BEIRUT, Lebanon — Some pointed and a few sneered but soon they were all stunned into submission. A group of immaculately coiffed ladies had come expecting a feast of frothy glamour — or at least a few delicate frocks inspired by their national fashion hero. Instead, what they got was a subversive serving of bondage, queer politics and schizophrenia on the catwalk.
“One of the first things I told them at the interview for this job was, ‘don’t hire me if you want a bunch of couture, evening wear and bridal.’ That’s not what I’m about,” quipped Jason Steel, head of Elie Saab’s new fashion programme at Lebanese American University (LAU), the Beirut school whose graduates did a fine job of shocking more than a few ladies in the audience.
In a staccato of Arabic peppered with French, the ladies’ conversation grew gradually louder until it could be heard over the beats of the lawless soundtrack and the buzz of a camera drone flying overhead. One outfit after another emerged until it all became too much for them.
As a model wearing thigh-high boots stormed past wielding a kitchen knife, the ladies’ chatter ended abruptly. Sliding back into their seats, it looked as if they had finally conceded defeat to the young rabble-rousers who had been inspired by Saab and Steel to create the spectacle unfolding around them.
“When I saw those women, I thought to myself, you’re in the wrong place madame. No, you shouldn’t be here [if you behave like that],” recalled Lebanon’s “king of couture” Elie Saab, mildly vexed. Clearly, some of the guests hadn’t read the fine print on their invitation because this was anything but an effervescent Elie Saab fairy tale.
Saab’s own show takes place tomorrow (4 July) during Paris couture week. But two weeks ago, in between fittings at his atelier, Lebanon’s prodigal son was back in Beirut presenting the second class of graduates from the fashion school programme that bears his name. And it was hardcore.
The collective message from his students was clear enough: forget what you think you know about fashion here; put away your stereotypes about the Middle East because Lebanon is in the house.
Boosting the regional ecosystem
The school was born out of an unlikely union. The couturier who made it big dressing royalty and Hollywood A-listers watched as 14 irreverent students showed their final collections for a Bachelor of Arts degree created in partnership with the London College of Fashion.
“The programme is very different from anything else in the region and it was the first of its kind,” offered Frances Corner, head of London College of Fashion (LCF).
Until you meet the graduates or see their work, it is easy to make assumptions about a new initiative like this. One lazy critique levelled against it is that the programme is little more than a cash cow for LCF. Not true, say insiders.
Another is that it is a vanity project for Saab to create an army of mini-mes to carry on his aesthetic legacy. According to the students he mentored, nothing could be further from the truth.
“Honestly?” Saab countered, his expression the very definition of calm displeasure. “I would absolutely hate that. If that were the case, I’d feel like the students had no character at all. I don’t want to see more copies of me than there [already are].”
But Saab’s considerable influence does beg an interesting question. In the Middle East, he is already a household name and, in Lebanon, he certainly doesn’t need any more publicity. The man was recently immortalised on a national postage stamp. So why would a couturier with a booming business and near-saturated brand recognition want to be involved in a local fashion school?
It is left to his son Elie Saab Junior, the firm’s global brand director, to explain: “It’s not really a direct marketing touchpoint, I would say. There are activations [like this] that can have an indirect marketing impact but we’re a bit far from that now. At the end of the day, it’s about giving back by building up the ecosystem here.”
In other words, Saab’s motivation for creating and nurturing the LAU programme is about marketing his country in the regional fashion industry rather than marketing Elie Saab the brand — or the man.
The programme is very different from anything else in the region.
“[His] dream from the beginning — and this is decades in the making — is that if there is to be a fashion capital in the region, then it could [one day] be Beirut,” Saab Junior added.
For most, it is pure fantasy to imagine that Beirut might overtake Dubai as the fashion retail hub of the Middle East. Megaprojects continue to attract countless tourists of every income bracket eager to shop in the city that seemed to rise from the desert overnight.
What’s more, Dubai now has an established showcase in Fashion Forward and strategic investment in a number of fashion sectors from the government as well as the private sector. A growing network of fashion publications and PR firms operate out of the Emirati metropolis.
But the point that the Saabs are actually trying to make is that Dubai doesn’t have to hold a monopoly on every aspect of the regional fashion business. There is room for specialisation, fragmentation and a greater place for Beirut (and other cities) at the table than there is now. After all, Lebanon’s power on the red carpet isn’t a coincidence. It was born out the country’s rich entertainment industry which is in fact a regional powerhouse.
The logic goes that if Beirut can educate more of its professionals and creative talent at home, more of them are likely to stay or return to Lebanon rather than joining the diaspora. This matters because many of the fashion executives, entrepreneurs and retail managers found in Dubai and elsewhere across the region are Lebanese living abroad. Alain Bejjani, chief executive of the holding company that owns Dubai’s Mall of the Emirates, is just one of several such industry leaders.
