The Paris of the Middle East? It's something of a cliché, but as a shopping destination Beirut is coming ever closer to deserving that accolade, thanks to an ongoing spate of boutique launches by French luxury brands. While the Lebanese have never given up their claim to having the most creative and fashionable city in the region, the malls of the Gulf notwithstanding, for many outside the Middle East, who haven't visited the city, Beirut has remained tainted by its history of conflict. For businesses that has made it a risky proposition, however strong the shopping instinct of its inhabitants.
Yet things are changing. Businesses from the UAE have had their eye on the area for some time, with Boutique 1 opening a branch in Beirut's Park Lane last year, and the Dubai property developer Damac employing Versace Home to furnish its Damac Towers in the city's marina, to open in 2013. The pace of international launches is increasing too, for better or worse - there are those who prefer the jewellery workshops and quirky boutiques of Gemmayzeh or the rough-and-ready atmosphere of Hamra to the Downtown area's upscale streets, while the new Souks complex has been controversial with its high-street inhabitants replacing the traders of earlier times. The meticulously reconstructed streets are filled with "opening soon" hoardings for brands such as Hermès and Chanel, and there is a plethora of shop interiors designed by the ubiquitous Peter Marino, prompting the star interior designer to tell Women's Wear Daily at the Chanel couture show that Beirut is "where it's all happening right now".
Marino was also the interior designer for the Louis Vuitton store, which opened with a huge party and an influx of international guests last week. In Allenby Street, in the Downtown district, the French leather goods brand opened a two-storey shop (with room to expand upstairs) in a building that has been renovated as part of the plan by Solidère, the property company entrusted with much of Beirut's rebuild.
Vuitton was at pains to make this a very Beiruti affair. The windows featured an installation by the Lebanese artist Marwan Rechmaoui, while inside a handmade "special order" case held the canisters for the Beirut-based hit movie, Caramel. The party was held in La Bulle (the semi-derelict bubble-shaped theatre that is one of the city's most poignant landmarks), where the very hip singer Yasmine Hamdan, of the Lebanese electro band The Soap Kills, was the main entertainment, attracting the likes of Catherine Deneuve and Haifa Wehbe (not to mention Christian Louboutin, who turned up having just that week opened his own two-storey concept store in Fakhry Bey Street).
The shop, in fact, is Vuitton's second attempt at opening in Beirut: three years ago, the brand's projected opening was interrupted by the 2007 Lebanon conflict. That LVMH, along with luxury brands from Chloé to Chanel, now consider Beirut a viable option is a significant vote of confidence in the city's regeneration and in its people. "There is no question that Lebanon is by nature unstable and that we have to be ready to brace ourselves for future crisis, primarily of geo-political, but also economical nature," says Damien Vernet, GM for the Middle East and India.
"However the resilience of the market and of the people is without compare. If anything, the events of the past few years, while we were preparing for this opening, have proven the capacity of Lebanon to rebound and push forward. Although we are not the first luxury brand to enter this market, we are the first to open with a direct control of our operations, a further sign of our confidence in Lebanon."
Beirut is not, of course, the only spot in the Middle East to receive a renewed interest from international brands following the financial crisis of the past couple of years, but it is certainly one of the most inspiring. While Dubai's malls continue to be the first choice for labels looking for a springboard into the region, the live-today attitude of the people of Beirut, combined with its historic setting, lively art scene and existing vibrant fashion culture, make an appealing proposition for brands seeking new, affluent and cash-happy customers (albeit in a city that still suffers far more than its fair share of poverty and strife).
Naysayers aside, with the country's own designers continuing to make waves in Paris and New York, and the likes of Rabih Kayrouz trying to "give something back" by supporting the local design scene (his Saifi Village boutique Starch gives young designers a platform in a very upmarket shopping street), Lebanon's creative chops mean that Beirut can afford to welcome international brands without diluting its own character.
Lebanon is home to Byblos, believed to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Reinvention is part of its character. Which makes Beirut and fashion a perfect match.