Vogue Arabia Special Projects Director, Mohieb Dahabieh, is a go-to man for divas and luxury brands alike. He is renowned for his creative collaborations that bridge east and west with humor, wit, and style.
I was 18-years-old and fired up to start a fashion marketing degree at Central Saint Martins (CSM) when I moved to London in 1998. Of Syrian origin, this move marked my first long haul to the UK. The anticipation was raw. After all, CSM was renowned the world over to be an incubator for fashion’s enfants terribles. The alma mater had already fostered John Galliano (1984), Alexander McQueen (1982), and Hussein Chalayan (1993). Student prodigies and head honchos were the spin here.
Central Saint Martins was a laboratory that brewed rebel genius—and this pervading radical edge both intimidated and seduced me. Even the building itself at Charing Cross Road (built in 1939), was crumbling and grimy. The late director of the Masters of Fashion, Louise Wilson, believed the decrepit atmosphere drove her students to succeed.
Ritualistic narrative seeped into Paris Haute Couture, courtesy of Alexander McQueen’s Eclect Dissect. “My idea was this mad scientist who cut all these women up and mixed them all back together,” said McQueen of his Fall 1997 collection for Givenchy.
Nothing from my years in Lebanon and Syria had prepared me for such an inauguration; I was thrust into a generation that was macabre-obsessed.
BEIRUT, PEARL OF THE MIDDLE EAST
“Unfortunately, during the long civil war (1975-1990), cultural preservation in Beirut wasn’t a priority,” recalls Lebanese designer Rabih Kayrouz. “Due to political and economic issues, we had to look outwards to other cultures for design and architecture—even food,” he adds.
Prewar, Beirut was a regional, intellectual capital with a glitzy celebrity scene and a burgeoning demand for fashion. A bevy of local seamstresses tapped into that and tried to emanate Paris couture houses; so well in fact that they were recognized by the French Houses to be local representatives of an affluent clientele that poured in from the Gulf, and who considered Beirut to be more accessible than Paris. Madame Salha (Valentino), Madame Chantal (Dior), and Madame Djenny Brunst (Chanel and Vionnet), were personages in their own right.
Jean-Pierre Delifer designed costumes for many of Fairuz’s appearances at the Annual International Baalbeck Festival and Sabah alone is said to have appeared in over 300 of the late William Khoury’s gowns (starting 1964). Khoury was also commissioned to design magnificent robes for the Shah of Iran and Farah Diba. Yet, so little is known about either designer.
EGYPT GAVE US CLEOPATRA AND SHERIHAN
While the Arab world’s fashion scene flourished in Beirut, cinema and television belonged to Cairo. The bustling city gave us what is probably the most potent and pivotal fashion awakening that the Arab world has ever seen: Fawazeer Ramadan. This high tempo, razzle dazzle extravaganza that aired during Ramadan appealed to all ages; and each year’s on-air explosion of camp, kitsch, and fantastical glamour outdid the last. Think Bob Mackie, David LaChapelle, and Jean-Paul Goude collaborating on a theatrical dance performance on a shoestring budget. Fahmy Abdel Hameed is widely acknowledged as the creator of the genre and the maker of its star queens: Nelly (1975-1981) and Sherihan (1985-1987). No light has been shed on the glitzy costumes that were considered avant-garde for the region at the time. Amal Radwan and Wadad Atiya are among those credited for wardrobe in the opening and closing title sequences for Sherihan.
A Mackie dress worn by Cher on Sonny and Cher sold in 2005 for six times its estimate and Marilyn Monroe’s Happy Birthday, Mr. President Jean Louis dress is expected to fetch at least US $2 million at auction next month. What would Sherihan’s costumes fetch? Have they even been preserved at all? How would they be valued? Where would one start? Certainly, these creations are our region’s cultural treasures and merit an exhibition.
Vogue Arabia has a central and chief role to play to re-instill value to the region’s forgotten works by designers who have now ceased to create; along with identifying cultural milestones that are unique to our territory.
WE HAVE MAGIC, NOW LET’S SHOW THE WORLD
Fashion’s enchantment with the Arab world can be traced as far back as the 1920s, when much of Madame Lanvin’s inspiration came from her travels to Egypt; and the 1930s when Elsa Schiaparelli was heavily influenced by North African costume—especially from Tunisia where she built a house. In the ‘60s, Thea Porter made kaftans using exotic silks and brocades that she sourced in Damascus, where she grew up.
It was in the ‘60s that Vogue first ventured to the Middle East. In search of magical backdrops, American and British editions looked to the region for its exotic landscapes. In 1965, before the emirate became oil-rich, Beatrix Miller sent photographer John Cowan to Abu Dhabi, accompanied by the writer Polly Vernon—the first woman to travel across the emirate (Fi Amman Allah, Abu Dhabi). Meanwhile, Diana Vreeland sent Henry Clarke and Lesley Blanch on an adventure to Syria and Jordan (Match Me Such Marvel, December 1965). Middle East-focused fashion shoots and stories continued to flourish and in 2009, British Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman sent Tom Craig and Stella Tennant to Syria on an assignment whereby Tennant made a diary of her experiences (The Road to Damascus, May 2009).
In the recent BBC documentary, Absolutely Fashion, Anna Wintour declared that Vogue
should represent the country in which it is published, and that a Vogue editor should “find a balance between the future of fashion and what is existing right now.” At Vogue Arabia, we have the responsibility to chronicle the style and cultural heritage of a region. As its editors dig up the forgotten milestones of our fashion journey, we lay the foundation for what is to come.
“Now that Vogue Arabia has landed, we must open our eyes and embrace our own ancestry; to save the artisans who have been neglected. That’s what being modern is all about,” observes Kayrouz. “On different levels, we all have a role to play,” he adds. We will not recreate what others have done before us, but rather support a shifting mindset to encourage our burgeoning industry to breed its own free thinkers.