The Lebanese designer Rabih Kayrouz is only the second Arab to be invited into the inner sanctum of French fashion, his name now alongside Chanel and Dior in the couture hall of fame. As he unveils his exciting new collection at Paris Fashion Week, he talks to Kaelen Wilson-Goldie about his remarkable career and bringing Beirut's creative renaissance to the world stage. Known for its beautiful stone beaches and laid-back lifestyle, the ancient city of Batroun is located 50 kilometres up the coast from Beirut. The Lebanese fashion designer Rabih Kayrouz has a house in Batroun, and on a recent Sunday afternoon, he was there, trying to work but failing to get anything done. So he went down to the beach at dusk to watch the sun sink into the Mediterranean.
With his mind cleared, he thought to himself, "I must be the only designer presenting a collection in Paris for Fashion Week who is on the beach right now," laughing that he was relaxing by the sea instead of furiously preparing for the biggest moment in his career. Last Wednesday, Kayrouz did indeed present a collection in Paris for Fashion Week, featuring 25 couture pieces that captured his signature style, at once fluid and structured, sumptuous and solid, timeless and contemporary, flirtatious and refined.
The event marked the opening of his new atelier, located in an old theatre in the seventh arrondissement where Samuel Beckett staged the premiere of Waiting For Godot in 1953. But it also, more importantly, signalled his debut on the official calendar of French fashion. Two months ago, the federation's governing body, the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, announced that Kayrouz had been accepted as a guest member into its prestigious and highly exclusive club. The Chambre Syndicale, which regulates the French fashion world with considerable vigour, divides its designers into four categories. There are 11 permanent members - including Chanel, Christian Dior, Christian Lacroix, Givenchy and Jean Paul Gaultier - and they are the only ones, anywhere in the world, who may legitimately use the rarefied term "haute couture" to describe their collections.
There are three correspondent members, including Giorgio Armani, who present their fashion shows on the official calendar but use the term "couture" because their pieces are produced outside France. There is a category for accessories and jewellery designers, which includes four members. And there is a category for invited guests, who currently number 15. Only Maison Rabih Kayrouz and Alexandre Matthieu - a pair based in Paris who most memorably dressed Björk for the Cannes film festival in 2000 - were welcomed into that final category this year. And the only real precedent here, for a designer from Lebanon or anywhere in the wider Arab world to reach the Chambre Syndicale, is Elie Saab, who has been a correspondent member since 2006.
For years, Kayrouz has been just under the fashion world's radar, known to insiders but not yet a household name. But his profile is already high among art-house filmmakers and actresses in the region. In 2005, the Lebanese director Jocelyne Saab commissioned Kayrouz to create the costumes for her film Dunia, which starred the Egyptian beauty Hanan Turk. In 2007, when the Cannes Film Festival welcomed a delegation from Lebanon, Kayrouz dressed, among others, the actress Darina al Joundi and the directors Joana Hadjithomas and Dima al Horr for the red carpet.
When Manal Khader, the knockout who breezed through a military checkpoint in Elia Suleiman's film Divine Intervention, got married last year, she turned to Kayrouz to design her wedding dress. Now, having made his own Parisian premiere, Kayrouz is set to break on to the international stage. He may have taken solace in that sunset over Batroun (along with a splash of Schadenfreude, imagining most of his fellow designers toiling away in tiny studios under gloomy Parisian skies). But the next day, back at work in his own Beirut atelier, which is located on the upper floor of a grand, if slightly dilapidated, French Mandate-era building in Gemmayzeh, he admitted that he was nervous and scared and "a bit stressed, too".
"In my work I always feel a sense of responsibility," he says. "When you are doing this job, whether in Beirut or in Paris, whether dealing with a client or the Chambre Syndicale, you feel a sense of responsibility because people have expectations of you and you don't want to disappoint them." Kayrouz was born in Lebanon in 1973, the same year, he is fond of recalling, that a handful of powerhouse designers - among them Yves Saint Laurent, Ungaro, Sonia Rykiel and Kenzo - came together to create the Groupement Mode et Création (GMC) at the behest of Pierre Bergé, Saint Laurent's business partner and a lifelong barometer for gauging the future of high fashion.
At the age of 10, while most people in Lebanon were reeling from the events of the civil war and the Israeli invasion, Kayrouz remembers sitting transfixed in front of a television set, watching fashion shows being broadcast from Paris, a city that seemed culturally near yet geographically far. From that moment, he recalls, "I wanted to be a fashion designer. I don't know why. I have no stories to explain it. Nobody in my family was in the business. I was never surrounded by women who were fashion freaks. I just wanted to do this."
