrating too heavily on eveningwear that is often ornately embroidered and brightly hued. Even if fashions pendulum were to swing towards a more austere aesthetic, one could assume that the Lebanese couturiers would not stray too heavily from this already established formula. The main reason for this is that most have built up their businesses catering to a Middle Eastern clientele, and their endless cycle of weddings, where such frocks are de rigueur. But what these couturiers cannot be faulted for is their ability to listen to their clients and give them what they want. This is apparent by the number of customers they attract each season, not only from the Middle East, but also Europe, Asia, South America and the United States. Although most of the Parisian couture houses have been experiencing an increase in sales, it is an unspoken fact within couture’s inner circle that the house attracting the largest number of customers is neither French nor Italian, but that of the Lebanese designer Elie Saab.
In addition to these designers, Paris couture houses have had a long history of attracting prominant Lebanese clients. Two such clients representing different generations are Nazik Hariri and May Arida.
Nazik Hariri, the wife of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, has been a fixture on the couture scene for over 20 years. In the past she was frequently photographed front row at Valentino, Lacroix, Elie Saab and Gaultier Paris. But after the tragic death of her husband she curtailed her attendance at the shows, though she still orders pieces from the couture houses privately.
An international beauty who was photographed by American Vogue in the 60’s, May Arida is largely responsible for establishing Lebanon’s Baalbeck cultural festival, by enticing such luminaries as Jean Cocteau, Ella Fitzgerald, Maurice Béjart and Miles Davis to perform under the towering Roman columns of Baalbeck’s ancient amphitheater. From the 1950’s-70’s she was a prominent customer at Christian Dior, where she developed a close friendship with the famous designer himself. Today she owns one of the largest collections of Dior couture at her home in Beirut, which she takes meticulous care of.
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