Amid their derelict ateliers, Beirut’s fashion and fine jewelry designers stand as testament to an irrepressible spirit. Lest we forget that theirs is a talent that has moved the world.
On August 4, just after six in the evening, Beirut was rocked by a massive explosion in the city’s port area. The resulting shockwave was felt in Cyprus, some 240km away. In an instant, along with much of the city, Beirut’s creative hubs of Mar Mikhaël, Gemmayze, Downtown, and Achrafieh were left a heap of broken glass, rubble, and ruin. Beirut’s most iconic heritage buildings – including the world-renowned Sursock Museum – were badly damaged. Amid the sound of crunching and breaking glass, the Lebanese people began to count the immense human cost. With at least 178 dead and 6,000 injured, with many still missing, 300,000 were now homeless. The city and her people are reeling. While theories abound, it was soon evident that the explosion was caused by 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate stored – unbeknown to most – in a port warehouse for six years.
Lebanon’s famed fashion industry, long associated with the glamour of the red carpet and its international stars, has suffered horrendously. For the foreseeable future, headlines will no longer be about runways, haute couture, or ready-to-wear. For now, Beirut’s glitter is found in the reflections of broken glass, and all her creativity is being poured into rebuilding. Much of Lebanon’s ateliers are found in the areas most affected by the blast. Alongside homes, businesses, and hospitals, ateliers and fashion houses have been decimated. Instead of stitching details on a dress, the designers themselves were in need of needle and thread. And thankfully some organizations have offered to help. Slow Factory’s executive director Céline Semaan has pledged phase one of its super-fund to helping Lebanese creatives rebuild the businesses. House of Today, helmed by Cherine Magrabi, has also pledged to help restore the design community over the long-term. The disaster comes at a time when Lebanon’s fashion industry was already on its knees, suffering from inflation that has seen the Lebanese pound lose 80% of its value since October 2019. Following which, Covid-19 has led to plummeting demand, both home and abroad.
Among the victims who lost their lives in the Beirut blast was Hala Tayah, a jewelry designer known for her design “Keep Lebanon close to your heart,” featuring a pendant outlining the country’s borders with a small ruby, cut in the shape of a heart. A word, an idea, the application of passion, the link between an individual and her country is forged through her pieces. In the uncertainty and precariousness that constantly threatens Beirut, this solid, beautiful, and unwavering connection represents everything the Lebanese and their diaspora could ask for.
While the myth of Lebanese “resilience” can often stick in the throat, it is down to Lebanese having overcome traumas many times over. The country’s unique, tragic talent for survival will see her through this. While the explosion and its aftermath were and are horrific, Lebanese artisans and designers will rebuild. Many creatives are deeply connected to their home and are facing the situation with true stoicism; having invested decades of work, there is a steely determination to continue, to overcome this latest tragedy, and to show Lebanon and the world that the country can again prosper. Recovering from a brain hemorrhage, two clots, and 22 stitches, Rabih Kayrouz posted on his Instagram account after the blast, “We will rebuild… and we will dance!”
Both 34, co-designers of couture and ready-to-wear house Azzi & Osta, founded in 2010. Atelier and showroom opened in May 2020 in Gemmayze
“This new location was a dream. We called it our magical village in the city. It is a rare – if not the only – place in Beirut where you still have third-century traditional Lebanese buildings with a large cobblestone courtyard, a century-old olive tree at its center, a small fountain, even a well… It was our own gated, calm universe where we were looking forward to having fashion shows, throwing parties, launching exciting projects, and seeing creativity flourish. It was where the Azzi & Osta team felt at home. We feel incredibly privileged to have had the opportunity to be the tenants of such a unique place full of history and charm. To Beirut, we say, ‘You will do what you do best, rise again from your ashes.’ To her people, we say, ‘Have hope, for we have no other choice.’ To our team, ‘What keeps us moving is not made of stones, or lace, or glitter… it is the gift of bringing to life an idea from the immaterial realm to reality, and making it the crown jewel of someone else’s memorable day, and a part of their happiness.’ Whether by a catastrophic explosion today, or international success tomorrow, our address was inevitably going to change, anyway.”
36, creative director of couture and ready-to-wear house Sandra Mansour, founded in 2010. Atelier and boutique opened in 2013 in Gemmayze
“I will always cherish my boutique’s location, with its marble mixed terrazzo floor and traditional characteristics. The tragic events of August 4 will forever echo in my heart, but I will always keep on building and believing in the power of my dreams. That is the only way forth – to overcome and create light.”
46, designer of couture and ready-to-wear house Maison Rabih Kayrouz, founded in 1999. Atelier and boutique opened in March, 2019 in Gemmayze.
