It’s been exactly 365 days since a massive warehouse explosion at the port of Beirut sent shockwaves through the Lebanese capital, killing more than 200 people, injuring thousands and destroying major building sites.
Since then the Lebanese people — already bogged down by the challenges posed by COVID-19, the country’s ongoing economic crisis, and political conflicts — were left to pick up the pieces.
A resilient bunch — although they are rightly sick of hearing that compliment — they quickly mobilized to clean up their city, rebuild their homes and offices, or in the case of the city’s fashion and design communities, find solace in creativity.
A majority of local designers had studios or shops in Gemmayze, around the city’s port area, where the explosion took place, and saw their spaces along with recently designed collections destroyed before their eyes.
Yet they are not giving up: Some decided to relocate and keep their businesses alive by venturing into new markets, while others are staying put and trying to work within a new set of parameters, including the ongoing pandemic, political conflicts and a deflated currency that has even made food shopping a luxury.
What they all want the world to know is that the crisis is very much still alive and they need industry attention and support, just as much as they did on Aug. 4, 2020, when news of the blast was broadcast globally.
An Ongoing Struggle
“Not much has improved or been cleaned up. Some sites that had been demolished stayed exactly as they are,” Racil Chalhoub, a Lebanese, London-based designer said when visiting her hometown this summer to do a shoot that would “represent the streets of Beirut” to her international audience. “On the same day, the prime minister [Saad Hariri] resigned for maybe the 100th time and people took to the streets, so we had to rush off to stay safe. It’s hard to say there’s improvement because what’s really needed is change at government level.”
The people of Beirut are now having to face these protests, as well as power cuts on a daily basis and the financial threats of an extreme currency deflation.
“As traumatic as the blast was, it still doesn’t compare with the mental damage of living in Beirut. Nothing prepared us to deal with the situation we’re going through in Lebanon at the moment,” echoed Eric Mathieu Ritter, founder of indie label Emergency Room. “Day after day things are getting worse: the cost of everything is rising absurdly, fuel is becoming more and more scarce, electricity is unavailable, sometimes we have to skip showers because water isn’t even being distributed. Our salaries and savings lose their value, yet we have to remain composed and constantly adapt our lifestyle and operations.”
The sentiment is shared among many creatives, particularly the young talent who were hit the hardest.
“The situation has become dire to the point of being normalized — we are too busy trying to survive to think of fighting back,” said Cynthia Merhej, the Lebanese designer behind women’s wear label Renaissance Renaissance and the first Arab woman to be shortlisted for this year’s LVMH Prize.
For some the blast was the last straw in a series of government failures, pushing them to leave their homes and seek more stability by moving to other parts of the Gulf region or Europe.
Roni Helou, the up-and-coming designer who won the inaugural Fashion Trust Arabia Prize in 2019, was among them: After some time spent with his family outside Beirut, he accepted an invitation by Qatar’s Sheikha Al-Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani to expand to Doha, Qatar.
“The first six months [after the blast] passed by faster than I had expected because I was sort of in denial regarding what had happened, and I was keeping myself busy with a fundraiser I initiated to support the creative community,” said Helou, who has moved his showroom to Qatar and hopes to be able to tap into more international markets from his new base. “The hardest part of this year was the last month before this move to Doha. That was when it all hit me at once and I realized the impact of everything I lost and how much I was going to miss my home and workplace.”
For young names like Helou, who had just opened his Beirut showroom at the beginning of 2020 and didn’t have established international audiences or cash to fall back on when the crises hit, the situation was particularly challenging.
“Clients were no longer prioritizing shopping for new clothes during the pandemic, our showroom had to remain closed for several months, and the shift to e-commerce wasn’t as easy as expected, as the Lebanese currency completely devalued, and we lost a big chunk of our clients,” explained Helou of his decision to relocate.
For Nathalie Mroue, cofounder of the sales showroom and consultancy business Maison Pyramide, it was a case of saying “enough is enough.”
She used to keep an office in Beirut because she personally preferred to live in Lebanon near her family and always believed in the potential of the city’s creative talent.
“Beirut was the fashion capital for the region for such a long time and it used to make sense to have an office here. Brands like Elie Saab or Zuhair Murad have their bases in Beirut and they are internationally renowned businesses,” said Mroue, who luckily left her port-facing office early on the day of the blast but returned to find it completely destroyed. “With the revolution, COVID-19 and then the explosion, Lebanon turned into a failed state and being registered here as an international company is now seen as a negative. We realized there’s no future for us, for the time being, to be operating out of a failed state.”
Mroue, whose firm works with established and emerging names across the Gulf region and key international fashion markets, explained that problems started long before the blast. The revolution against the government spurred ongoing energy cuts and the failure of the banking system, meaning money completely depreciated and international transactions were always a nightmare.
