Settling into a plush salmon-colored chair in the lounge of The Ritz Carlton Hotel in Dubai, couturier extraordinaire and esteemed member of the Style.com/Arabia – DDFC Fashion Prize jury, Zuhair Murad, is a designer who has skyrocketed to international success; and yet comes across as relatively laid-back in distressed gray jeans, a black t-shirt, and a layered unbuttoned shirt, and short, dark, wavy hair.
Murad grew up in Baalbek, Lebanon, and began sketching dresses at the age of ten. He studied fashion design in Paris and opened an atelier in Beirut in 1997. A few years later, in 2001, he showcased his first couture collection during Paris Haute Couture; and in 2007, he opened his Parisian boutique on the prestigious rue François 1er. This year, he cut the ribbon to open a second location in Paris, though his headquarters remain firmly in Beirut—in an exceptional 11-storey building in the Gemmayze district, which hosts corporate offices, a design studio, and a bridal boutique, and his personal offices where he designed his latest Couture offering inspired by a celestial rock and roll universe.
Zuhair Murad is warm and easy going and speaks in an even, quiet voice. But even though he gives you his full attention, you can also sense that behind his hazel eyes, his mind is constantly running—and that possibly, he’s also a little worn. After an incredibly publicized week, one that highlighted his stunning bridal gown for actress Sofia Vergara’s nuptials, and a bevy of dresses worn by Jennifer Lopez at the American Music Awards, and which is now culminating with his juror’s input ahead of tonight’s Fashion Prize awards gala in Dubai, Murad, is understandably weary. But at the mention of his successes, he lights up, “Every dress, every woman, every celebrity—it always feels like the first time,” he smiles. Though he quickly regains his serious demeanor and says, “But it also gives me more responsibility—and the drive to do something more.”
In this exclusive interview with Caterina Minthe, Zuhair Murad discusses the Fashion Prize, why he never left Beirut, and the transitory joys and very real enduring hardships associated with the life of an internationally acclaimed designer.
CATERINA MINTHE: From your first catwalk show in Rome in 1999, you’ve since built a veritable couture and ready-to-wear empire. You produce eight collections a year, show during Paris Haute Couture Fashion Week, Paris Ready-to-Wear, you have a bridal line, and let’s not forget your celebrity collaborations [Murad will design the costumes for JLo’s upcoming tour]. Following your success, you could have established your House’s headquarters in any fashion capital—Paris, New York, Milan—but you chose to remain in Beirut.
ZUHAIR MURAD: Lebanon is my country and I feel really comfortable there. Even with all the things that are happening in the Middle East—and specifically in Beirut—it is still my city. Beirut needs the support of the Lebanese people. From Beirut, I was still able to become a really international designer. Everybody knows that I’m from Lebanon. I don’t see any problem related to staying in Beirut—it’s an open city, it’s very close to Europe, and now, with social media, it doesn’t matter where you are—you can be from Honolulu and still reach an audience.
At this height of your success, do you still believe that there are avenues in the fashion world that are left for you to discover?
Absolutely and we’re actually working on many new projects at the same time. We’re going to open a boutique in Harrods in March, 2016. We’re also going to open a showroom soon in Paris for ready-to-wear; we have a new studio; and a design team—there are so many things that are going on. In March, we’ll also be launching accessories—bags, shoes, and maybe jewelry next season. We’re also thinking about perfume.
You’re not just the creative director of your eponymous label, but you are also its CEO. Do you ever feel that it’s just too much to handle?
Until now, I have done everything myself, and I make all the decisions. But I think that now, I’m ready to bring someone on board, someone with a lot of experience, a professional. I need someone who loves the brand and who understands the situation very well to join me. We will need to have a connection and maybe it will take some time to understand each other.
Do you ever have any regrets?
You know, sometimes, when I’m very angry or stressed, I say, “Oh my god, I want to be an employee in a company and do something simple like everybody else,” and not have all this responsibility and all these dreams in my head. It gives me a headache, you know, thinking about so many projects and all the things that are happening at the same time.
Do you perhaps feel like the momentum is too big?
The problem is, that I want to do even more. It’s kind of an addiction. Now, for example, I am dedicating my entire life to my career—and I actually can’t enjoy my life. Sometimes I feel really tired and really stressed—but it’s an addiction. Sometimes, I tell myself that I want to stop, but I just can’t.
Perhaps people don’t realize that your work does not solely consist of texting Sofia Vergara to discuss her wedding dress or having breakfast with JLo to plan out her upcoming stage wardrobe.
Sometimes, when I meet people, they’ll tell me, “Oh, we love your work, it’s amazing, it’s all about the beauty, the parties, the fashion shows, and the models.” It’s not like that of course—it’s not like that at all. It’s very hard to dedicate all your time, I mean 24 hours—especially when you have a collection to show. There is no time for vacation and there is no personal time. When you work in fashion—especially when you take it very seriously—you must forget about everything else.
There is a lot of stress, there is a lot of work, and we face a lot of problems every day that we have to find solutions for. It’s not easy at all. I work with a big team—250 people—and I have to control everything.
What kind of boss are you?
I’m very serious. It’s a big responsibility, so I really want to be focused on what I am doing at all times.
You’ve mentioned responsibility, what kind of responsibility do you think the Style.com/Arabia – DDFC Fashion Prize finalists have?
I think that the winner will have the responsibility to first acknowledge the opportunity and then understand that he or she has a lot of things to think about seriously—to put together a plan, a strategy, and to determine two-to-three years from now, what does he or she want to be, and to map out the future.
Tonight we’re going to announce the winner of the first ever Style.com/Arabia – DDFC Fashion Prize, what words of encouragement do you have for the finalists whose Fashion Prize journey will end tonight?
It’s not the end of the world, and if you believe in your talent and you have the perseverance and the confidence, then you will continue. There’s always only one winner, but that doesn’t mean that the other finalists are not winners—and it also doesn’t mean that the Fashion Prize winner will ultimately be the successful one either. Perseverance is really important.
Let’s speak about the winner for a moment. He or she is going to have a wonderful night tonight and an exceptional week—but what about after the news dies down and the congratulatory phone calls stop coming? What advice do you have for him or her then?
My advice is to use this money in a smart way, and use it to invest in him or herself by beginning to build a small team. Maybe hiring one person for PR, or one for production, and of course, to continue to work very hard to make beautiful designs.
What do you consider to be most important—a designer’s commercial appeal or his creative force?
Both—you can’t have one and not the other, but you have to find a balance. If you want your work to grow and you don’t have an external investment, you simply can’t create all of your pieces just for the museum.
So “commercial” is not a bad word.
It’s not a bad word when you use it in the right way. When you say “commercial,” it’s the substance of the design. When I see my dress worn by a woman, that is my ultimate satisfaction.
You have certainly made it in the industry without the support of a fashion prize. However, did you have a specific moment in your career when everything changed for you?
My journey did not have one specific moment, it was the accumulation of many small steps and every step was important. I grew, and gradually, from collection to collection, from one dress to another, from one client to another, and one celebrity to another, I built a name.
Did or do you have a confidant that you can turn to, or a mentor, if you will?
No, I was this person, this confidant. But I am the type of person who learns from experience, so I researched the experience of others. For example, I read a lot of stories about Christian Dior and Valentino…and I learned from them.