Rabih Kayrouz is the real thing, a genuinely innovative designer, which might seem odd to say about, as half a dozen designers from Lebanon have become regular fixtures on the Paris catwalk; somewhat unfairly, he’s been bracketed in with the rest of them. While he’s respectful of his co-nationals, he’s very different from them all.
My old mentor John Fairchild used to say the true test of a designer was cut and line. If that’s true, then Kayrouz is a talented designer indeed. In comparison to his fellow Lebanese, he stands out as someone capable of creating a full modern wardrobe, not just fancy evening wear.
Elie Saab may have dressed an Oscar winner and Georges Chakra and Zuhair Murad have staged far larger shows in Paris, yet Kayrouz somehow seems the more complete talent, the man with the cooler aesthetic. “I am not catering for the same client. Lebanese designers want to dress a certain lady at a certain time in her life. They cater evening and gala dresses. And they do it well. I prefer to be wilder. And dress her not just one hour per day,” Kayrouz tells me diplomatically over lunch in his beautiful St Germain studio.
“I know Elie Saab and like the way he launched a real style. He did that when not many designers would have had the courage without so many followers at the beginning. As Lebanese, we live in small country, so we are obliged to go outside,” adds Kayrouz, who has quietly won a devoted following in fashion with his modernist ladylike chic.
In the short period since debuting his signature collection in July 2009 and staging his first runway show the following January, Kayrouz’s already become an established name in arguably the fashion world’s eminent department store chain, Neiman Marcus, retailing in six of their key stores. His is a fashion that nimbly combines the rigor of couture with a light-handed “architectural” construction. He certainly has the right preparation for his aesthetic; he spent half a decade in the early ‘90s in the ateliers of Christian Dior – during the era of fashion’s greatest architect Gianfranco Ferrè – and Chanel.
“It was an internship between 1991 and ‘92 at Dior. I loved learning about cutting and techniques in the Ferrè atelier. I was at Chanel from ‘94 to ‘95 with the atelier flu,” recalls Kayrouz, using the French term for the department of a couture house where haute couture dresses – not tailored clothing – are cut and made.
“They asked me the first day at Chanel to cut a skirt in three layers, and on the bias. I looked at the lady and said this was the first time I was cutting mousseline and placed it on the table covered in canvas. Instead of spending one hour, I took a whole day! But at least I eventually understood the technique,” he laughs.
Kayrouz comes from a prominent Maronite family. Owners of the country’s most famous bread company, he was raised in the village of Ghazir in the foothills of Mount Lebanon. After attending school at Saint Lazarus – “lots of priests and lots of Latin,” he recalls – he left his home country at 16 years to study at the Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale, Paris’ most famous fashion school.
By 1995, as the bitter Lebanese civil war began to cool, Kayrouz was drawn back by the renewed energy in Beirut. He returned to Lebanon and founded his own house creating special dresses for select customers. He’s had a studio in Beirut centre since ‘98 in an old building which has grown into a business with a staff of 30.
But his dream of a building a fashion house in Paris and tapping into the city’s know-how was too strong a lure and so was born La Maison Rabih Kayrouz. As a result, his labels read MRK and feature a pomegranate – a sensual yet tough fruit – an apt image for this polite but obviously determined designer.
Fittingly, for a path-breaker, Kayrouz then stumbled on exceptional headquarters : a light-filled atelier with 20 foot ceilings and marvelously worn floorboards. Located at 38 Boulevard Raspail, it was once the Petit Théâtre de Babylone where Samuel Beckett staged the world première of his most famous play Waiting for Godot. The space seems to have waited for Kayrouz.
“I realized I had to come and create here, not just open a showroom. Instead of the 50 square-meters I was searching for, I ended up with 300!” he hoots. It’s where he stages his intimate shows during the haute couture seasons, although his clothes are prêt-a-porter.
“For me haute couture is savoir faire, not really a lifestyle, as it does not correspond the way we live today. So, in order to maintain its amazing techniques, it has to connect with ready-to-wear. Great workshops and manufacturers are dying for lack of orders, so we have to make clothes that are really accessible,” Kayrouz tells me over a lunch of tabbouleh, cauliflower and delicious tuna bought in Raspail’s famed local market.
His fall collection from last year, entitled Salwa, shown in July 2010 really put him on the map with its graceful finesse. “Salwa is the name of my best friend, but it also means fun, amusement. Each collection is a certain story, a mood and an attitude, which is always my inspiration. I am not inspired by themes, nostalgia or eras. For me it is always about mood, and most of mine are happy,” he beams.
Kayrouz’s clothes combine the technical feats of couture: attention to detail and magnificent fabrics with the rigor of ready-to-wear; its practicality and modernist mood. Sleek cocktails mix lambskin torsos with knits – always featuring pockets. Like I said, Kayrouz likes chic functionality.
His latest collection, named Bubble, included lots of what’s become his signature look – light fabrics, erratically holed by a computer program, usage of silk and English lace boleros in addition to some very beautiful white cotton felt dresses. His oriental side comes out in the cut, like beige leather jackets that mold around the body.
“In Lebanon I was frustrated that I was not dressing everybody, as it was not practical that my friends came to me to order a dress. They wanted beautiful prêt-a-porter, a real wardrobe not just one piece,” he adds, smiling at his own Gal Friday and Pierre Berge figure, Constance, the commercial director who has cut her teeth with Loulou de la Falaise.
Back home, he opened his first boutique in December 2010, in a cool, emerging harbor area, easily accessible to mid-town. “Before it was just small trashy restaurants and hotels. But it’s changing rapidly, with new galleries and restaurants. Anyway, I don’t want to be in central Beirut between Hermès and H&M,” he stresses, adding that his next goal is to open a boutique in either New York or London.
Currently he’s busy reinventing his old Beirut atelier as a foundation for young and upcoming designers; a laboratory where up to five designers with les petites mains will experiment on volume and ideas. “My dream is a real brand that is not forgotten, collections that make women beautiful walking down the street. I want to see my clothes worn all over the world,” he stresses.
As a sudden July shower ends I bid him adieu. We will be waiting for you Kayrouz…