“I will begin to heal the day my city begins to heal,” says Rabih Kayrouz, his eyes wandering over the iridescent Mediterranean. The Lebanese fashion designer was in his studio in the Gemmayze district, a kilometer and a half from the port of Beirut, when an explosion ravaged the city on August 4. Caused by the ignition of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, which had been poorly stored there since 2013, the explosion destroyed a lot in its path. In a fraction of a second, the business Kayrouz had developed over the past 20 years was devastated; he was also seriously injured. For someone like Kayrouz, who is so entrenched in this city, it’s clear that it will take a lot longer to start recovering from the trauma. But despite everything, the designer’s studio – where he is now – was rebuilt, and he created temporary solutions for the Lebanese branch of his company.
To continue to operate in a country where nothing works is in itself a miracle. However, such resilience should come as no surprise. Kayrouz has always been a pioneer in his field. In 1995, after continuing his studies in Paris, he returned to Beirut, then considered “the city of possibilities”, he said. “The war had ended a few years ago, and a creative scene was fueled by the desire to just get it right.” Since 2009, the designer has had a foothold in Paris, the headquarters of his ready-to-wear company, and a foothold in Beirut, where 12 employees are dedicated to custom orders. Even in October 2019, when Lebanon’s last economic crisis hit, instead of investing his efforts only in Paris, Kayrouz rolled up his sleeves and explored ways to make his business viable. “It’s something I have a hard time explaining, but no matter what happens in Lebanon the minute I land here I just want to give.”
Following the explosion, he helped raise nearly $ 400,000 through the United for Lebanon Creatives fund. The organization helped rebuild spaces for some of the young designers of Starch Foundation, an NGO he co-founded in 2008 with designer Tala Hajjar to launch emerging Lebanese designers. Professionally, Kayrouz has revisited his business model from scratch: “What matters most to me today is to adapt to the economic crisis that Lebanon is going through. You might think that fashion doesn’t make sense anymore, but I prefer to look at it differently. Why couldn’t we continue to create clothes, while incorporating a new delivery system that would adapt to these difficult times and be respectful to our customers? ”
The designer has designed special collections from dead fabrics, produced entirely in Lebanon and sold in “lollars” (US dollars within the collapsed Lebanese banking system, to which depositors have been prevented from accessing or transferring abroad, or can only withdraw in local currency at a low rate). These articles “take into account the financial difficulties of our customers, allow them to access a certain beauty, and also support the families of the employees of Rabih Kayrouz House. He continues: “But this is all more crisis management than a long-term roadmap. It’s just a solution to stay in Beirut and help it as much as possible.
Kayrouz is one of the many creative people determined to help the city thrive again. Fashion designer Elie Saab, which is also based between Paris and Beirut, pays a contribution from the sales of its perfume The perfume throughout 2021 to UNICEF’s program to help vulnerable girls in Lebanon. A group of jewelers, including Gaelle Khouri and Noor prices, donated designs to a fundraiser organized by the retailer Opening, which raised more than € 51,000 for the Lebanese Red Cross and the Lebanese Food Bank.
But more striking are the efforts creatives take to keep businesses alive and stay inspired in an environment where beauty is not seen as a priority. “In these difficult times, luxury is not a first necessity, but it is part of the vital economic wheel of any society”, explains the jeweler. Selim Mouzannar. His company is based in Tabaris, among the most affected neighborhoods; his shop and workshop were badly damaged by the explosion. “You can destroy walls, but you cannot change minds,” he said. Kant’s quote “Optimism is a moral duty” is plastered on the windows of his new studio, which has since been rebuilt. His decision to stay is not just because moving seems logistically and financially impossible, but because the city provides him with creative stimuli. “Beirut will remain a source of wisdom, culture and freedom; justice and peace will prevail. Beirut is my city and we are the real peaceful resistance. I am here to stay. “
This is also the case for the furniture and household goods label. Bokja, which recently extended its distinct, patchwork aesthetic to ready-to-wear, which is entirely produced locally. “Our future is in Beirut,” say the co-founders Huda Baroudi and Maria Hibri. “We owe it to our team of artisans to continue our growing heritage of craftsmanship, preserving a centuries-old tradition, a language that would otherwise begin to weaken. A strong local presence is essential. It is during these fragile times in the country that our roots sink deeper; we are not planning to leave the ship anytime soon.
Baroudi and Hibri were quick to put their skills at the service of the populations after the explosion. “We immediately turned the exhibit hall into a community center, donating it to local organizations on the ground that can provide assistance. As dedicated repairmen and repairers, we offered to repair and upholster damaged household items in the most affected areas. A signature suture was used to stitch the pieces together by our team of specialist craftsmen. Our aim was to offer a message of hope by preserving fragments of houses.
Even the youngest creatives, who were already struggling to keep their businesses going amid successive crises, were involved in the rebuild. Tatiana Fayad and Joanne Hayek, co-founders of the accessories and clothing brand Vanine, found their workshops and store in Gemmayze completely in ruins, but began to rebuild the spaces the next day. “We cannot fall” was their motto. The two women, both in their thirties, hold the reins of a social enterprise that brings together a network of 70 women artisans. “Today, more than ever, we are determined to continue to develop our brand internationally, to develop our local creative network and to support our family of craftsmen.”
This is indicative of a bigger issue than Cynthia Merhej, creative director and founder of the fashion brand. Renaissance Renaissance, explains: “As soon as the explosion happened, I had to move to Paris, because it was impossible to have my business in Beirut, with the destruction of the banking system and the country’s infrastructure. From there, Merhej started a GoFundMe for three Beirut creative businesses that she knew would be left out of the recovery effort. “For me, it was extremely important to help these creative people and business owners because I couldn’t see any future for our country if we didn’t have the creatives inside to lead it. We managed to raise € 50,000 and distribute the funds equally among the three recipients. It was the fastest way to raise money and get it to them, although it was extremely difficult to do with all the problems with the banks. ”
That said, Merhej is as determined as her elders to stay rooted, no matter what, in Lebanon. “I am keeping my workshop in Beirut and I will finally be able to go there this summer, to work on creative development,” she continues. “It’s important for me to continue to find ways to support our local fashion economy there. I hope that once the pandemic is over, I can do a lot more back and forth. ”
This year, the Renaissance Renaissance brand from Merhej reached the semi-finals of the LVMH Prize. Proof, if needed, that even from afar, and against all odds, this intrepid fashion “young guard” will always succeed in keeping his country on the map. And give hope to a possible and much brighter future for Lebanon.