We tiptoed through a gaggle of long-haired, long-limbed models dotted around the landing and up the stairs outside Zuhair Murad’s elegant 18th-century Parisian townhouse studio. Plugged into music and playing with their iPhones, these pretty young things were waiting their turn for a fitting in one of the exquisitely beaded dresses they would parade down a Paris catwalk.
The studio was remarkably calm; there was none of the giddiness you would expect during last-minute preparations for a fashion show. On the rails, the bell-sleeved gowns, jumpsuits, cocktail dresses and capes are colour coded (black, burgundy, plum, honeysuckle pink, lime, purple and blue), as they will appear on the catwalk in the French capital’s Grand Palais, and waiting to be assigned to a model. Murad was surprisingly chilled and chatty. Occasionally he dashed off to adjust a neckline or fiddle with a cuff, but he clearly felt the collection was ready for its audience.
The couturier, who divides his time between Beirut and Paris, has been presenting his collections in the French capital since 2001 and opened his maison de couture in Rue Francois in the city’s 1st arrondissement in 2007. Three years ago he was invited by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture to show in Paris’ haute couture weeks, thus placing him on the official calendar.
Murad has a way with eveningwear that has clients and celebrities clamouring for his gowns. “Cannes was unbelievable this year: we dressed 38 celebrities for the red carpet. Every day three, four, five minimum; I said no, I don’t want to see any more, please stop,” he jests.
Nowadays, plenty of Chinese celebrities come to him to be dressed, including Angelababy, Ni Ni and Zuo An Xiao, and Ruby Lin, who was in the front row at Murad’s recent Paris show. “Angela is so popular that every day we receive requests from clients for what she is wearing,” he says.
Jennifer Lopez and Jessica Biel are also devotees of what he describes as his boho, rock couture aesthetic.
Unlike many fashion shows that are filled with industry professionals, at Zuhair Murad you get to see the clients – there are so many, and easily identifiable in their latest Murad purchases and precious jewels. They keep in touch with the house and the constant flow of updates via Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat.
“Haute couture is not the same as it was 30, 40 or 50 years ago. Today it has … another mentality because of social media and the celebrities,” he says. “It is totally different.”
The red carpet is good for business: when a beautiful star wears one of his finely beaded fairytale gowns the house is inundated with requests, but if it is something from the new collection, such as the recently previewed Cruise collection, “they want it now and don’t understand that we still have to produce the collection. That, unfortunately, is the problem with social media”.
Nevertheless, it is a powerful tool: an elaborately beaded dress on the red carpet translates into many orders. “It is pretty instant,” Murad says.
Raised in Baalbek in Lebanon in the 1970s, Murad was never without a pen and paper or canvas, constantly sketching and painting and escaping into a world of fantasy as a child. He started sketching dresses at the age of 10, and says “I don’t recall a day in my life without a pen in my hand.”
He left Lebanon in the late 1980s to study in Paris and returned to Beirut to establish his atelier in 1997. In those days he had six people working with him; nowadays he has 300, thanks to the success of his haute couture, bridal and ready-to-wear collections.
Murad’s designs, like those of fellow Lebanese couturiers Elie Saab and Georges Hobeika, are renowned for their fine beadwork. His atelier in Beirut has a huge workroom for embroidery. The delicate embroideries in this collection are based on tapestries with floral and flamingo motifs. The wide availability of these skills is due to a cultural tradition in which every woman learns to sew and embroider, because she had to embroider her wedding clothes, trousseau and draperies.
“It is part of our history: when you look at Turkish-, Palestinian- and Arab-style fashion, all have a tradition of embroidery.”
The rise of haute couture in Beirut dates back to the 1950s and ’60s, a period when Lebanon was celebrated as the Switzerland, or Paris, of the Middle East. The landscape is like the south of France, with mountains, trees and beautiful houses, the Lebanese were very cosmopolitan and visitors flocked to the country. Out of this, he explains, grew a luxury fashion industry. Dressmakers went to Paris to buy couture samples and learn the skills and know-how from the French fashion houses and brought that expertise back to Beirut.
Of course, there is a huge wedding culture in the Middle East that has bankrolled many Beirut fashion houses. There is less interest, Murad explains, in couture tailoring when there is so much available at ready-to-wear.
“It is unlike the 1950s and ’60s when there weren’t the boutiques and ready-to-wear available for day wear. Now when a client wants haute couture, they want something spectacular and unique for a very special occasion.”
Over 20 years his aesthetic has evolved to put a modern twist on traditional forms. There is a sensual, feminine richness to his style, but the silhouettes have become more modern, as has the styling. Over-the-knee boots, felt hats, highwayman’s caps and the carefree naturalness of the models give his latest couture collection a ’70s rock chick vibe, but there is no doubting the luxuriousness of the materials and the embellishments.
Murad spends more time in Paris than Beirut these days, as his ambitions for his brand grow. He wants to expand his already wide network of boutiques: Joyce in Hong Kong stocks his ready-to-wear, as do Select in Chengdu and Javece in Beijing. There are proposals to introduce children’s wear, perfume and especially accessories, but his greatest ambition, he says, “is to see more women wearing my dresses”.