A little over 24 hours before his Milan pret-a-porter debut and the atmosphere in Zuhair Murad's temporary showroom was remarkably calm. It was late afternoon and the Lebanese designer had been doing fittings all day with his top models. He was just taking a break for a very late lunch before the hair and make-up artists arrived to discuss the look for the show. All around were rails of beautiful dresses, some with big bunchy skirts in shades of tangerine, pistachio, deep red and emerald. It was easy to get lost in their lavish detail: the flower prints, embroideries, frills and fragile laces were obviously the creative output of a romantic, a man who relishes glamour and femininity. A single black satin tuxedo jacket and long skirt were about as understated as he could manage.
The tall, dark and ineffably charming designer readily admits that he only does evening wear. "I will be doing daywear in the near future, maybe in two years," he says, as if to excuse the gap in his collection. "It is difficult to find a Lebanese designer doing day because we all started with couture, then moved into deluxe evening dresses for ready-to-wear." It is true that his compatriots Elie Saab, George Hobeika and Georges Chakra are not known for understated trouser suits and business clothes, either.
This was the first time Murad's ready-to-wear would be on the catwalk. "I can see the collection being shown here rather than Paris. Milan is the centre for pret-a-porter and Paris for haute couture." However, it is not the first occasion he has held a show on Italian soil. He launched his couture line in Rome in 1999 and three years later moved to Paris, where he has since opened a second atelier.
Now he regularly jets between Paris and Beirut to see clients for fittings - embodying the personal touch in the rarefied world of couture which is so important. Even Karl Lagerfeld is known to see many of his couture clients personally. Murad's latest red-carpet coup is having dressed the young actress Miley Cyrus for the Academy Awards; he also dresses Heather Graham, Whitney Houston, Christina Aguilera, the Desperate Housewives star Nicolette Sheridan and icons like Joan Collins, who has switched allegiance to him since Valentino's retirement. He also has a host of glamorous Middle Eastern ladies, such as the renowned Lebanese singer Sabah, whose wedding dress he designed in 2002. He has dressed a number of famous Middle Eastern brides, including a few princesses: "I enjoy doing bridal and making a girl's dreams a reality." And it seems there is no age limit - he dressed Ivana Trump, who is in her late fifties, for her wedding a year ago.
His luxe collections are sold in the best fashion stores around the world and he has plans to open a boutique in London, his fourth after Beirut, Paris and Dubai. Interestingly, 60 to 70 per cent of his business is now outside the Middle East, he says; there are a lot of customers in France, Russia and America who love his particularly feminine spin on fashion. "I would really like to build the name with stores in New York and London," he says.
In the 1950s and Sixties, Paris and Rome did not hold the monopoly on haute couture: many clients would travel to Beirut, which was considered the "Paris of the Middle East", to be dressed. There is a great heritage for the couture craft in the city, which still survives today in the hands of Murad, Saab and Chakra among others. There are still excellent artisans producing the delicate embroidery, beadwork and lots of hand-detailing and embellishment, which are personal passions of Murad's. Yet he admits Beirut's designers are facing the same problems as the haute couturiers in Paris. "The new generation are not going into this sort of work. My atelier is full of very old ladies who I want to tell to 'go home and relax', but at the same time I don't want to lose them." It means he also has had to look further afield to India to do some of the beadwork.
"I am a person who works too much on the smaller details. I like to take a design from A to Z: the drawing, the fabrics, patterns, embroideries and fittings," he says. On the flip side, he adds, "I hate accounts!" Nevertheless, he has built his business from scratch and today employs 150 people in Beirut and Paris. Born in Baalbeck, the 35-year-old designer began drawing as a young boy, dashing off portraits of family and friends. "I loved art and all that related to it. It was my escape valve," he says. "In Beirut there was nothing, just the war. It was very difficult. There were no fashion shows, no fashion magazines, everything had closed. From the age of five to 20 we moved from city to city, house to house. It was not a good moment but I was so focused on what I wanted to do." He began cutting fabrics and making clothes for his two older sisters, but his parents tried to discourage his artistic ambitions, preferring him to choose a "safer" career. However, he says, "I believed in my talent and knew what I wanted to do."
With French as his second language, he left Lebanon shortly after high school to study at the Chambre Syndicale's fashion school in Paris. He returned to Lebanon in the mid-1990s and at the age of 21 opened his first atelier on his own, initially dressing friends. "It was very hard in the beginning, but my message to every young designer is that Beirut is a place of opportunity. Nothing is impossible if you have the right attitude." He admits, though, that it has taken great dedication and a willingness to work 24 hours a day. He is not married and his social life seems to be low on his priority list.
Lebanese couture had a vibrant period between the 1950s and 1970s, before the war, but the fashion industry then virtually disappeared for 20 years while the country was riven by unrest and occupation. Then as peace came in the 1990s, a new generation of talent emerged, including Murad. "The political situation affected everyone; it was very hard and we suffered a lot." There was an unwelcome reminder of how precarious the situation still is when war broke out again three years ago, just days after the July haute couture shows in Paris where Murad, Saab and Chakra had showcased their autumn couture collections. Saab's team had just got back to the city before the airport was closed while a delivery of Murad's clients' completed orders disappeared in transit - the clothes simply vanished. Murad, though, is sanguine about the incident: "Lebanese designers are survivors." Wisely, each of them had already established ateliers in Paris and their new collections were still there while clients were placing orders.
Murad, like Saab, chose Rome to make his debut at the haute couture collections and he subsequently picked up Ago D'Oro award for best international designer. After three years he moved the collection to Paris, where he has been a fixture ever since and hoping that, like Saab, he will soon become a Correspondent Member of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. Only Paris-based haute couture houses become full members of the highly protective Chambre, so even the likes of Giorgio Armani and Valentino cannot graduate beyond Correspondent Members.
Although haute couture's obituary is perpetually being written in the press, the buzz of glamorous new clients from Russia, India, China and the Middle East at the shows earlier this year is giving the craft a boost. There is still a demand for romance and otherworldly dreams, perhaps more so these days when there is so much gloom in the western media. The long, glamorous siren gowns from the Lebanese designers are a little more competitively priced than the outfits from the houses like Christian Dior and Chanel, but Murad says it is not a huge difference - although labour costs are slightly cheaper in Beirut - and he has clients who also wear Jean-Paul Gaultier and Christian Lacroix. "I feel very positive about the future of couture. It is an art like painting or composing a piece of music. I don't think couture will die. I think it is nice to still care about a woman's personality and making her look beautiful."
Certainly for Murad and his peers, despite the rest of the world's economic troubles, business is booming. He is a determined man, and completely dedicated to his craft. "Lebanese are positive people. History shows, perhaps because of our war experiences, that we are ambitious, intelligent and resilient survivors," he explains. "We are steeped in Middle Eastern tradition, but we have a European touch and you will notice that wherever you find Lebanese people in the world they are people who really want to do something with their lives." Judging by the confidently romantic rose-trimmed dresses, brocade bustiers and bouncy flower-scrolled skirts on the catwalk, Murad is well on the way to fulfilling that ambition.