At 16, Kayrouz, who went to French schools in Lebanon, moved to France to continue his studies. In the years that followed, he completed his degree and apprenticed with Dior and Chanel. Then, in 1995, he returned to Beirut for what was meant to be a quick trip. But he forgot to sort out one small but highly consequential detail. Until just a few years ago, military service was mandatory in Lebanon for all men born in or after 1973. Exemptions were possible, but Kayrouz didn't apply for any of them. He had finished his studies. He was neither a single son nor the sole provider for his family. He had no justifiable reason for postponing his year in the army any longer. So instead of returning to Paris and pursuing a career in fashion, he had to go to boot camp, don fatigues and trudge around the Lebanese countryside for 12 months with light infantry weapons, screaming drill sergeants and nothing of beauty anywhere in evidence.
Kayrouz laughs at the memory of this now, but thankfully he doesn't have any real war stories to tell. "Yes, it's true," he says. "This is how, in a very funny way, I ended up back in Lebanon. I was here. And then I couldn't go back. I knew I had this problem. I wanted to postpone it, but once I was here I realised it wasn't that easy." When his army days ended, Kayrouz started packing up for Paris again. Then, two days before he left, he got a phone call from a very elegant woman he knew, asking him to design her a wedding dress and a few gowns. No longer certain where his future was taking him, Kayrouz agreed. Slowly, one client became a network of women who remain loyal to Kayrouz's creations to this day. Three seamstresses turned into a staff of 30. In 2004, he established Maison Rabih Kayrouz, and, in the years since, he has presented a total of six collections in Beirut for spring and summer. In 2010, he will open a ready-to-wear boutique in the city. Several factors have distinguished Kayrouz's work from the boisterous, fiercely competitive field of Lebanese fashion. He collaborates often with contemporary artists, such as the painter Ranya Sarakbi (who has designed jewellery to accessorise his dresses) and the photographers Franck Christen, Nadim Asfar and Roger Moukarzel (who have each taken turns shooting his annual collections). None of these people are tied strictly to fashion, and all of them exhibit their work in galleries in Beirut and beyond.
Kayrouz's take on femininity is subtle and combines youthful energy with vintage elegance. He merges eastern and western influences without ever resorting to obvious or overblown metaphors. His dresses emphasise movement and grace. They are architectural, sculptural and light. And the women who wear them are of a certain type: confident, playful, eclectic and absolutely unafraid to wear a garment that aspires to art more than trend.
"Rabih never disguises a woman. He never hides her behind a fantasy," says Kamal Mouzawak, a close friend of Kayrouz who knows many of his clients. "Creatively, I think that he has been always true to himself. His dresses are like sculptures on the body and that has never changed. He has always been interested in cuts and volumes. I'm amazed by the wedding dresses, always simple, always beautiful. And I'm impressed by his versatility, too. With Rabih, it's not a cookie-cutter thing. It's for the woman wearing the dress. And women really wear his clothes. It's like a second skin for them, not just physically, on the body, but for their character, their intention and their aspiration. Clothes are not important, but just the same, they are an expression of who we are."
Joumana Debbané, a member of the committee that organises Lebanon's legendary summer music festival in Baalbeck, has been wearing Kayrouz's gowns for almost a decade. "When he makes a dress for you, he listens and he gives you time. I find him very creative. He has a beautiful soul, so generous and so genuine. Every time I wear something of his I feel great and I get many compliments." Debbané has chosen Kayrouz for several auspicious occasions, including the weddings of her daughters. One dress was a fitted gown in regal magenta with crystal embellishments on the torso. Another was a two-piece ensemble in deep gold. After the wedding, Kayrouz added a layer of tulle to the satin skirt, updating the look for future use. Once, when Debbané showed him a vintage, lightly sequined black swing skirt from the late 1950s or early 1960s, which had belonged to her mother, Kayrouz fell in love with it and designed her a top to match.
"He is very refined but he also has a young spirit," she says. "He deserves to succeed and be a star." Of course, Kayrouz's career hasn't always been smooth. In 2004, he staged his first fashion show at Music Hall, a cabaret-style theatre in downtown Beirut. The next year, he decided to introduce his second collection in a restored factory, previously used for avant-garde performances and contemporary art exhibitions. But due to the assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, Kayrouz cancelled the show and never rescheduled.
In 2006, he turned his collection into a beautiful homage to the refinements of Beirut. A year later, when the city seemed to be splitting its seams due to the war with Israel and the political unrest that followed, Kayrouz created his boldest collection to date, full of deconstructed dresses, bright magentas and lurid greens, a commentary on the chaos of a mad Mediterranean city. His collections for 2008 and 2009 took inspiration from the pomegranate, and the word "hawa", meaning "wind" or "breeze". Three days ago in Paris, he presented his new collection entitled Nour, which is the Arabic word for "light". This is the first time he has made a collection for autumn/winter, and the first time he has produced two collections in a single year. The palette is minimal, ranging in shades from white to grey with a few moments of black. There are no crazy colours this time and for inspiration, Kayrouz looked to the enormous windows of his new atelier in Paris and to the effects of opalescence, a milky translucence that is neither see-through nor opaque.
