Lebanon’s designers find slivers of hope among shattered dreams: 'The urge to rebuild is primordial'

In the wake of the August 4 explosion, a number of the country's world-renowned creatives express their fears, frustrations and desire for wide-scale change

Gaelle Khoury. Courtesy Gaelle Khoury
Powered by automated translation

A tulle-fringed Andrea Wazen stiletto sits in the rubble, its heel bent at an unnatural angle, like a broken limb. A pretty pink armchair stands defiantly in the Azzi & Osta showroom, now incongruously open to the elements. And a colourful sketch by Nicolas Jebran, of the outfits proudly donned by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion for their WAP music video, is submerged under deadly looking shards of glass.

The scenes that emerged from the ateliers and boutiques of Beirut’s world-renowned fashion designers in the wake of the explosion on August 4 poignantly encapsulated the tragedy of Lebanon. A handful of searing images, showing objects of ethereal beauty juxtaposed against a backdrop of widespread destruction, told the story of a flourishing creative scene, of international success achieved against the odds, and of immense potential laid to waste within a matter of moments.

'Words are not enough. We will not forget'

That sense of loss was reflected in the haunted look of master couturier Rabih Kayrouz, who posted a black-and-white picture of himself on Instagram in the days following the blast, announcing that he had suffered a small brain haemorrhage and two blood clots. In typical Lebanese fashion, his caption included a note of defiance, but also hinted at the joie de vivre that we have all come to expect from our Lebanese friends. “Words are not enough. We will not forget. We will judge. We will rebuild ... And we will dance!,” he wrote.

Lebanese designer Rabih Kayrouz suffered a small brain haemorrhage and two clots in the Beirut explosion. Instagram / maisonrabihkayrouz
Lebanese designer Rabih Kayrouz suffered a small brain haemorrhage and two clots in the Beirut explosion. Instagram / maisonrabihkayrouz

Dance they will – but first they must take stock. "We can't plan, we're all in survival mode," Rami Kadi told Luxury in the week after the catastrophe. "The disaster affected me on a personal level as deeply as is possible – emotionally, mentally and financially. My showroom is completely destroyed, our gowns are shattered, our offices are damaged, our houses are affected by broken glass. Gratefully, the team had already left the premises."

Our atelier had no physical damage, but we did lose an employee. Tanios Mkhayel Murr. I say his name so we never forget

The losses are endless, and come in multiple forms. “How do you put into words the level of impact the explosion had? I honestly am not sure how I can do that,” says industry stalwart Georges Chakra. “Our atelier had no physical damage, but we did lose an employee. Tanios Mkhayel Murr. I say his name so we never forget. He had retired a couple years back after working for us for over 20 years. We are completely devastated, not just for Tony but for all of Beirut, for all its people.”

'It killed our plans and our dreams with it'

The three siblings behind the Mukhi Sisters jewellery brand, Maya, Meena and Zeenat Mukhi, sum up the feelings of many Lebanese in the starkest terms possible. “This explosion destroyed a part of Beirut and it killed our plans and our dreams with it. We don’t feel safe anymore. It is easy to fix broken glass, but how do you get the strength to wake up and build your life again?”

Lebanon was already on its knees before the explosion ricocheted outwards from Beirut’s port. Widespread corruption, a devalued currency, Covid-19 lockdowns and growing disillusionment with the government were converging to create an impossible environment for designers to operate in.

“Lebanon’s socio-economic and financial collapse earlier this year, aggravated by the global pandemic, was having a devastating impact on small and medium enterprises across a large number of sectors, in particular the luxury sector,” explains jewellery designer Gaelle Khouri.

“As a locally produced brand, we were dealing with a shortfall of imported raw materials, which were becoming, on one hand, less accessible due to imposed capital control restrictions, and on the other hand, more expensive due to the heavy devaluation of the Lebanese lira. In a context where Lebanon’s economy is highly import-dependent, many businesses were forced to stop their operations,” Khouri continues.

'It will be a smaller, weaker industry'

For some, there is little hope to be had at present. “Right now I have none,” says a deflated Ralph Masri, whose store and home were both close to the epicentre of the explosion and suffered extensive damage.
“I’m not thinking about rebuilding yet as I am now rethinking my whole business strategy. You cannot run a business in such an incredibly unstable atmosphere.”

