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French Version

Fashion designer's latest celebrates Beirut

Rabih Kayrouz pays tribute to 'my city' with spring and summer collection

Interview

Rabih Kayrouz is back in Beirut for what he imagines will be a quick victory lap. As trophies, he has a degree from the prestigious Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne and valuable work experience with Dior and Chanel. The year is 1995, and Kayrouz has returned to curate an exhibition of Lebanese and French fashion for an unprecedented exhibition by the Societe des Artistes Decorateurs (SAD).

He expects to be back in Paris soon. But he has forgotten one small thing.

Kayrouz was born in 1973, he is done with his studies, he is not a single son or a sole provider and he has no political wasta. In other words, he has no justifiable reason to put off his mandatory military service any longer. Not a great predicament for a young fashion designer on the cusp of his career. Slogging through the Lebanese hinterland as a foot soldier for a year isn't exactly what he has in mind.

A decade later, his army days long forgotten, Kayrouz laughs at the mention of this story.

"Yes, it's true. This is how I came back to Lebanon," he says. "I had the chance to exhibit here, and this exhibition was huge at the time. Ten years ago, it was the opening of Downtown, the opening of Beirut. [Then-Prime Minister Rafik] Hariri managed to bring this exhibition to Lebanon, and it was the first time it happened outside Paris. So I knew about it and with a friend of mine I organized the fashion side. We brought 10 Lebanese and 10 French designers.

"And then I was here. And then I couldn't go back. I knew I had this problem. I wanted to postpone it. But once I was here I realized it wasn't that easy."

Kayrouz did indeed run around in fatigues for a year, but as soon as he was done, he got ready to go back to Paris. At the very last minute, a woman asked him to design a wedding dress and a series of evening gowns. Throwing up his hands, Kayrouz says, "okay, why not?"

Thinking back on it now, he smiles. "This is how, in this very funny way, I ended up back in Lebanon. I didn't decide. And I was what, 22 or 23 at the time? I was a baby."

Now 32, some might argue that Kayrouz is still a baby, or at least that he is exceptionally precocious. After the appearance of his 11th-hour client, Kayrouz built up enough of a network to open his own atelier in 1997. Seven years later, Maison Rabih Kayrouz was born, based in the labyrinthine rooms of a once grand, war-damaged, early 20th-century building on Lebanon Street in Gemmayzeh.

While designers like Elie Saab and Zuhair Murad are better known in Lebanon, where there are scores upon scores of fashion designers ranging from good to deplorable, Kayrouz is a cut apart, and arguably a cut above, the rest. His take on femininity is youthful, yet it carries a patina of vintage elegance. Not for nothing is there a photograph of Marlene Dietrich in his office, above a stack of books on the little black dress and designers from Alaia to Yves Saint-Laurent.

While Beirut's dominant design industry casts women in the interchangeable roles of dominatrix, man eater and gold digger, Kayrouz's vision is far more subtle and intelligent. In all likelihood, he appeals to women who would forgo Roberto Cavalli for Balenciaga in a heartbeat.

His gowns are also suitably fun. A woman who might go out in Converse chucks, designer jeans and a chicly reworked tuxedo jacket one night could seamlessly transition into a Kayrouz dress the next without sacrificing her personal style. His silhouettes may be rooted in the 1940s, but his experiments with fabric and technique - using the rough edges of silk or burying embroidered jewels beneath muslin - are undeniably of the moment.

Kayrouz mounted his first proper fashion show for his first proper collection at Music Hall two years ago. With cocktail dresses, sleek trouser suits and sumptuous ball gowns, it was an explosion of lime green, bright orange and auspicious red, all tempered by meticulous craftsmanship and studious tailoring.

Last year, Kayrouz tapped the old Abroyan Factory in Bourj Hammoud - a site that had previously been used to show contemporary art - for his follow-up. The show was scheduled for mid-February. After Hariri's assassination on Valentine's Day, Kayrouz, like everyone else at the time, decided to cancel the entire affair. ("We paid a lot for this," he says ruefully. "It was very heavy.")

Instead of a catwalk presentation, he published his collection as a catalogue. This year, he decided to do the same, printing a looseleaf book nestled in a prim box, with each look reproduced on thick paper with photographs by Franck Christen. They say necessity is the mother of invention, but Kayrouz adds glamor and graphic sophistication to the idiom as well.

Suitably enough, Kayrouz's spring and summer collection for 2006 is named for Beirut, the city that ensnared him 10 years ago, and is prefaced by Nadia Tueni's famous poem for the capital that begins with the line: "Let her be a courtesan, scholar or saint" and continues: "Let her be adored or let her be cursed ... Let her be innocent or let her be a murderess ... Beirut is the last place in the Orient where man can dress himself in light."

"I'm inspired by my city and I wanted to show what I have here, how I see it," he explains. "Lebanon is a very poetic country, despite all the sh*t inside. When you look at the real architecture, the streets, the people, the sunset, the sunrise, the country is beautiful, still. This is what I wanted to show, that it's still beautiful. It's still very graceful."

Almost every dress is named for an occasion - such as "Pluie d'Etoiles a Baalbeck," "Recital au Bustan," "Diner avec Haifa" and "The Chez Tante Yvonne."

Yet the collection is by no means straightforward adoration. With lots of beige, pale pink, ecru and indigo, plus occasional flashes of magenta or purple, it is an assortment of contrasts, a view of a two-faced city.

Like Tueni's poem, says Kayrouz, "I see Beirut as a courtesan. It charms people. It has something. Everybody who arrives to the city is totally charmed, totally in love. But the city really is a courtesan. Okay she's beautiful, but maybe she will take a man away from his family or his life and he won't know why. This mixture, this schizophrenia, is very interesting."

For more information on Maison Rabih Kayrouz, please call +961 1 566 079

Beirut,04 18 2006
Kaelen Wilson-Goldie
The Daily Star
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