Braving the storm of violence and economic downturn, Lebanese clothing brands are turning to local production to turn the industry around.
Maurice Kozeily opens the door to his second-floor apartment in Kaslik, Lebanon, a 25-minute drive north of Beirut, wearing an intricately designed dishdasha, a traditional long coat worn in the Arab world since biblical times .
But unlike Jesus’ dishdasha, Maurice’s is sewn with bright red designs on expensive-looking woven fabrics. Excited, he explains that he did it himself.
In the living room, he prepared a small table with Arabic coffee. As soon as he takes a seat on the couch, he untangles the meter-tall shisha pipe standing next to him and takes a long puff with the ease of someone who’s been doing it for 65 years. After all, he did.
“Well, where to start?” he asks through a cloud of apple-mint smoke.
Maurice, who turns 80 this year, has been making, designing and tailoring clothes in Lebanon since 1956. Born in a modest house in Jounieh, not far from where he lives today with his daughter Gina, he took an early interest in fashion, analyzing and drawing inspiration from the robes of priests he saw in church.
From the age of 12, despite the hostility of his parents, he started making men’s pants and also composed women’s outfits that he found much more intriguing. Soon after, despite having no formal training, he decided to try his luck in Beirut, where the fashion scene was already burgeoning with high-end French fashion houses like Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent.
Lebanon experienced, from the beginning of the 1960s, what is now called its “golden age”. Flooded with a sense of national unity that was never fully restored, it led to successful economic and social reforms. Beirut has become the banking hub of the Middle East, with several leading international companies choosing the city to host their regional offices. Women also won the right to vote in 1952, 20 years before neighboring countries like Jordan and Iraq.
The arts and culture scene was also booming, with several of the country’s artistic mainstays, such as the Sursock Museum and the Baalbeck International Festival, having taken root during this time.
“The city was not sleeping at that time,” says Maurice. “People came from all over to experience our fashion, our food, our festivals, our parties.”
In 1964, Maurice started working in Dior’s atelier, where they made dresses, suits and other delicate ensembles for celebrities like Fairouz, Liz Taylor and Grace Kelly.
According to him, the Lebanese fashion scene was not only on par with Europe or America – it was the best in the world.
With nostalgia, he describes the fashion shows he attended in the Cedars Mountains, the largest pine forest in Lebanon, and home to thousands of cedars symbolized on the Lebanese flag.
“Seeing this is like a dream. It’s something you can’t express,” he thinks.
The golden age did not last long, however. In 1975, a rise in sectarian tensions, religious discord and the question of Palestinian settlement in Lebanon boiled over and led to the start of the civil war, which lasted 15 years and saw the death of around 150,000 people.
“The last time I saw this workshop was when the army tanks chased us away,” says Maurice.
When asked if he could tell where the office was, he said no.
“I could show you in general, but everything was bombed during the war. There’s nothing left.”
Unemployed due to the violence in Beirut, Maurice opened his own small shop in his hometown of Jounieh, where he employed five tailors and began designing his own work. For the remainder of the Civil War, and for nearly 25 years after, he did just that.
“The war hasn’t changed the fact that Lebanon is known for fashion. Whenever I travel, people can always instantly recognize me as Lebanese because of our reputation,” he says.
“That won’t change because of a conflict.”
Maurice’s thoughts are timely, given that, since 2019, Lebanon has been going through one of the worst economic crises the world has ever seen. Although the bombs are not falling in the streets as they were during the Civil War, the desperation is just as palpable now as it was then, if not more so. Poverty affects more than 80% of the population and no reform is in sight.
The extreme devaluation of the local currency is one of the main reasons why few Lebanese are able to buy basic necessities. Since 1990, the Lebanese lira has been pegged to the dollar at the rate of 1,500. Since 2019, the exchange rate has been in almost constant free fall, recently reaching a new record: 29,000 Lebanese pounds for one dollar.
The desperate economic situation was exacerbated by the Beirut port explosion on August 4, 2020, when a massive amount of ammonium nitrate, improperly stored for years, exploded, killing more than 200 people and rendering thousands more homeless, most without money to rebuild. Most blame government negligence for the explosion and corruption for which an investigation has yet to produce concrete findings.
Elie Saab – perhaps the most esteemed Lebanese designer in history – was in his downtown studio when the explosion happened. The workshop and his house are reduced to rubble. A few weeks later, he released a famous new collection, dedicated to his ailing city. But in a March interview with The New York Times, he admitted: “It becomes increasingly difficult for people to stay here and make a living.
“The world loves Lebanese designers. We, the established, are very grateful for this support. But I worry about new and emerging designers here. It’s so tough for them right now, and there’s so much global competition,” he told The Times.
The exodus of young talent from Lebanon – nearly a quarter of a million remaining in the first quarter of 2021 alone – combined with the fact that Lebanon is primarily an import country, including textiles, has left many ask: what will happen to the fashion scene? which once rivaled Paris?
Ghassan and Carla Wakim, a husband and wife duo who together own Fabula, a famous Lebanese luxury brand that has been around for almost 20 years, say the industry is here to stay.
But that doesn’t mean it didn’t require adaptations.
In 2018, the Wakim felt something was going to hit the Lebanese economy. Although they couldn’t imagine the magnitude of what was to come, they decided it was time to make a change. With in-depth knowledge of the market and an in-house designer in Carla, the Wakims started designing clothes from scratch and opened a production facility, which now employs 40 people.
“What you are going to see in Fabula now, everything is done by us in Lebanon. All. 100 per cent. We produce 4,000 pieces per month,” says Ghassan, who says Fabula is able to sell at a 60% lower price while making an “acceptable” profit margin thanks to the costs saved by local production.
Carla admits that switching to local production was not an easy decision, but that Fabula – and other brands that have taken similar steps – are shaking up the industry.
“Now we have customers who are proud to wear ‘Made in Lebanon’. This mentality of only wearing high-end foreign brands with a big logo, I think it will be fine. Which is better,” she said.
The couple also agree that local production is more sustainable, given Lebanon’s history of instability.
“Lebanon is going through a process of development. Now we are beginning to learn to rely on ourselves. Before, we imported everything. Now, because we have to, we learn fast. We are becoming more and more capable of exporting,” says Ghassan, who explains that the company has been able to protect itself through online sales, admitting that for most Lebanese there is not much money left, or even not at all. on shopping after paying for energy, fuel and food.
Like Maurice, the Wakims say that Lebanese fashion is in their blood, whether there is war, conflict or crisis.
“We did this exercise for ourselves to prove that we can continue, we believe in Lebanon,” Ghassan said.
“We love our country.”
Source: World TRT