Braving the storm of violence and economic downturn, Lebanese clothing brands are switching to local production to turn the industry on its head.
Maurice Kozeily opens the door to his second-floor apartment in Kaslik, Lebanon, a 25-minute drive north of Beirut, wearing an intricately designed dishdasha, a long traditional cloak worn in the Arab world since Biblical times.
But unlike Jesus’s dishdasha, Maurice’s is stitched with bright red designs on expensive-looking woven fabrics. Excitedly, he explains that he made it himself.
In the living room, he’s prepared a small table with Arabic coffee. As soon as he takes a seat on the couch, he untangles the hose of the metre-high shisha that stands beside him and takes a long puff with the ease of someone who has been doing it for 65 years. After all, he has.
“Well, where to begin?” he asks through a cloud of apple-mint smoke.
Maurice, who turns 80 this year, has been tailoring, designing, and making clothes in Lebanon since 1956. Born into a modest home in Jounieh, not far from where he now lives with his daughter Gina, he took an early interest in fashion, analysing and gaining inspiration from the robes of priests he saw at church.
From the age of 12, despite hostility from his parents, he began tailoring men’s trousers and putting together feminine ensembles on the side, which he found far more intriguing. Not long after, despite having no formal training, he decided to take his chances in Beirut, where the fashion scene was already budding with high-end French fashion houses like Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent.
The good times
Lebanon was, from the early 1960s, experiencing what is now known as its ‘Golden Era’. Awash with a sense of national unity that has never been fully restored, it led to both economic and social reform successes. Beirut became the banking hub of the Middle East, with several prominent international corporations choosing the city to host their regional offices. Women also gained the right to vote in 1952, 20 years ahead of nearby countries like Jordan and Iraq.
The arts and culture scene, too, was booming, with several of the country’s pillars of artistry — such as the Sursock Museum, and Baalbeck International Festival — having taken root during this era.
“The city didn’t sleep at that time,” says Maurice. “People used to come from everywhere to experience our fashion, food, festivals, parties.”
In 1964, Maurice began working in Dior’s atelier, where they tailored dresses, suits, and other delicate ensembles for celebrities like Fairouz, Liz Taylor, and Grace Kelly.
According to him, the Lebanese fashion scene was not just on par with Europe or America — it was the very best in the world.
Nostalgically, he describes the runway fashion shows he attended in the mountains of Cedars, Lebanon’s largest pine forest, and home to thousands of cedar trees that are symbolised on the Lebanese flag.
“Seeing this is like a dream. It’s something you cannot express,” he reflects.
The Golden Era didn’t last long, though. By 1975, a rise in sectarian tension, religious discord, and the question of Palestinian settlement in Lebanon, boiled over and led to the start of the civil war, which lasted 15 years and saw the death of an estimated 150,000 people.
“The last time I saw that atelier was when the army tanks forced us out,” says Maurice.
When asked if he would be able to point out where the office was, he says no.
“I would be able to show you generally, but it was all bombed in the war. There’s nothing left of it.”
Out of a job due to the violence in Beirut, Maurice opened a small shop of his own in his native Jounieh, where he employed five tailors and began designing his own work. Through the rest of the civil war, and for nearly 25 years after, he did exactly that.
“The war didn’t change the fact that Lebanon is known for fashion. Whenever I travel, people can always instantly recognise me as Lebanese because of our reputation,” he says.
“That won’t change because of a conflict.”
Maurice’s musings are timely, given that, since 2019, Lebanon has been going through one of the worst economic crises the world has ever seen. While bombs are not dropping onto streets as they were during the civil war, the desperation is just as palpable now as it was then, if not more. Poverty affects over 80 percent of the population, and reform is nowhere in sight.
The extreme devaluation of the local currency is a primary reason that few people in Lebanon are able to purchase basic necessities. Since 1990, the Lebanese lira had been pegged to the dollar at a rate of 1,500. Since 2019, the exchange rate has been in a near-constant freefall, recently hitting a new record low: 29,000 Lebanese lira to the dollar.
The desperate economic situation was exacerbated by the Beirut Port blast on August 4, 2020, when a massive amount of ammonium nitrate, improperly stored for years, exploded, killing more than 200 people and rendering thousands homeless, most of them without money to rebuild. Most blame government negligence for the explosion, and corruption for why an investigation has not yet produced any concrete findings.
Elie Saab — perhaps the most esteemed Lebanese designer in history — was in his downtown atelier when the explosion hit. The atelier and his home were reduced to rubble . Weeks later, he famously put out a new collection, dedicated to his suffering city. But in a March interview with the New York Times, he admitted: “It is getting increasingly hard for people to stay here and make a life for themselves.”
“The world loves Lebanese designers. We, the established ones, are so grateful for that support. But I worry about new and emerging designers here. It is so tough for them right now, and there is so much global competition,” he told the Times.
The exodus of young talent from Lebanon — nearly a quarter-million left in the first quarter of 2021 alone — combined with the fact that Lebanon is primarily a country of imports, including textiles, has left many wondering: what will happen to the fashion scene that once rivalled the likes of Paris?
Ghassan and Carla Wakim, a husband-and-wife duo who together own Fabula, a celebrated mid-to-luxury Lebanese brand that has been in the business for nearly 20 years, say the industry is here to stay.
But that doesn’t mean that it hasn’t required adaptations.
In 2018, the Wakims could sense that something was about to hit the Lebanese economy. Though they couldn't imagine the magnitude of what was to come, they decided it was time to make a change. Equipped with extensive knowledge of the market and a built-in designer in Carla, the Wakims began designing clothes from scratch, and opened a production factory, which now employs 40 staffers.
“What you go and see in Fabula now, all is made by us in Lebanon. All. 100 percent. We are producing 4,000 pieces per month,” says Ghassan, who says Fabula is able to sell at a 60 percent lower price point and still make an ‘acceptable’ profit margin due to the costs saved by local production.
Carla admits that the switch to local production was not an easy decision, but that Fabula — and other brands who made similar moves — are turning the industry on its head.
“Now we have customers that are proud to wear ‘Made in Lebanon’. This mentality of only wearing high-end, foreign brands with a big logo, I think it will go. Which is better,” she says.
The couple also agrees that local production is more sustainable, given Lebanon’s history with instability.
“Lebanon is going through the process of development. Now we are starting to learn how to count on ourselves. Before we were importing everything. Now, because we have to, we’re learning fast. We’re getting more and more capable of exporting,” says Ghassan, who explains that the company has been able to cushion itself with e-commerce sales, admitting that, for most Lebanese, there is not a lot - if any - money left over shopping after paying for energy, fuel, and food.
Like Maurice, the Wakims say Lebanese fashion is in their blood, come war, conflict, or crisis.
“We did this exercise for ourselves to prove that we can continue, we believe in Lebanon,” says Ghassan.
“We love our country.”