“No one would have thought we’d be in a situation where we can’t access money and have electricity cuts. You can’t connect to the internet sometimes, so you’re disconnected from the world. Soon it might be hard to travel from here. It was just enough: On a human level, how can you innovate or grow with such tension around you?” added Mroue, who has since relocated to London and is also spearheading the opening of a new headquarters in Dubai.
She added that film and production agencies, media channels and photographers are slowly migrating to places like Dubai, where financing and infrastructure make it easier to do business. “It’s bound to affect the whole creative chain here.”
Thinking of luxury while witnessing the struggles of the Lebanese people is a challenge in itself.
“It’s tough to remain inspired and focused on fashion when political instability is rampant, especially since couture feels like a parallel universe of beauty, imagination and delicacy,” said couturier Krikor Jabotian, whose atelier was also damaged during the 2020 blast.
The country’s flair for lavish weddings, which historically boosted local fashion houses’ couture and occasion wear businesses, had been dampened down. Jabotian said over the past year, “there has been a definite shift in scale when it comes to the dresses clients come in for” and he has had to adapt his vision to fit smaller events.
“As a result of the scaling down of gown sizes, price points had to consequently decrease,” explained Jabotian.
Hyperinflation permeates every aspect of the production process. “The only solution for us at the moment is to import raw materials and buy them with a different currency, while our local currency is being inflated by the hour. All this is not making things easier for us to produce in Lebanon,” confirmed established fashion designer Tony Ward, acknowledging that emerging, small brands are the most affected by the situation since they are more dependent on the local market.
As a result, labels ranging from Emergency Room to Boyfriend the Brand have been forced to revisit pricing locally on a weekly basis while many designers have decided to relocate their businesses.
Jewelry designer Karma Salman is planning her move to Dubai to “make sure the company is safe” and to begin expanding the business and team. “Ideally my production will stay in Beirut and hopefully the company will grow in UAE,” she said, pointing to the skyrocketing prices of gold as another element affecting her operations.
For Merhej, relocating to Paris was the only solution. “It is impossible to grow a business in a place where you don’t even know if there will be electricity, internet, or a currency tomorrow. It’s extremely difficult to live. I was given a second chance for myself and my business so I took it, even though it has not been easy establishing it elsewhere,” she said.
A Spirit of Solidarity
But even at a distance, Lebanese creatives have pledged ongoing support to their communities and are committing to supporting local artisans. Mroue said that Maison Pyramide is still committed to hiring and supporting Lebanese talent, while Helou is keeping his label’s production in Lebanon in a bid to “support the local economy from afar.”
Chalhoub, who has always been London-based, has also been working on a series of initiatives, from donating a percentage of the sales from her signature earrings to local charities to cofounding Creatives for Lebanon after the blast and hosting auctions with Sotheby’s to raise funds. Most recently she designed a book clutch with Olympia Le Tan, paying homage to Beirut.
“It’s always a drop in the ocean, but as a Lebanese designer I will always link my work back to my country and give back whenever I can and whenever it feels relevant to my customers,” said Chalhoub.
This spirit of solidarity and adaptability has long been in the blood of the Lebanese people. It’s what has turned Beirut into a hub of creativity, cultural exchange and buzzy nightlife despite its long history of civil wars and political crises.
“We were devastated and for a moment started to lose hope in the future of our country and city. But the energy on the ground the day after the blast, the amount of love and solidarity that we witnessed from the Lebanese people, ignited our flame and passion for our country once more,” recalled Tatiana Fayad, who runs the Vanina label alongside Joanne Hayek. “Alternative systems are taking shape and the civil society is taking matters into its own hands in terms of humanitarian action, post-blast recovery, and planning.”
An Opportunity for Sustainable Innovation?
This journey of adapting to a new reality that includes a shortage of raw materials, skyrocketing costs of imported fabric, and slow production runs has also led Lebanese creatives to employ sustainable and localized processes that the broader industry could indeed learn from.
Emergency Room’s Ritter, whose brand relies on upcycling, is leading by example. “We were well equipped to face the challenges that came our way, since we work with what we have and what we can find locally with the help of independent seamstresses and tailors,” said Ritter, who often starts designing by running through thrift stores in Tripoli and sourcing secondhand materials.
Designer Yassmin Saleh, who runs the namesake brand she cofounded with her sister Farah, also reworked the company’s production model.
“The most pressing matter to solve in the fashion industry is that of slow fashion and sustainability.…Our fabric sourcing is limited to what our suppliers have in their stores, and with the dramatic financial crisis that is leading Lebanon, we are restricted with the availability in trims and fabrics. We support our country’s economy by sourcing our materials from Lebanon, and we hope to be able to completely source sustainable materials from here rather than importing,” she said.
