This summer, The National's fashion team spent 48-hours in Beirut, where they produced the fashion shoot for the September edition of Luxury magazine. From jewellery makers inspired by the art of crochet, to clutches crafted by prisoners and clothing that speaks of the feminist struggle, here are some of the happenings in the Lebanese fashion scene that made an impression during our whirlwind visit.
Currently housed at the Starch Foundation (established by Rabih Kayrouz and Tala Hajjar to support emerging designers) in Beirut's Saifi district, Roni Helou is an upcoming label that's gaining rapid recognition for its on-trend and almost androgynous approach to garment design. Helou's namesake label offers statement pieces that are edgy and unique adaptions of wardrobe classics, like a white button-down shirt and pinstripe tuxedo vest. Deconstructed shirts and utilitarian silhouettes are the young designer's forte, and his signature pieces include trousers with knee-high slits, midi-shirt-dresses with floor-length appendages and jumpsuits with edgy cut-outs.
"When I start with the design process, my last concern is to design wearable and sellable pieces. I'm all about experimenting, creating new silhouettes and coming up with new ideas by turning a blind eye to basic rules like symmetry and gender," he says.
Although his garments are far from your typical picture of femininity, Helou says that his autumn/winter 2017 range is inspired by the evolution of feminism. "The long bands and strips symbolise the oppression women have experienced throughout history, and the gradual integration of menswear suiting fabrics into the pieces represent the upwards struggle towards equality, one wave at a time."
Best known for her quirky, conversation-starting clutches, Sarah Beydoun is a designer whose inspirations supersede mere glamour. She works with around 200 different artisans who are all either ex-prisoners, prisoners or women from underprivileged backgrounds, living in Lebanon. "They are responsible for the signature decorative handwork on our bags, specialising in beading, crocheting, sequinning, stitching and embroidery. Depending on how much handwork the bag requires, it can take each artisan up to 25 to 30 hours to finish a single piece," she says.
Her collections have featured clutches crafted from canvas, straw and plexi-glass, along with more heavy-duty materials. "For the past three years we've also started working with wood: carved wood, wood with pearl inlay and wood marquetry," she adds. Recent designs are emblazoned with empowering slogans and messages like "the future is female," "women of the world unite" and "universal love". She's also inspired by the city of Beirut – "it is one of my favourite and most enduring muses," she says.
Though Sarah's Bag also has totes and cross-body silhouettes, the brand is best-known for its oversized clutches. "An oversized clutch conveys boldness about the style of the woman wearing it," she says. "And what woman doesn't love a roomy bag?"
Exaggerated ruffles and three-dimensional cutwork cover the creations of Beirut-based designer Mira Hayek. "I design for playful, creative and confident women," she says. The designer's background in graphic design is evident from her style approach, which combines bold, geometric elements with interesting texture combinations and easy-to-wear silhouettes. Many of her collections are based around black-and-white combinations, with a pop of colour thrown in for good measure. "A monochromatic palette adds contrast and visual intensity to the piece. Also, adding a third colour to a black-and-white palette gives it a strong graphic aesthetic," she says. Hayek's autumn/winter 2017 collection is inspired by Koralie – a French street artist known for kitschy graffiti-style geisha characters.
"Koralie infuses aesthetic elements taken from different cultures, such as African braids, English curls, Russian dolls and Indian folklore right into her street art," says Hayek. "We mixed pieces such as the kimono, the poncho and the abaya, in a contemporary sportswear collection."
The designer plays around with proportion and volume in her creations, and while the pieces may feature feminine elements like ruffles and peplums, the overall looks evoke strength and confidence.
With a refreshing new take on jewellery, Elie Mouhanne and his label Marsaben are leading a quiet revolution. Hailing from Beirut, and also part of the Starch Foundation, Mouhanne is unlike any jewellery designer you are likely to have come across before.
He approaches his work from a philosophical, fine art perspective, and creates his pieces using crochet. His strikingly simple creations are sculptural yet understated, and give no hint of the time each has taken to create.
Using a fine gauge crochet hook and thin mercerised cotton, Mouhanne creates tubular shapes that are densely covered in either matt metallic sequins or tiny beads, producing a lustrous, luxurious surface. "This is structural crochet, so it is very much based on calculations," Mouhanne explains. "Strangely, I never design my pieces, I just figure out the geometry, and then I discover what they look like when they are finished."
His pieces are made to be worn, but are unconventional in how they relate to the body. One ear piece is a continuous loop stretching from ear to ear, another is a necklace that juts out from the body, both awkward and unusual. "I like contradictions, rituals and repetition," he says. "I filter what I do and it changes from material to material. It becomes organic."
E-commerce is the future of fashion, and Beirut-based Lebelik.com is capitalising on the potential of the digital market by creating an online community exclusively for Lebanese designers.
A large variety of illustrated mugs, gold-plated jewellery, beaded accessories and designs emblazoned with Arabic slogans created by over 60 Lebanese designers are available on the site. The platform targets consumers seeking to combine culture with contemporary trends in the way that they dress.
"Mostly, these people live in a way where they can relate to an occidental lifestyle, but they still add a Middle-Eastern touch to their way of living, be it through their beliefs, for example by hanging the hand of Fatima or the blue evil eye to their living space," Lebelik's co-founder Louise Doumet explains. The e-commerce site also sells a wide range of robes and abayas, which are stamped with floral prints or embellished with pearls. "The abaya is now being used as a stylistic element for those who are living in warm weather, which becomes cooler in the evening, another void that we have tapped into by providing a large array of abaya designs," she says.
Best-selling brands on the site include Nada Zeineh, who creates eclectic fine jewellery, and Jessica K, a contemporary ready-to-wear brand.