"We worked on the fabrics and the layering to create dresses that appear to throw light," he says. In the hands of another designer, such emphasis on light and lightness could have resulted in flimsiness. But Kayrouz bolstered his designs with strong silhouettes. "All the dresses are very flattering in the front and very curvy in the back. They all have this silhouette. My main work was on the shoulders. Either I cover them and exaggerate the movement of the shoulders by making very large sleeves, or I make dresses that show the shoulders in a very sensual way. The dresses stay on the shoulders. They are not about hips, waist and breasts. And in this way, I am still very oriental, because in old oriental fashion, from Japan through Asia to the Middle East, all clothes used to be held up by the shoulders. This is where elegance comes from. In Lebanon, if you want to say a woman is elegant, you say 'aanda kitef' - 'she's got shoulders'."
A more elaborate variation is "kitefa moukkaddar", an expression that means "a woman's shoulder is precious, poised or worthy of respect". In a way, Kayrouz's acceptance into the Chambre Syndicale brings him full circle to the city where he got his start. He finally made it back to Paris. Now, he considers it more of a new beginning. "This is the first time I am working on an international level, on the same calendar as the biggest designers, and where the most influential, critical and professional people come to see the shows. It's very important for me. And it's very scary as well. It's really a new beginning. In Paris I'm really starting from scratch. OK, I have a certain maturity, background and experience. But it's a new start for me, in a new country, where nobody has seen my work. I'm not known there. There are no expectations of me but because it's the Chambre Syndicale, there's a curiosity about me now."
That curiosity is already attracting fashion students and young designers to Kayrouz's Beirut atelier. According to Tala Hajjar Khalaf, who has been working with him since 2007, he sets a great example. "It's his ethics, his personality, his taste, his culture and how he treats people. He shows [young designers] that they can follow their hearts and not pollute their minds with commercial constraints, that it's crucial for them to push their individuality and not mould themselves into other designers just because they sell." Khalaf would know. She studied fashion in Beirut, London and Paris, and spent a year working with the renowned Egyptian jewellery designer Azza Fahmy in Cairo. Kayrouz designed her wedding dress, and she says there is a "wealth of hidden detail" in each of his dresses which determines how the fabric moves when you walk. "You might be the only person who can see or feel those details when you are wearing the piece," she adds, "but it's a very sensual feeling and it's great for a woman to feel so good." Two years ago, Khalaf became Kayrouz's public relations and marketing manager. In addition to preparations for the new collection and the opening of the Paris atelier, she has been heavily involved in another of his projects. Last year, he opened a small boutique called Starch, in the Saifi Village district of Beirut, which functions as a kind of project space for young designers. The idea is to bolster both the creative spirit and the business savvy of the local fashion industry. Once a year, emerging talents submit their portfolios to Kayrouz, who, with the help of a committee, makes a selection and then guides them through the development, presentation and promotion of their first collection. It is striking that Kayrouz - the son of a baker who says that, if it were not for fashion, he would have loved to have become a baker, or an architect - has the foresight to turn his attention to the next generation of creative talent in Lebanon. But it also fits his approach to fashion, which is nothing if not forward thinking. This, ultimately, is what catapulted Kayrouz into the Chambre Syndicale and convinced its members to embrace him. "I think the whole story was interesting for them," he says. "A young Lebanese designer, wanting to do something international, because my idea is not only to show a couture collection. It is to show a collection that has different techniques. For me, this is the future of couture. "Usually, you differentiate between couture and ready-to-wear. But here, with me, it's not that. This is a collection that has different techniques. And I think this concept was quite exciting for them. And I think this is why we were accepted. Most of the invited guests are really young designers who not only have good ideas - because that's not enough - they also have a vision, a modern vision for the business of couture. "Because what do you have in the business?" he continues. "You have haute couture, which is very dreamy and beautiful, and you can go to the shows and dream for nights after that. Or you have ready-to-wear, which is OK it's about brands and they do what they exhibit and they sell. But now we have a new generation of people who are interested in keeping the handicraft and the savoir faire of couture but who are also interested in making them more accessible. "We can still use a couture atelier in Paris, but we can make something much more modern, with unique, semi-unique and limited-edition pieces. This is the new generation of couture that is coming. This is the idea I had in mind and the story I wanted to defend."