x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Lebanon dresses for excess

Greater political stability and a healthy economy have put people in a festive mood, fuelling the demand for high-end fashion.

Staff at Rabih Kayrouz in Beirut assemble couture clothing.
Staff at Rabih Kayrouz in Beirut assemble couture clothing.

BEIRUT // Jocelyne Abdelmalak, president of the Georges Chakra fashion house, perches on a fuchsia sofa under a weighty chandelier, seemingly oblivious of the flouncing of sequins and snowy netting that is going on at the far end of the room. The woman under the yards of fabric has chosen a gown from this year's collection that consists of a short, spangled dress with a vast detachable skirt and train.

In a country where private weddings are photographed for specialist magazines and endlessly scrutinised, her dress will have the kudos of being a couture piece from a well-known designer that costs thousands of dollars. But she will be by no means unique. The Chakra house, said Ms Abdelmalak, has been untouched by the global consumer slump. "We have the same business as before," she said. "When you make your fashion show in Paris, it is for an international audience," which has, she says, seen a distinct downturn in purchasing power. But this is more than compensated for by the Lebanese, who are, she estimates, buying 20 per cent more than last year.

High-end fashion has suffered in the global downturn. Christian Lacroix, the revered haute couturier, bid a tearful farewell after what is likely to be his last show at Paris Fashion Week, after embroiderers and seamstresses worked without pay for his bankrupt fashion house. Recently, the old world glamour of Balmain could no longer afford to keep up its loss-making couture line, and designers Nina Ricci and Emmanuel Ungaro have also been forced to go ready-to-wear only.

The Lebanese couture scene, on the other hand, is looking rather healthy. Rabih Kayrouz is a young designer whose clean lines and bold colours attract the youthful wealthy. Two months ago, Paris's Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, which regulates the world of high fashion, invited him to be a guest member, and he has just opened his first atelier in a 1930s theatre in France. This summer, as every summer for the last decade, he is turning away orders for couture wedding gowns from his Beirut atelier in an old French Ottoman house in the Gemmayze district, declining to make more than 50. He has just created his first ready-to-wear wedding dress, its muted chic a different beast from the sequins of Chakra, but a sure hit nonetheless.

The impetus behind the upwards trend for Lebanese designers is a happy alchemy of politics and economics. The country's fragile security, which remained shaky after the 2006 war with Israel, and which flared up in May last year when the militant political group Hizbollah took over some of west Beirut, has held steady this year. The June elections in which the Hizbollah-led opposition was slated to do well passed off peacefully and the parliamentary majority remained the Saad Hariri-led March 14 coalition. Many of the Lebanese who came home to vote - in their tens of thousands - have stayed for the summer and been joined by tourists, and the confluence of so much of Lebanon's vast diaspora in the home country has made this a bumper year for parties.

"Couture is for weddings," said Ms Abdelmalak, "and we always dress the mother and the sister of the bride as well. We are doing a wedding tomorrow, Saturday and Sunday ? of course it is a good year." Of the company's couture collection, more than half the dresses have been requested in white. Her niece is, she adds, being married in October, simply because there was nowhere available to be married in the summer.

Ms Abdelmalak's colleague chimed in that she spoke to one "very high-end" Beirut caterer, who had taken bookings for 850 weddings this summer. A beach resort, EddéSands, is hosting 64 weddings this summer, a huge increase on last year, and wedding planners report increased budgets of hundreds of thousands of dollars. "Business didn't stop at all," said Mr Kayrouz of the global consumer slump. "We didn't realise at all there was something bad happening."

While there have always been grand weddings in Lebanon, even during the 2006 war, now, he says, "it is a trend to make a big party - it's like a competition". Nelly Choucair Zeidan, 36, is a Lebanese mother of four who loves fashion and supports the Lebanese economy by buying from Lebanese designers. Over a glass of water in Beirut's downtown area, rebuilt since the civil war and now packed with designer outlets and beautiful people, Dr Zeidan explains that the summer has been a busy one.

"I have been invited to more events this summer - engagements, wedding parties, beach parties, charity events ? There was a disco party where everything was white, gold and silver and a private party in the middle of the castle among the ruins at Beiteddine, with the contrast between the old castle, the silver decorations and the huge candelabra." At all of these events, the women were wearing designer clothes, and the hosts were keen to display themselves at their best to their revenant compatriots. "All the Lebanese diaspora," she said, "were forbidden to come because of the instability of Lebanon, and now they are here ? and because you have more Lebanese people in Lebanon, the parties are bigger and more extravagant."

She has herself bought a sequinned skirt by the Lebanese designer Elie Saab this summer, and describes "competitive dressing" among women. Thomas Schellen, an economic analyst, puts the strong performance of designers in the context of Lebanon bucking the economic downturn in a number of ways. A relatively cautious and tightly regulated banking system, which was not particularly well integrated into the global system which crashed, protected Lebanese money.

An International Monetary Fund report this week predicted a "soft landing of the Lebanese economy in spite of the global financial crisis and recession", with growth of four per cent anticipated for 2009. "The impact of the global financial crisis on Lebanon has so far been muted," said the report. Mr Schellen continued: "Lebanon's economy has been under subdued conditions for 10 out of the last 15 years, related to internal or external security issues. So when you look at revenue potential for tourism we are at a phase of exceptional increase. Beirut has the strongest increase in hotel occupancy of any Arab country."

At a press conference last month, the tourism minister Elie Marouni said: "Last year 1.4 million tourists came to Lebanon, and we hope that the number this year will reach two million, if security and political stability persist"- although many of these tourists are in fact Lebanese expatriates. Another factor keeping the economy afloat is what Mr Schellen called the "Lebanese habit" of overspending in times of crisis. "Europeans read a bad employment report, they go home and sit on their money. The Lebanese have a party."

The success of Lebanese designers is a trend, said Mr Kayrouz, which will feed on itself. "The young generation of Lebanese can now afford to say to their parents that they want to be fashion designers, because Lebanese fashion designers are doing so well." The country's ability to afford beautiful things even now, he said, stems from an old-fashioned approach. "We were living in an era when money had become very virtual ? but in Lebanon we're still coming out from the war, so things didn't get very big and overpriced."

"People here know what money means. "We still have to see the money to know we are rich." * The National