“It is in times of crisis that creativity is the most important,” said Vanina’s Hayek, underscoring that the disruption of the past year’s events provided an opportunity to “reconsider our methods and to aim for more conscious forms of creation and consumption.” For instance, the brand is investing in research and development for innovative local materiality, trying to tackle also the waste issue in the country. “Fashion offers the possibility to sustainably transform problematic wasted materials into luxury, while creating green jobs through handcraft and manufacturing. We believe this is a field to be developed in Lebanon, and we are dedicating a large part of our research and investment to that,” she said.
“Lebanese people have the art of adaptation, the fashion industry suffered from a triple crisis and every Lebanese designer I know found a way to pick themselves up around the situation and restructure in order to fit within a new type of market,” confirmed Amine Jreissati, founder and creative director of contemporary label Boyfriend the Brand.
Given the decline in demand and focus on sustainability, brands are developing smaller collections and rethinking their designs to match the context and consumers’ new needs.
Couturiers George Azzi and Assaad Osta, whose studio was devastated as a result of the blast, also made a point to rebuild and keep their atelier going in Beirut to support local artisans, even as they shift their focus to markets like Dubai and Paris. They also plan to open a new headquarters in the French capital.
They describe the last year as “a year of navigating and dodging,” yet after the blast they managed to quickly relocate and honor every client order without delay, expand in Asia, shoot a look book remotely in Los Angeles, and start venturing into ready-to-wear, too.
“We became more focused and revisited our creations, reinterpreting our designs into the current landscape, all about slower rhythms, smaller events, timelessness and intimacy,” said the designers, who still refer to Lebanese women and their enduring love of fashion and beauty as a major inspiration.
“Women here still appreciate fashion, beauty and dress up — they probably do it less and more discretely because of the general mood but they definitely still do,” they added.
Keeping Up the Fight
A commitment to the Lebanese’s love of beauty and life, in general, is what has caused some designers to stay put in Beirut and remain creative and motivated.
“We managed to build something so organically, based on respect and the fair and ethical treatment of garment workers, I deeply feel like I’d be turning my back on the values that I built the whole business model on,” said Ritter when asked if he ever considered relocating the company elsewhere.
Designer Salim Azzam, who collaborates with local women in developing his hand-crafted and embroidered collections, has a similar perspective: “Despite all, it has been most humbling to see how our brand has empowered the women financially in such times. I will always keep my production here. I started this brand to preserve and reimagine the crafts done by women of the region with the belief that the best way to go global is to be authentic and local.”
Sisters Dima and Tania Nawbar, whose family has been running a jewelry business since 1891 in Beirut, found solace in rebuilding their store and turning their attention to design and creativity. They quickly came up with “Fragments of Beirut,” a jewelry line inspired by the fragments of broken glass found all over the streets after the blast.
They are now in the middle of launching more ranges, including “Fragments of Us,” which pays tribute to the family and friends who supported them in the last year.
“We went through the most traumatizing event of our lives, as individuals, as a team and as a business. But today, a year later, despite the strange frame of mind that we are in, the Lebanese appetite for life, fashion and positivity remains stronger than the horrors we went through,” said the sisters, whose brand has been having success with international retailers like Harrods and Moda Operandi.
Sandra Mansour, a young name known for her whimsical eveningwear, was also keen to stay in Beirut and has spent the last year rebuilding her studio in a new location. Sourcing materials remains “a daily struggle” given the lack of resources and ongoing price hikes, but she is motivated to find solutions and push through.
“No matter how difficult the situation gets, Lebanon remains the beating heart of the brand and an integral part of its identity,” she said.
A collaboration with H&M earlier this year — which marked the first time the retailer worked with an Arab designer — helped give the brand a boost in terms of international exposure.
Where Do We Go From Here?
International exposure is exactly what Lebanese designers need to stay afloat.
They might not be ready to ride the market’s direct-to-consumer wave and solely rely on their own online sales operations, but are keen to expand in the GCC region and Europe through wholesale partnerships.
“It’s important to understand that the purchasing power in the country at the moment is close to nonexistent. The local fashion industry is at the moment strongly relying on international sales to keep the production channels running,” said Ritter.
Outside wholesale, ongoing exposure and help “to get the word out there” is also crucial.
“It is important to give emerging talent a voice and provide relevant opportunities so that we can sustain Beirut’s creative community in spite of the situation,” said Mansour.
Azzi and Osta echoed her thoughts: “The industry can look at the creatives from Lebanon with a deeper approach and give them the same coverage and insight that’s given to new-generation brands and new fashion hubs, like Seoul, Tbilisi and so on.”
It’s also worth remembering the fashion students: With banks seizing people’s savings and inflation making tuition fees impossible to afford for most, the new generation of Lebanese design talent has to rely on funds and scholarships for a chance to have a future in the creative industries.
“We hope that the international fashion community will continue to hold the names of Lebanese talents high, promoting and connecting them beyond Lebanon,” concluded Jabotian.