What Next for Beirut, the Fashion Hub of the Middle East?

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Two hours after the appalling explosion in Beirut flooded the news, agonising replies from friends started coming through to my phone. Roni Helou, one of the most committed ethical young designers I know, DMd: “I’m fine but my house and atelier are destroyed.” The Mukhi sisters, jewellery designers Maya, Meena and Zeenat said: “We’re fine, but the shop’s badly damaged.” Embroiderer Salim Azzam, whose studio and workshops are in Chouf on Mount Lebanon, immediately posted an offer to give room for friends to sleep. Within hours, he was then posting Instagram stories from the blast-wrecked streets, showing young people mobilizing to help, and calling for others to “Come down and help any way you can.” Later, he told me, “You can’t just stay at home at a time like this. Everybody is here. Lebanese people are really well known for this. It’s taken our generation back to a war-time we never knew. But honestly, just seeing everyone together has been a boost to the soul.”

Beirut has long been the creative hub of fashion in the Middle East. With its long post-colonial relationship with Paris, it is a city that has a deep culture of incredible, community-generated skill and imagination, from super-elevated haute couture and precious jewellery through to the new avant-garde generation, who hold social activism front and centre in the daily struggle. The badly hit Gemmayzeh neighborhood, near the port, where streets of elegant traditional and modern buildings have been devastated, was teeming with indie shops and young people drinking and dancing in pre-lockdown times. Effectively, it’s the home of Beirut fashion — “Like Williamsburg in Brooklyn,” says Céline Semaan, the Beirut-born designer who has watched the horror in her home city unfold from New York.

After seeing heart-wrenching footage from inside the beautiful, smashed house belonging to Maison Rabih Kayrouz, I managed to find him through DM. “I am in the hospital,” Rabih, the couturier who normally brings his chic-modern couture collections to show in Paris, managed to tell me later, while being treated for a head injury. “My place is in one of the beautiful 19th-century buildings. I live there and work there, everyone is there and it is devastated. I decided that I wouldn’t take my business to Paris — I wanted to stay here to live in the city I love, and give work to all the incredible people who work in the ateliers here,” he managed to say. “After the blast, I don’t remember anything except walking through the streets, seeing people out, working to help others. Lebanese people are truly incredible. They have been giving aid, feeding people and looking after citizens during the terrible time we’ve been having with the collapse of banks this year, and the pandemic. Now this. The government is despicable. Beirut people do not deserve this.”

Tania Fares, who set up the Fashion Trust Arabia (FTA) non-profit organization to support and mentor MENA (Middle East and North Africa) designers was in the FTA offices at the time of the blast. One of her colleagues, she said, is receiving surgery for an injury. “And there are so many here dead.” One who was later confirmed to have lost her life is Hala Taya, the fine jewelry designer and one of many women creative entrepreneurs in this city. Against a photograph of an extravagantly bold floriform diamond-set ring on her website, a caption reads: “Hala Taya jewels became known for its major creation ‘Keep Lebanon Close to your Heart’, a masterpiece representing… patriotism, an act of donation, and above all, the tribute of a designer to the nation of Lebanon.”

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