From Beirut to Paris to Hollywood, Zuhair Murad has created a world in which women such as Jennifer Lopez, Sofia Vergara, Blake Lively and even Barbie exude confidence and elegance in dresses that are classic but modern. Honored as the top fashion designer at this year’s WWD and Variety Stylemakers ceremony, he recounted what inspired him to work in fashion and how he designed memorable gowns for women to wear not only on the red carpet but also on their wedding day.
WWD: Tell us a little about the culture where you come from. How did it inform how you feel women should dress?
Zuhair Murad: I come from Lebanon. It’s a very beautiful country. It’s the Paris of the Middle East. The women are really elegant, they’re beautiful, they take care of themselves. I grew up with a family that loves fashion. I used to watch my mother. She sewed and embroidered just to pass the time. She was the first person who helped me realize that in the fashion world.
WWD: You began drawing at age 10?
Z.M.: Yes, I always had pen and paper actually. I used to draw when I was very young. Fashion was my destiny. I didn’t choose it. It chose me. I grew up with this dream to be a fashion designer, to dress the most beautiful women in the world and make their dreams come true.
WWD: Hollywood is one of your early influences. Can you say which is your favorite era and which actresses you watched when you were growing up?
Z.M.: My favorite era was the Forties and the Thirties, when the women were really taking care of themselves with their beauty, elegance and sophistication. The highlight of the women’s body, the draping of the fabric, the way they dressed, the hair, the makeup, the elegance. It’s my favorite era actually. One of my favorite muses is Audrey Hepburn.
WWD: You opened your atelier in 1997.
Z.M.: I started very young but I decided to work for myself. The first studio was in Beirut, in my native country, where I started to receive clients from Lebanon and the Middle East and Arab countries, such as princesses, royalty and wealthy families. It was all the encouragement of the clients. They pushed me to go to Paris, the fashion capital, and to start presenting my fashion show during the fashion week in Paris.
WWD: In Hollywood, everyone has their personal breakout moment. What was yours?
Z.M.: The first hit was when J.Lo wore my dress at the Met Ball in 2010. It was a strapless ball gown in antique silver with thousands and thousands of pearls, crystals and sequins. It was a big surprise to me at that time.
WWD: Did she find the dress? Or vice versa?
Z.M.: Actually, J.Lo found it by chance when she was watching TV and she saw my fashion show. She fell in love with the collection and with the design. She asked her stylist directly to contact us for specific designs. And after she wore that dress she asked for many others. She’s a lucky charm to me.
WWD: Things are different now. It was only in 2010 but designers do so much outreach on their own. In this case, she found you. She didn’t tell you if she was going to wear it.
Z.M.: A memorable moment. She was very beautiful that night and I think she was the best dressed of the night.
WWD: Dresses can be transformative. Taylor Swift wore your white dress in 2014 to the Victoria’s Secret fashion show after party. How was that a turning point for her style as well as for you?
Z.M.: I think it was the first time that she wore something like that. That style suits her very well — this crepe dress with a slit and transparent embroidery on the upper body. It was something very new and everybody loved it. After she wore that dress, all the women wanted to have this dress. We made a lot of orders.
WWD: When you have these red carpet placements, what is the effect on your business? Do the phones start ringing off the hook?
Z.M.: I think the red carpet is the great exposure for my business. The entire world watches the red carpet and wants to see what celebrities are wearing, what is the trend, what are the looks. When they see my design on the red carpet, we also get calls from different stores that want to carry the brand, that want to have the collection. We have more than 100 points of sale around the world. A big factor is the celebrities.
WWD: A sign that you have made it as a designer is when you have a Barbie.
Z.M.: So cute.
WWD: For those of you who may not remember, this is Blake Lively in 2012 at the premiere of “Savages.”
Z.M.: When she saw this dress, she fell in love with it and she kept it for this event. That moment was iconic. She was very beautiful. With her grace, her beauty, her hair, her makeup, her attitude — it was very nice. After that, we did the Barbie with that dress because it was classical and modern at the same time. Timeless beauty.
