Made in the Middle East

::photo_caption::Rabih Kayrouz::/photo_caption::

Lebanese native Rabih Kayrouz tells ROLLING STONE why the region’s designers should go back to their roots.

By Claire Carruthers
Jul 04, 2013

“Why is the best wine in France? Because it is. Why are the best dates from the Gulf? Because this is where they’re done. For me, fashion is from Paris.”

Lebanese designer Rabih Kayrouz has just made a guest speaker turn for a panel discussion on Middle Eastern fashion identity during Dubai’s inaugural Fashion Forward (FFWD) trade event – or what is being hailed as the U.A.E.’s answer to a fashion week. “Before having a fashion week, I would prefer to have electricity,” he jokes. “I am happy to be Lebanese, to work in Lebanon and present my work in France. Paris is the best place to do fashion week, it started there.”

For anyone who has attended a regional fashion week and left disappointed, Kayrouz’s comments are refreshingly honest: Yes, he believes there is talent to come out of the Middle East and undiscovered designers to be found and nurtured here (his role as co-founder of Beirut’s Starch Foundation is testament to this – more on that later), but is there a homegrown industry? Perhaps not – at least, not yet.

“When we start having a real ‘Made in the Middle East’, then we will start having a real fashion show,” he says. “In terms of design, we still don’t have enough identity – we take out traditional roles and instead designers are inspired by what they do in Europe, so it becomes something a bit weird. Those black abayas end up with Prada-inspired embroidery or Gucci studs or some gold things inspired by Dolce & Gabbana – I don’t understand what it is.”

At 16, Kayrouz, who went to French schools in Lebanon, moved to France to continue his fashion studies. In the years that followed, he completed his degree and apprenticed with Dior and Chanel. In 1995, he made what he thought was going to be a short trip to Beirut, but he forgot about one small but highly consequential detail: 12 months of mandatory military service. Instead of returning to Paris he went to boot camp and when his army days ended, found a demand for his designs from local society ladies – a profitable network that remains loyal to the maison of Kayrouz today.

True to his authentic approach to design, Kayrouz discards any regional stereotypes: Gone are the Swarovski-encrusted bodices and oversized embellishment in favor of pragmatic cutting, draped fluidity and subtle sculpting – or simply put, ‘wearable’ couture and ready-to-wear (“I wanted to work on this wardrobe thing, not to just do special dresses for special occasions”) that he presents at Paris Fashion Week (he has been a guest member of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture – the French fashion world’s incredibly picky governing body – since 2008). More recently, he has created a small collection exclusive to Saudi Arabia, working with “local ladies from a non-profit organization who do beautiful, traditional embroideries.”

“Most of the Middle Eastern ladies walk like stars all the time  – they consider everywhere their red carpet,” he says, laughing. “It’s interesting because they have this attitude of walking and moving that inspires a certain kind of clothing. The embellishment we’re using now is not ours – our traditions are much more pure, much more simple, and we forgot them. This cliché that we have of Lebanese designers is not a cliché. They are doing something for a certain lifestyle. I am doing something else for another lifestyle.”

Frustrated not merely by the Middle East’s displaced fashion traditions but by a wider loss of cultural identity, Kayrouz reflects on “the architecture of old – we forgot, why? Old houses were once closed with a courtyard, now you cannot even find courtyard houses. Instead we’re inspired by I don’t know what architecture. But those glass houses, in a country full of sun and heat!”

Hoping to motivate a new breed of Middle Eastern designer to “show exactly what they want to show, and to be proud of what they are showing,” Kayrouz co-founded the Starch Foundation – a Beirut-based project that he launched with director and Central Saint Martins alumni Tala Hajjar to provide mentoring and support to an annually rotating roster of aspiring young designers, and shop space to showcase their designs in the city’s Downtown area.

“I believe in launching designers, I believe in helping them,” he says. “Each one has his or her own story and aesthetics. I have to feel that they have something to say, to express, and this is how I choose them – if they have this, je ne sais quoi. You see that they’re still young, they still have to improve, but I think everybody deserves a chance and everybody has to start somewhere to evolve.”

For FFWD, three Starch 2012-2013 designers presented their latest collections in one combined show: Bashar Assaf, Hussein Bazaza and Celine Der Torossian (under her brand name Azade) – names to look out for in the future. “If you come to this region you can find certain things that you can’t find anywhere else,” says Kayrouz. “I believe in that. But I believe as well that we can start having more fashion designers from the Middle East showing in Paris, Milan, New York or London.”

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