Even if the industry can rebuild – and Masri says that, in the short to medium-term, he is not optimistic – it may never regain its former clout. “It will be a smaller, weaker industry and not many will survive the current crisis,” he says.

Others are more optimistic, and think that Lebanon’s fashion community can rise from the ashes strengthened and improved, although it is impossible to put a timeline on any such recovery. “I feel that if any fashion house had a change to make, now is the perfect time,” says Chakra. “The industry is already going through changes, focusing more on sustainability, slow fashion and other initiatives. We are all starting from zero, and what better way than to rebuild with a new focus and mission.”

NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 10:  Designer Georges Chakra is interviewed backstage at the Edition by Georges Chakra Spring 2011 fashion show during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week  at The Stage at Lincoln Center on September 10, 2010 in New York City.  (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images for IMG)
Designer Georges Chakra. Getty Images

A desire for change is burning brightly across the country, particularly among the young – and this is mirrored in the fashion industry. “The hope I have after this tragedy is that we, the young, can finally reclaim our country and build it the way we know it should be,” says designer Roni Helou, whose layered, contradictory, artisanal creations reflect the city that he calls home.

“Due to rampant corruption within governmental institutions, people have only civil society to turn to when looking for change. This is why the team and I, along with Starch Foundation, Bureau des Createurs, Maison Pyramide, Slow Factory and Faux Consultancy, have set up an online fund to support 40 creatives who were affected by the explosion,” he explains.

'Fall down seven times, get up eight'

In the midst of his obvious despair, Kadi points to the resilience of the Lebanese people and their ability to rally in the face of adversity, but also highlighted the things that have been lost and will never be regained. “Fall down seven times, get up eight. Beirut was destroyed seven times and rebuilt; we will build it again. The Lebanese are so resilient.

“But the traditional traits of the destroyed buildings, the arcades, the architecture, the heritage will not be back, unfortunately. It will be polished, and it’ll lose its authenticity. But the memories are carved in our hearts forever,” says Kadi.

Gaelle Khouri categories the explosion as a “crime against humanity”, and also highlights all the history, heritage and collective identity that were indiscriminately destroyed as the blast pummelled its way through the city’s streets. “No words can describe the horror that shook the city or the aftermath that is being brought upon the Lebanese people,” she says. “The street of Mar Mikhael where I live and work on was transformed to an open space of widespread destruction and dead bodies.

"We are crying over our crumbling heritage architecture and our lost beautiful buildings dating back to the Ottoman Empire. The residential and commercial neighbourhoods of Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhael that constitute the hub for art and creativity in Lebanon, with their little boutiques and art galleries, are reduced to ashes and shattered glass.

epa08646206 A rescue team from Chile work with Lebanese civil defense in a rescue mission at the site of a collapsed building after a scanner and a sniffer dog from the rescue team detected that there might be survivors under the rubble at Mar Mikhael area in Beirut, Lebanon, 04 September 2020. According to Lebanese Health Ministry, at least 190 people were killed, and more than six thousand injured in the Beirut blast that devastated the port area on 04 August and believed to have been caused by an estimated 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in a warehouse.  EPA/NABIL MOUNZER
Beirut's Mar Mikhael area, pictured on September 4. EPA

“The manufacturing area of Bourj Hammoud, where my workshop and other manufacturing workshops are located, has been severely impacted and the production equipment incurred great damages.”

'I saw a beautiful unity amongst the fashion community'

In these dark times, the only consolation to be had is rooted in the sense of unity that prevailed in the aftermath of the explosion. Volunteers took to the streets to organise grassroots clean-up operations; tales of everyday heroism emerged; and communities around the globe rallied to show their support of the country. Lebanon’s design industry was no different.

“I saw a beautiful unity amongst the fashion community,” says Hussein Bazaza, a young Beirut-born designer who has enjoyed meteoric success in recent years. “We as designers were calling each other and each offering help in cleaning and picking up the pieces from each other’s ateliers. I hope this unity will forever prevail amongst Lebanese people, especially in the fashion industry. I also hope we will all rise, rebuild better and stronger.”