Saab is not under the illusion that the school will become a blockbuster designer factory. But it is already beginning to help to professionalise the industry. Graduates from the first year of the programme are now working locally, regionally and globally. Several are at companies in Beirut; Alia Malass is at Rabih Keyrouz in Paris and Dania Mahadi has become a buyer for Harvey Nichols in Kuwait.
Punching above its weight
Lebanon’s fashion market was worth $1.52 billion last year and is forecast to enjoy 4 to 5 percent annual growth for each of the next five years, according to emerging market intelligence firm BMI. This pales in comparison to regional giants like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — both markets are worth about 10 times more — but it is only marginally less than that of Qatar and significantly more than MENA markets like Jordan, Oman and Morocco.
Despite the country’s many ongoing challenges — clashes with its neighbours, ballooning debt, travel restrictions by GCC countries, rampant corruption and the drain of the Syrian refugee crisis among them — the recent May elections provided some relative political stability as Saad Hariri won a third term as prime minister.
Following that, BMI forecasts a modest acceleration of economic growth in the years ahead, hovering between 2.3 and 2.7 percent (this is only slightly lower that the average growth of GCC economies). Any way you look at it, Beirut is an important engine for growth and it has some important intangible assets too.
“Beirut is an incredible city, more open-minded than what one might think,” said Manuel Arnaut, editor-in-chief of Vogue Arabia. “[It’s] a progressive [place] that accepts different cultures, religions and lifestyles.”
Until recently, however, Beirut built its fashion reputation around a somewhat narrow aesthetic based on status and glamour. This has usually meant its designers try to differentiate themselves by merely adding varying degrees of va-va-voom or effervescence to the classic couture formula.
Indeed, over the decades, Saab’s global success has paved the way for his countrymen and, today, the Lebanese have come to dominate Paris couture week. This season’s schedule is jam packed with everyone from Zuhair Murad and Tony Ward to Georges Hobeika and Rabih Kayrouz.
“For the younger generation, Elie is like a godfather figure and a role model. Some of them trained in his atelier and have become a credit to him like Rami Kadi and Hussein Bazaza,” said Jamila Halfichi, fashion editor of pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Al Awsat.
There is as much room to build abrasive streetwear brands as there is avant-garde luxury.
More broadly speaking, Lebanese consumers are still renowned as some of the most stylish and cosmopolitan in the Middle East. They also make up a disproportionate number of the actresses, celebrities and social media influencers across the region — cue names like Razane Jammal, Nadine Labaki or Lana El Sahely.
But times are changing. Nowadays the Lebanese have to share the limelight with a legion of Kuwaitis who have become street style stars, Saudis with unfathomable purchasing power and a growing number of stylish sheikhas from Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE where a modesty wear boom is also taking the region by storm.
Where Lebanon has a potential advantage over its neighbours is in translating its relatively liberal and tolerant society into diverse new design languages. Instead of continuing to focus exclusively on flamboyant couture or occasion dressing, the next generation can explore different fashion palettes and different business models.
Indeed, with the city’s beach culture and fringe underground scenes, there is as much room to build abrasive streetwear brands as there is avant-garde luxury.
Inspiring young iconoclasts
Surprising to some is that Saab’s favourite graduates seem to be those willing to push the boundaries the furthest — and challenge the establishment the most — like prize-winning graduates Yasmine Hassouna (the collection with the knife), Tatyana Antoun (a clever young lady with pink hair and face piercings) and Genny Haddad.
“I was quite impressed with the show overall,” said Arnaut of Vogue Arabia. “I think it’s fantastic that Elie Saab is involved but that he’s not dictating his style to the students.”
To his credit, Saab hired someone passionate and prodding to teach a programme that dares students to represent the most challenging aspects of society in their designs. If only the students' technical skills lived up to their ideas.
“The programme is academically rigorous. Students [are] constantly being challenged in order to defend their rationales,” explained Steel, a lively Yorkshireman who trained at Britain’s Royal College of Art before embarking on a career abroad in teaching.
“We all know that fine line between commercial sensibilities and just plain boring. Or something exceptionally avant-garde but meaningless,” he added.
True to his word, there wasn’t an iota of Saab’s embellished hyper-femininity in the graduating class and, after displaying an initial sense of surprise, many locals watching the defiant student collections appeared proud of the show. To be fair, the bewildered ladies of leisure who Saab scorned for their poor show etiquette were in the minority.
Most front-row spectators were somehow connected to Lebanon’s small but increasingly confident fashion industry. They seemed to sense that the show was symbolic of something more important than the education it encapsulates.
“I was channelling mental illness,” explained LAU graduate Genny Haddad, who focused on experimental knitwear. “At first I was just focusing on Jackson Pollock and Yayoi Kusama because they both had mental illnesses and found a way through it through their art. But I wanted to go deeper.”
