It is safe to say that the past 12 months have been seismic for Cynthia Merhej.
The founder of Lebanese womenswear label Renaissance Renaissance studied visual communication at Central Saint Martins and the Royal College of Art in London before returning to her native Lebanon in 2016. Inspired by a family tradition of making couture, Merhej decided to switch paths and set up her own brand, creating deceptively simple yet edgy pieces aimed squarely at today’s woman.
The road to fashion success
Now, the designer sits poised on the brink of global recognition. She was one of the 20 finalists for the storied LVMH Prize for Young Fashion Designers, was a finalist for the regional Fashion Trust Arabia, and was also recently named as one of only four designers chosen for the current season of Net-a-Porter’s Vanguard programme.
Founded in 2018, the mentorship scheme was established by the e-commerce giant to give emerging brands a boost. Each season, four designers are hand-picked from around the world to be hothoused with dedicated mentoring and expert advice across every facet of the industry, from gaining a core customer to scaling up production methods. It is, by anyone’s standards, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and one that Merhej seems to be taking in her stride.
“We all know that Net-a-Porter is one of the largest e-commerce websites, so working with them, you really feel you are working at the highest possible level,” Merhej explains over Zoom from Paris.
“It is so incredible to have them not only alongside me, but to have access to mentorship. These people have so much global experience, they can give insights on every region in the world, and it is amazing to have access to that information and knowledge, especially this early on in the brand.”
An intimate affair
Merhej is the third generation of women in her family to set up her own studio, and clearly has design in her blood. Thanks to being raised in what she describes as an “all-female couture environment”, she has been surrounded by fashion since she was a child, when she used to watch her mother working.
“Even as she was sitting and picking out her fabrics [for clients], she would tell me: ‘This is from Italy and it’s made from this, so see how soft it is, how nice it is...’ She really instilled that [knowledge] in me, and I am grateful for that.
“My mum was like a therapist in a way. After the fitting with a client she would sit and talk with the women for two or three hours. The act of making clothes and trying something on that someone has made for you, it is very intimate. It really shaped my view away from what you learn in fashion school, of having a concept, and the clothes are the concept and the person wearing them is a mannequin. I cannot separate the person wearing the garment and the garment; for me, it is not a separate relationship.”
This blurring of lines is what sets Merhej’s work apart, and she translates this thinking into pieces such as a baby-pink poplin cotton top with a quaker collar and a torso wrapped with ruffles and ties, or a knife-pleated midi-skirt that wraps the hips and is held in place with looping bows. In unfussy fabrics that are light and breathable, her clothes are not only beautifully made, but are also designed to be supremely comfortable.
“The idea when you dress up, is to feel like you can take over the world, so it should not hobble or create any kind of obstacle in any way,” Merhej says. “My mother drilled that into me. It has to be comfortable, and that’s the highest luxury, in a way. That’s why I stopped wearing fast fashion maybe 10 years ago. I thought, I cannot put this fabric on my skin.
“I cannot hate on fast fashion, but it has stripped something away, the intimacy between the designer and the garment. We don’t really see it in luxury fashion any more. It’s really sad.”
Redrawing the lines of ready-to-wear
The bond between client and couturier is clearly of great significance to Merhej, and is evident throughout her work. While some might be tempted to smother pieces in couture flourishes, such as great sweeps of hand-sewn beads, Merhej explores a different route.
She focuses instead on the secrets and insecurities that clients share with their dressmakers, and that are smoothed away with hidden corseting and clever padding. Now, instead of being hidden under layers (such as the secret ties concealed in the depths of Cristóbal Balenciaga’s gowns, contributing to their unique shapes), Merhej has brought these tricks into the light, turning couture dresses inside out, and making the hidden, seen. In doing so, she is redrawing the lines of what makes ready-to-wear, while pushing herself and her team to find innovative new approaches.
“It is an interesting challenge,” she admits. “Something like a corset, for example. How do I try to make it as comfortable as possible? So, we make it out of cotton and with a cotton canvas lining. I wear it myself and it really is comfortable, even how it holds everything together.
“I am in love with couture, going through archives and staring at couture dresses. I am very interested in how they are made, and it goes back to this idea of intimacy, and the intimacy of the person hand-making the garment,” she says.
There is more to fashion than making lovely clothes, however, as Merhej knows all too well. As the world has struggled to deal with the repercussions of the pandemic, those in Lebanon have faced the added challenges of a deepening financial crisis, and then the explosion in August that tore through downtown Beirut. Despite the deep love she feels for her homeland, this triple whammy left Merhej with little option but to move her entire company abroad.
“The decline has been difficult, of course, but what was really difficult was to extricate the company and the production out of Lebanon.”
While Renaissance Renaissance was relocated to Dubai, where her sister runs the day-to-day operations, Merhej decamped to Paris. The decision to move was fraught with challenges, she says. “It was very difficult and very painful, and I would really love to be in Beirut. It was a very difficult road for me, emotionally; it was a lot of ups and downs. So having Net-a-Porter and that stability, especially in a moment where it feels like there is so little stability, has been really great.
“That’s really where it counts, and I appreciate it. The past year-and-a-half – I have lost track of time with everything that has been happening, with the pandemic and with Lebanon – I cannot stress how grateful we were to have them as a partner. It has been crucial,” she says.
As for the woman who wears her designs, she is surprisingly close to home, says Merhej. “We did a very interesting exercise, and we started discovering the personas of women I am designing for, and it turns out it is friends that we know. These women are all very intelligent, ambitious and cultured, and they love getting dressed up, but it does not compromise their lifestyle, either.
“She goes to a party and she is the one dancing, and whatever she is wearing has to correspond with that,” Merhej says. “I don’t want her to go to the party and be hobbling around, uncomfortable. I want her to be the life of the party.”