Hussein Bazaza. Courtesy Hussein Bazaza
Lebanese fashion designer Hussein Bazaza. Courtesy Hussein Bazaza

This consolidated approach will be key to the resurgence of Beirut’s creative community, says Khouri, but first the focus must fall on addressing the immediate humanitarian crisis sweeping through Lebanon. “The urge to rebuild is primordial, but the most urgent matter that must be addressed today is the humanitarian crisis of the country. The only pressing need for every local community including the creative community is to work collectively to provide food and shelter for the 300,000 Lebanese who have lost their homes and livelihood, and to provide medical support to the thousands of wounded people.

The urge to rebuild is primordial, but the most urgent matter that must be addressed today is the humanitarian crisis of the country

“Once the humanitarian crisis is managed, the creative community should, in my opinion, work collectively and simultaneously to rebuild the crumbled workshops and boutiques that are located in the heart of Beirut – which will be only made possible through external donations and investment – and to channel their traumatising experience and awful pain through their work.

“That would help them on one hand, dissipate their agony, and on the other hand, convey the image of Lebanon to the global community as a country with a beautiful history and heritage architecture and as a home for skilled artisanship.”

Stay or leave?

While some Lebanese designers had been playing with the idea of leaving the country for months before the explosion, for the most part, they now remain committed to staying in Beirut to support its recovery. For many Lebanese creatives, the question of whether to leave or stay is a fundamental, soul-deep dilemma: the country is their muse, an inextricable part of their creative drive. And muses cannot be so easily abandoned, even if they are troublesome, and even when obstacles feel insurmountable.

“Lebanon is everything for us. It’s always a source of our inspiration and we know that whatever we do going forward will be more and more an ode to Lebanon. We like to think that we create dreams and those dreams are made in Lebanon,” says George Azzi and Assaad Osta, the design duo behind Azzi & Osta.

PARIS, FRANCE - JULY 01: A model poses during the Azzi & Osta Paris Fashion Week Haute Couture Autumn Winter 2019-20 presentation on July 01, 2019 in Paris, France. (Photo by Francois Durand/Getty Images for Azzi & Osta)
A look from Azzi & Osta's haute couture autumn/winter 2019-20 collection. Getty Images

Nonetheless, practicalities say that many designers from Beirut will need to start setting up international outposts, to create some kind of safety net.

“Since the beginning of the crisis in Lebanon, we contemplated leaving, yet we said our roots are here. That was the reason we invested all into the new location we moved into. Now we feel strongly that we will rebuild and rise again for sure in Lebanon, but we will need to create bases outside Lebanon as well. We can’t keep seeing our hard work and dreams shattered,” say Azzi and Osta.

Design duo Azzi & Osta had moved into brand new premises just before the explosion on August 4. Courtesy Azzi & Osta
Design duo Azzi & Osta had moved into brand new premises just before the explosion on August 4. Courtesy Azzi & Osta

For young, up-and-coming, self-financed designers such as Bazaza, the future is particularly precarious. While he has so far been entirely auto-financed, and takes great pride in being self-made, he recognises that he will need an outside investor in order to carry on.

'It’s so hard to leave home'

“I have already started with fixing my atelier, but the question is how will I rebuild the brand in the long run,” he says. “It’s not a matter of glass and windows being shattered, it’s a matter of being able to survive all the economic uncertainty we are facing. I am a purely auto-financed brand; all I generate I put back into my business, and with all what’s happening, I don’t know how much I can put in any more.”

Beirut is my home, it's not a hotel I choose to leave because the service is bad

But even in the face of such challenges, Bazaza will not abandon his homeland. “Regarding leaving the country permanently, I don’t think so. Beirut is my home, it’s not a hotel I choose to leave because the service is bad. Beirut is my home and it’s so hard to leave home, especially when you see it suffering this much,” he says.prim

The streets of the Lebanese capital may be changed forever, and the physical and emotional scars of that fateful day in August may never heal completely, but some things remain constant.

“Beirut will never look the same, and that is something we are all having trouble processing because of the immense impact this controversial city has on us,” says Helou. “But I believe we will witness a new wave of expression and creativity in our collective future. Don’t worry, we’re not going anywhere.”