“So I [visited] one of the biggest mental institutions in Lebanon [where] I met several patients at their art therapy sessions but one guy was very special. He’s schizophrenic, autistic and anorexic. I went there to visit him every week for six months.”
Haddad wasn’t alone when choosing hard-hitting topics for her graduate collection. Drug culture during the ’90s rave scene and Beirut’s garbage crisis found their way into the unapologetic show. Men sauntered past in pleated skirts and latex-wearing models had their faces covered with masks and muzzles that belonged either in a dominatrix’s dungeon or the wardrobe archives of “The Silence of the Lambs.”
While such theatrics may seem predictable for jaded onlookers of fashion school shows in Europe, they are positively gutsy for a school in the Middle East.
“Wow, this could never happen in the Gulf,” said one industry insider from Dubai who had flown in for the event, before pausing to add, “please don’t quote me; it could [cause me problems back home].” The fact that fashion professionals in Dubai are reluctant to publicly acknowledge their city’s constraints only highlights the unique selling point of a city like Beirut.
Having the freedom to tackle controversial issues with little or no self-censorship is a rare dispensation in this part of the world. LAU is one of the exceptions alongside Shenkar College in Israel and Turkey’s Istanbul Moda Academy.
It can’t begin to compete with the malls of Dubai but it has an intoxicating charm, magnetism and rhythm.
“I think LAU is important in the sense it follows an international style of encouraging students to express themselves and explore more,” said Halfichi. “Otherwise [fashion] schools and universities in the MENA region are a little bit more classical and sometimes just about obtaining a certificate.”
The region is also served by branches of Esmod in Dubai, Istanbul, Tunis and Beirut. And the College of Fashion and Design (CFD) recently bowed in Dubai.
But LAU’s academic heritage — it was founded in 1835 and has a reputation for producing leading figures in politics, business, medicine and other disciplines — is one way it can compete to attract students to its campus. Another is its forward-looking approach to education.
“Times have changed,” offered LAU president Dr Joseph G. Jabbra. “We need to have a revolution — a peaceful revolution — in terms of our curriculum and the mode of delivery.”
“There was a long period of time when the faculty member was the high priest of knowledge, somebody who came into the classroom and students were there to listen but not say anything. That era is over,” he added.
Reclaiming its former glory
Held at a 19th century silk factory, the LAU show came at an important moment for Beirut, a city that is anxious to claw back some of the fashion glory it lost to other cities in the region.
“I can honestly say that Beirut is witnessing a second golden age,” says Halfichi. “Every time I visit I feel this strong artistic vibe, and every time I talk to a Lebanese I sense this pride and desire to succeed and bring their country back to its former glory.”
“I still remember my father's fond memories of Beirut in the 1960s and how culturally vibrant it was in its heyday… He used to talk about the Al Hamra [district] and its numerous cafés and art houses and its progressive thinking and way of life,” recalls Halfichi, whose family is from Morocco.
Long before Dubai appeared on the horizon, first Cairo and then Beirut enjoyed the status of fashion capital for the MENA region. But Beirut lost its standing during the 1970s and 80s as civil war ravaged the country. The city went from a playground for pleasure-seekers and stage for big thinkers to a no-go zone for both Europeans and Arab expats who thought of the city as a second home.
“It’s because of the wars, I think, that the Lebanese people want to improve themselves every single day and that’s why they’re ambitious and they love life, because of the suffering we’ve had. This is the secret of the city, its people,” said Saab.
Almost a million Lebanese fled the war but, for audacious entrepreneurs like Elie Saab and Tony Salamé, the local luxury market was resilient enough to support fledgling businesses in the chaos of the 1980s. Seven years after Saab opened his atelier, Salamé opened his store Aïshti, which came to dominate Lebanon’s imported luxury market after inking deals to carry brands like Prada and Dior. Gradually, Beirut began to attract some of the big spenders back to its shores.
Since the new millennium, Lebanon has made great strides to put the ghosts of the war behind it and, in 2010, tourist numbers surpassed 2 million. Boutiques like Piaff, Another and Plum cater to an increasingly adventurous clientele from home and abroad while Elie Saab’s decision to move downtown into a new building in Beirut Central District led Louis Vuitton, Fendi and several other luxury brands to follow suit.
The once bullet-scarred wasteland has now been transformed into a shimmering new upmarket neighbourhood for Beirut. It can’t begin to compete with the malls of Dubai but it has an intoxicating charm, magnetism and rhythm that shoppers can’t get elsewhere.
“You know, people come to Beirut for discovery and [self-discovery],” said Saab. “Once they’re here, they don’t want to leave. Or they always come back.”
Disclosure: Robb Young travelled to Beirut as a guest of Elie Saab.