Zuhair Murad on couture, Covid-19 and planning for the future: 'We all need to slow down'

After a difficult year for Lebanon’s fashion industry, the designer is taking things one step at a time

Zuhair Murad is the subject of a new book celebrating his work by publisher Assouline. Courtesy Zuhair Murad
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After the port explosion in Beirut on August 4, Lebanese fashion designer Zuhair Murad posted photos and video clips of the destruction in his 11-storey Gemmayze atelier, writing: “My heart is broken. Can’t stop crying. The efforts of years went in a moment.” 

The next day, still reeling from what had happened, Murad received the first copy of a beautifully produced book celebrating his work, from publisher Assouline. “I received the book a day later, in the middle of the collapsed building,” recalls Murad from his Paris showroom – an elegant 18th-century town house in which he spends much of his time during fashion show season. “I considered it an optimistic sign that no matter what happens, beauty and talent will never fade.”

The arrival of the book, which is part of Assouline's Legends collection, and is punctuated by glowing quotes from friends and celebrities such as Jennifer Lopez, Celine Dion and Ciara, provided a morale boost after the trauma of the blast.

Murad knew of their inclusion, having worked on the book the previous year, but reading them again alongside the sumptuous photographs of his haute couture gowns was, he admits, perfect timing. It imbued him with “a new spirit and outlook”, he says.

'Zuhair Murad - Assouline Legends Collection'.
'Zuhair Murad - Assouline Legends Collection'.

The book, titled Zuhair Murad, was written by noted author and fashion critic Alexander Fury and contains a foreword by Babeth Djian, founder of international fashion magazine Numero. As Djian says, it invites us into Murad's world, which is "full of grace and poetry". It explores the creativity, craftsmanship and inspiration behind his seductive dresses. "Couture is a place where I can allow my imagination to take centre stage, and I am able to create pieces that reflect who I am as a designer and, more importantly, as an artist," Murad says in the book.

Actress Deepika Padukone in the red custom couture Zuhair Murad gown worn at her wedding reception. Courtesy Errikos Andreou
Actress Deepika Padukone in the red custom couture Zuhair Murad gown worn at her wedding reception. Courtesy Errikos Andreou

The luxurious tome praises his craft – the dreamy draping, his hourglass silhouettes and lavish embroideries – and also the women who don his dresses everywhere from the catwalk and the red carpet, to the stage and on their wedding day. Featuring in all their glory are Lopez, Nicole Kidman, Kylie Minogue and actress Deepika Padukone at her wedding reception, wearing a red custom couture gown inspired by Murad's autumn/winter 2018 Night in St Petersburg collection.

Interspersed amongst their imagery, moodboards and backstage snapshots, are designs photographed in inspirational settings such as the Roman ruins of Heliopolis in Baalbek. This is the area where Murad grew up in the Bekaa Valley, and the images illustrate how the designer’s roots are still firmly planted in Lebanon’s soil.

AW19 haute couture collection at Barouk Natural Reserve. Photo by M Seif
Murad's autumn / winter 2019 haute couture collection photographed at Barouk Natural Reserve. Courtesy M Seif

Although Murad has a showroom in Paris, he insists he would never abandon his homeland as a consequence of what has happened. “Lebanon is my country, and this is where I started,” he says with passion. “It will always be my base. Nothing compares to this vivid capital, from its people, its nature, and its landscape and architectural heritage.” The city nourished his talent, “so of course, I will rebuild my headquarters here”, he says.

There is one particularly touching image of Murad, surrounded by the artisans from his atelier (men and women, many of whom have been with him since the very beginning) in front of his Beirut headquarters in Charles Helou Avenue, taken before the blast. “We are a family business and most of our employees have been with us for as long as I can remember. We always considered them as part of our family and have shared with them lots of events throughout the many years.”

Lebanon is my country, and this is where I started. It will always be my base. Nothing compares to this vivid capital, from its people, its nature, and its landscape and architectural heritage

His staff of 200 had thankfully left the building only 10 minutes before the explosion and were safe, to Murad’s relief. However, he lost everything else: clients’ couture pieces and bridal gowns, the company’s 20-year archive and his art collection were all wiped out.

But the tragedy pulled them all together. “I was so emotional when I saw many coming in the next morning for moral support, asking to help, removing the rubble … everyone felt so hurt and concerned by this dramatic situation.” The headquarters, he says, “was their home as much as it was mine”.

For decades, Lebanon has played a pioneering role in the region’s fashion industry. The disaster, however, came at a time when the design sector was already struggling, having been hit by rampant inflation that caused the Lebanese pound to lose about 80 per cent of its value since October last year. Many designers’ businesses suffered even more once the coronavirus pandemic started to dampen both local and international demand.

The fashion community rallied to support each other and their city, though. Murad ran a fundraising project for a month, with his Rise from the Ashes T-shirt campaign photographed on celebrities including Dion, Youssra, Cyrine Anour and fellow designer Karen Wazen.

There was also international support from industry bodies such as the Federation de la Haute Couture et de la Mode in Paris, where Murad is an Invited Member of the official haute couture catwalk. The designer himself has received many messages of compassion: “People sympathise with the Lebanese in general, fashion industry or not,” he says.

Lebanese designers are known for their entrepreneurial allure, creativity, dynamism and resilience. This drive ensured Murad quickly picked up the pieces and found a new temporary address outside the city within a week, where the atelier will be located for the next year. “The move was quite a change for all of us,” he admits, “especially given the main purpose behind the design of the Zuhair Murad HQ had been to create a French ambiance similar to the one in Paris. Our offices were not typical offices. I am now disoriented, especially given the space does not reflect the brand spirit, even though it is massive with several facilities. Unfortunately, it is not home …”

The team had to move quickly because so many of the orders had been destroyed, and yet clients were still counting on them to supply their wedding dresses and couture outfits. Murad had completed his spring / summer 2021 ready-to-wear collection, half in Paris and half in Beirut, weeks before the explosion. He’s introduced more daywear than before, with a 1980s black and white silhouette, all ruffles and strong shoulders, which segued into evening dresses printed with exotic blooms. This survived, as has a wedding capsule collection he has just shown in New York. He is predicting a wedding boom in 2021 as countries hopefully return to some form of normality.

Kylie Minogue in the spring / summer 2014 Jardin d'Eden collection. Courtesy Will Davidson Trunk Archive

He is described in the book as one of the best ambassadors of fashion in the Arab world. Nevertheless, the trauma of the past year has given him pause to rethink his business strategy, and adapting to a new market will be challenging under current conditions in Lebanon. “I think with the Covid-19 pandemic and the international crisis, we all need to slow down the expansion of our businesses."

His goal now is to minimise the damage, and to restart on a new footing with a new strategy. “At the beginning of 2020, we were planning lots of projects, collaborations and developments. We have now decided to wait for better days and reschedule them. I suppose,” he adds, “this ‘stand still’ period will be the case for the entire fashion community.” 

Zuhair Murad - Assouline Legends Collection, $195, www.assouline.com