Kendall Jenner, Kaia Gerber, Gabrielle Union, Jane Fonda, Fan Bingbing — a quick glance through Zuhair Murad’s most recent Instagram posts confirms that the Lebanese designer dresses a wider range of A-list celebrities than almost anyone else.
This story first appeared in the November 16, 2016 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Jennifer Lopez is a longtime client, tapping Murad to create three key looks for her residency at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas. Sofía Vergara famously asked him to make the dress for her fairy-tale wedding to Joe Manganiello. And Elle Fanning wowed onlookers in one of his creations at the last Cannes Film Festival.
All of them rely on Murad for the kind of feminine, richly decorated dresses with a little side of sauce — think plunging necklines, sheer tulle and some strategically placed sequins — that have propelled the soft-spoken designer to the top of every stylist’s speed dial.
“I never consciously set out to become a red-carpet designer. I just design dresses to make women beautiful and to make them dream; that’s my goal,” says Murad, sitting on a sofa in his couture salon on Rue François 1er during Paris Fashion Week in October.
Born in Baalbek, Lebanon, famous for its temple complex dating back to Roman times, he started sketching dresses at the age of 10. Though he had no formal training, Murad established his first atelier in Beirut in 1997 and rapidly gained a following for his made-to-measure dresses.
Two years later, he presented his first haute couture collection in Rome and in 2001, he began showing in Paris, at a time when many critics still looked down on Middle Eastern designers. Alongside Elie Saab, Georges Chakra and Georges Hobeika, Murad helped evolve perceptions of the region’s fashion sensibility. A sign that Murad had been embraced by the French fashion establishment came in late 2012, when the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture elected him as a guest member. That year, he relocated his Beirut headquarters to an 11-story building which hosts corporate offices, a design studio and a bridal boutique. Between Lebanon and his workshop and design studio in Paris, Murad employs some 300 people.
His red-carpet breakthrough came in 2010, when Lopez wore one of his creations — a greige bustier gown with silver feather embroidery — to the Met Ball in New York. “She was ravishing and everyone adored it. They all wanted to know who designed the dress,” he recalls.
The singer and actress has been faithful to Murad ever since, wearing his gowns regularly to the Golden Globes, the Academy Awards and numerous music awards. Miniature versions of his designs even appeared on two J.Lo dolls produced by Mattel in 2013. “Zuhair Murad’s design is exquisite and timeless yet completely unique and refreshing at the same time,” Lopez says. “You notice the dresses because they make such a jaw-dropping impression at first sight: they’re dramatic, bold and glamorous. But as you look closer, there is so much to appreciate in the detail, as well: everything from the fabrics chosen to embellishments come together for this gorgeous piece of wearable art.”
Murad has established long-running relationships with many of his celebrity clients, who also include Beyoncé, Taylor Swift and Katy Perry. “My dresses are like good-luck charms. That’s why they keep coming back,” he says. But things don’t always go according to plan. At the 2012 Emmys, Vergara tweeted a photo of her lavishly beaded teal Murad gown with a broken zipper exposing her backside. She managed to get it sewn up backstage just in time for “Modern Family” to be named Outstanding Comedy Series.
“After that, I was among the top 10 most Googled fashion designers,” Murad says with a chuckle. The two worked via Skype and e-mails on her wedding gown, which required a team of 30-plus and more than 1,000 hours worth of work. More than 558,000 people liked the photo of the happy couple that Vergara posted on Instagram, and more than 300 brides-to-be called or e-mailed in the days afterward about having similar dresses for their weddings.
The designer acknowledges that celebrities are a major driver of his business. “When women see a celebrity wearing a Zuhair Murad dress on the red carpet, there is an immediate reaction. They love it and order the exact same dress,” he says. Murad’s influence can be felt in the growing popularity of sheer dresses on the red carpet. “I like everything that is very close to the skin, like a tattoo, because if you put a lining, you lose all that handwork — it’s a shame. With the transparency, you can see the detail better,” he says. “You can’t put a very modest woman in a dress like that. You need a real attitude, a woman with a certain kind of personality.”
Murad admits that owning and running his own business can be stressful. “It’s a world that is very beautiful but also full of tension. There’s always a deadline,” he says. “We used to do two collections a year — now we have 12.”
Still, the designer has big ambitions. Having opened a shops-in-shop in Harrods this year, he wants to launch stand-alone boutiques in New York and Los Angeles, upgrade his ready-to-wear presentation to a full runway show in Paris next March and expand his accessories lines.
“We never stop. There’s always more to be done,” he says.