Michael Karam: British style hits the Beirut retail scene

How a British shoe brand is signalling the revival of the small Lebanese trader that just wants to do well.

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When it comes to copying a look, the Lebanese don’t really do British. Granted, Range Rovers are the poshest 4x4s to own – a result of too many second-hand BMW X5s and Porsche Cayennes on the roads – and yes, there are more than a few Mini Coopers zipping around Beirut, but our aesthetic is more American or continental Euro­pean, basically French and Italian, than the stereotypical buttoned-up Brit.

But I love it because I grew up in England, where my father, who hadn’t, didn’t really get what his son had become. I remember him wondering why I chose a heavy, double-breasted pinstripe for my first proper suit. “Why not go for a lighter Italian weave?” he would ask, before once again rounding on my choice of shoes, reminding me that Bally Suisse made the most exquisitely comfortable footwear money could buy and snorting at my love for what he thought were brutish and clunky Brogues and Oxfords. And in a sense he was speaking for an entire nation.

Peter Jahchan wants to change all that. The 53-year-old former construction claims consultant knows a thing or two about build quality and is convinced that the Lebanese man is ready for a significant sartorial shift. In fact, he is so convinced that he put his money where his feet are and sec­ured the Lebanon and Jordan franchise for Loake, makers of thunderingly traditional British footwear. And this month, Mr Jahchan, who spent 14 years working in the US before returning to Lebanon three years ago, opened his Loake shop in the Beirut Central District.

Why all the fuss over a shoemaker? Honestly? Well, shoes are more interesting than, say, ball bearings and Loake is an exciting, if obscure, brand. But on a macro level, for those of us who have been following the decline of the BCD in recent years, of how an area, specifically created to be a shopfront for Lebanese retail, has become a virtual ghost town because of political squabbles, the new Loake store represents the voice of the small Lebanese trader who simply wants to get on. It’s a signal that the Lebanese want to do business and that the much-maligned city centre might just be beginning to experience more rental uptake now that the new prime minister and president have buried the hatchet.

“The BCD is a terrific location and despite everything offers the best bang for buck on the market in terms of accessibility and prestige,” explains Mr Jahchan, who, when he’s not selling shoes, smokes a pipe and has a fondness for dandyish three-piece suits. The natty threads hide a gritty determination. “Lebanon needs to be run like a business,” he says. “The government should be there simply to audit and let the Lebanese people work their magic.” And he’s right.

Loake is a familiar name to British consumers but it is probably not as well known globally as John Lobb or Church's. Outside the UK, the only Loake stores are in Ireland, France, Chile and Poland – and now Lebanon. The brand has been associated with the hipster revival in the UK, where Loake's Chester Brogue and Brighton tassel loafer have become the sine qua non for Shoreditch groovers. Mr Jahchan is no doubt banking on the Lebanese designer, music and art crowd to embrace his shoes with similar gusto. And he is convinced what he sees as Loake's authenticity will be key to the brand's success. "The company has been working out of the same factory in Kettering, Northampton, [home of the British shoe industry] for the past 137 years," he says.

And for those of us of a certain age with about 15 to 20 of useful working years left to us, Mr Jahchan’s is a story of fulfilling a modest dream. “You see, my grandfather on my mother’s side was a professional shoemaker,” he says. “So it is a duty for me to pay hommage to his legacy. I got sick and tired of investing my energy and know­ledge for the benefit of others. Shoes are a passion for me and I cannot possibly think of any other trade where I could be happier.”

Here’s to more like him.

Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton.


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