WWD: You’re a big perfectionist. When people wear your dresses, it’s all about the hair, the makeup, all the elements.
Z.M.: It’s very important to complete the look. It’s not about only the dress. It’s the shoes, the makeup, the hair, the attitude, the jewelry, everything is important. It’s a complete picture, you know. We have to think about every single detail. After that, we succeed.
WWD: Given that you want a 360-degree view, you also started a ready-to-wear line.
Z.M.: I started with haute couture designs. After several years, I decided to expand my business and start the rtw. With rtw you can have more boutiques around the world, you can have more clients, I can dress more women also. There are a lot of women that want to wear Zuhair Murad but haute couture is very expensive and it’s not affordable.
WWD: You might not want to wear that to lunch.
Z.M.: In rtw we can do more daywear clothing. You can do something easy to wear and maybe more comfortable. You can wear it at anytime. In haute couture, it’s like a dream.
WWD: You also started bridal most recently, which seems like a natural extension to haute couture.
Z.M.: I love to design bridal dresses. Two to three years ago, I decided to do a rtw line for bridal. There are a lot of women who want to wear bridal from Zuhair Murad but they can’t afford the prices of haute couture. And they want something to try on and feel it. This line we had big success for rtw for bridal. We sell this line all around the world in the U.S., Europe, China, Russia and Middle East.
WWD: You had one visible bride in the last year. That was Sofia Vergara. Tell us about that dress.
Z.M.: Ah, yes. Sofia Vergara actually decided to make her dress after she saw my latest collection. She fell in love with the shape and the cut of the dress. Sofia, she likes sexy dresses. She likes to highlight her curves and her body. That’s why I designed for her a strapless fitted dress with an overskirt, a removable skirt actually. She told me: “I want to feel comfortable. I want to be sexy. I want to dance. I want to be, at the same time, spectacular.” All in one dress.
WWD: Did that influence your other customers afterwards?
Z.M.: Of course, you can’t imagine. All of the girls, because they love Sofia, they want to have the same dress or get inspiration from this style. I translated this idea into my rtw collection. It was a big success.
WWD: Believe it or not there is another Barbie out there. It’s inspired by a dress worn by Lopez.
Z.M.: This is J.Lo at the Oscars in a custom-made dress. She asked to do a custom-made dress. She fell in love with the collection but she didn’t find the right dress. She wanted something very classic but at the same time modern. She asked me to design for her a special dress. From the first sketch I did and sent her, she fell in love. It’s one of my favorite dresses.
WWD: It really embodies a lot of your signatures.
Z.M.: I like to highlight the curves of a woman but in an elegant way. I love J.Lo. At least she knows how to stand and feel with the dress. She’s beautiful inside and out. Her personality is really pure and genuine. Our collaboration started from so many years.
WWD: That’s a great example of an organic relationship. It can become challenging because there are a lot of designers that have contracts and deals with certain actresses. What’s your view on that?
Z.M.: Actually I don’t like the contract. I prefer that the celebrity has the freedom to choose what she wants. Sometimes we feel bored when we see the actress always wear the same designer from the same collection. I feel it’s better to choose what she wants. It’s nice to keep a good relationship with a designer. It’s not necessary to wear the same designer all the time. It’s boring.
WWD: It goes both ways. You get to dress a lot of different women, too.
Z.M.: The woman of Zuhair Murad is a very sensual woman but with a different character. Sometimes she’s romantic, sometimes she’s more serious, sometimes she’s very sexy. It depends on her mood. The most important is the confidence. When you fall in love with a dress and you wear it with confidence, it reflects on your face, on your attitude, everything.
WWD: What are some things that are never going to change about your design process?
Z.M.: I’m always making beautiful dresses. This is my aim: to make the woman feel beautiful, feel sexy, feel elegant. This is always my aim. I will never change. I will always keep working on myself to do always something new but at the same time to keep this feeling. For me, this is the most important.