“This house, built around 1780 and with the last addition made in 1869, is from the Dagher family. Maison Rabih Kayrouz was located on the upper floor. Here, a new fusion emerged; it was both a showroom and an atelier, home to both the haute couture and ready-to-wear collections. At the opening last year, I said that I was looking for a new place where I could combine everything and focus my energy in one place. It was clear to me from the first moment where everything should and would be in this magical place. Today, I feel that I need to be near my people. We need each other now without taking big decisions. We are all hurt. We need to support each other. We need to heal.”
30, creative director of luxury ready-to-wear brand Harithand, founded in 2014. Atelier opened in June 2019 in Achrafieh
“I will forever cherish the view of Beirut’s port and the entire city. I just want us all to be able to sleep peacefully, to stand again on our feet, and help others. Above all, I am thankful that I am alive, that my family, my friends, and my team are alive. To those who have lost loved ones, I can’t imagine what you are going through but please know that the victims will not be forgotten. Beirut will rise again.
34, creative director of couture and ready-to-wear house Rami Kadi, founded in 2011. Atelier and showroom opened in 2011 in Clemenceau-Beirut
“My atelier was filled with a youthful spirit and positive vibes. I will always hold dear my flower ceiling, which I loved so much and all my clients related to. The current disaster affected me on a personal level as deep as it can reach, emotionally, mentally, and financially. My showroom is completely destroyed, our gowns are shattered, our offices are damaged, and our houses are also affected by broken glass. Thankfully, the team had left the premises before the blast. Fall down seven times, get up eight. Beirut was destroyed many times and rebuilt. We will build her again. The Lebanese are so resilient. The traditional traits of our destroyed buildings – the arcades, the architecture, the heritage – will not come back, unfortunately. It will be polished, but will lose its authenticity. Yet the memories are carved in our hearts forever.”
31, director of fine jewelry house Ralph Masri, founded in 2013. Atelier and boutique located in Downtown Beirut, opened 2019.
“Every element of the store was designed and handmade from scratch. We had built a beautiful brass structure that served both as a stair rail and enveloped the store facades but it was sadly destroyed in the blast. I am thankful that the bulk of my business is abroad. I will still be able to go on, even if I won’t have a store in my hometown for a while. I am devastated about the destruction to my people and my city, especially to the historic structures, which are the soul of Beirut. I stand in awe of the incredible solidarity I saw on the ground in the days following the blast.
38 and 36, co-owners and co-designers of fine jewelry house L’Atelier Nawbar, founded in 2011. Atelier opened in 2011 in Saifi Village
“We are grateful for our team, who is the fundamental part of our business and has become family. Without them, there would be nothing to rebuild. Glass and broken items are replaceable. Together, hand in hand we will pick up the pieces and be great again. We have lost a lot in these difficult times. But we are grateful for all the love and support, the messages and unrelenting offers of help from all over the world. All of this has given us the strength to persevere and has given us purpose to continue doing what we love. We will rebuild our homes, showroom, and workshop because we want to look back and say we didn’t give up. We’ve done everything that can be done to stand the test of time, and see the change we want for our children and for generations to come. We don’t just make jewelry – our intricate items spread love. We will carry on doing so, God willing.”
37, stylist, art director, and founder of ready-to-wear label Boyfriend the Brand, founded in 2017. Atelier opened on October 17, 2019, the first day of the revolution, in Mar Mikhael
“I used to live on top of the atelier and showroom, next to the best bookshop in town and surrounded by creative neighbors like Maison Tarazi, David/Nicolas, and the best restaurants in town, Baron and Mayha. This is what I will miss the most. My street was full of life and equal to none. I feel lost, angry, and devastated for having lost my home and workspace, which I worked all my life for. I am broken and sad and in a state of mourning for my city, which hasn’t stop suffering for the past 30 years. I am full of hope and pride when I see the people of my country, hand in hand, ready to rebuild. I can say loudly, the Lebanese are the greatest people in the world.”
31, creative director of luxury ready-to-wear house Thym, founded in 2016. Atelier opened in 2016, Achrafieh
“I loved the contrasts of the outside and the inside of the studio. Mine was a calm, comforting green space in the middle of a busy city street. The atelier’s high ceiling created an open space, with a faux blue sky and waterfalls of green falling from the center. On August 4, in the blink of an eye, I lost everything. I was broken and hopeless. But the morning after, the people of Beirut were already cleaning up our city and rebuilding it from the ashes. It is my compelling duty to stand up and do the same.”
30, designer of footwear brand Andrea Wazen, founded in 2013. Atelier and boutique opened in 2013, both in Mar Mikhael
“The Andrea Wazen boutique was an old shoe factory in the past; we had renovated it based on how it was designed. The boutique was my way of launching my brand; it’s the place where I learned everything about how to design, manage, and evolve. It will always hold a special place in my heart. We all need time to heal. Many of us have lost loved ones and have been injured. Today, more than ever, I am proud to be Lebanese and be based in Beirut. It is the people of Lebanon that give me the drive to continue and to rebuild. I will rebuild and hopefully build it better to one day tell the story of how we as a brand and as a community have survived and made it through the hardest of times.”