‘IF WE LOSE THE HAND­WORK, WE LOSE THE BEAUTY’

Le­banese cou­turier Zuhair Mu­rad’s dream­like gowns have made him a red-car­pet favourite, with a fan base that in­cludes some of the most stylish women in the world. Sarah Maisey meets the charm­ing de­signer in his ate­lier

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We visit the Beirut ate­lier of Le­banese cou­turier Zuhair Mu­rad, whose dream­like gowns have been worn by some of the most stylish women in the world

“C ou­t­ure is the heart of fash­ion. For me, it’s an art, like paint­ing, like mu­sic,” says Zuhair Mu­rad.

I am sit­ting across from the famed Le­banese cou­turier in his ate­lier in Beirut. Hav­ing dressed some of the world’s most beau­ti­ful women, in ex­quis­ite gowns made en­tirely by hand, Mu­rad could be for­given for be­ing a lit­tle aloof. Yet here he sits, smil­ing and ut­terly charm­ing, as if he has all the time in the world.

With a fash­ion em­pire that spans haute cou­ture, ready-to-wear, bri­dal, shoes and ac­ces­sories, Zuhair Mu­rad is a very busy man. Based in Beirut, he is ac­tively in­volved in ev­ery facet of his com­pany – from the ini­tial de­signs through to the pro­duc­tion of fash­ion shows in Paris (where he has a sec­ond ate­lier). But, de­spite be­ing a self-con­fessed worka­holic, Mu­rad has that very par­tic­u­lar skill of mak­ing you feel as if you are the most im­por­tant thing in his day. I tell him I feel for­tu­nate to have caught him dur­ing a week that is a lit­tle qui­eter than nor­mal, and see a flash of mis­chief in his eyes. “Just a lit­tle qui­eter,” he coun­ters.

It is al­ways dif­fi­cult to pin­point ex­actly what lies at the heart of a de­signer’s suc­cess, but in Mu­rad’s case, it would prob­a­bly be his un­canny abil­ity to halt time and con­jure up par­al­lel mi­cro­cosms where ev­ery­day life seems to slide away. His cou­ture col­lec­tions, waves of whis­per­ing silk laden with in­tri­cate bead­ing and em­broi­dery, seem to be peren­ni­ally il­lu­mi­nated by a ro­man­tic half-light. Like a ma­gi­cian, he has the abil­ity to trans­port us to a so er, more beau­ti­ful place.

Born in Ras Baal­bek in 1971, Mu­rad is clearly proud of his her­itage and all that it has in­stilled in him. “I grew up in this beau­ti­ful coun­try, with all this beau­ti­ful na­ture and all these beau­ti­ful women,” he tells me. “It is filled with pos­i­tive peo­ple and pos­i­tive vibes; even dur­ing the war, they never gave up. They are al­ways happy and en­joy­ing life.”

Pre-war Beirut has o en been de­scribed as the jewel of the Mid­dle East – a vi­brant, glam­orous city that strad­dled Europe and Ara­bia. Hamra Street was likened to New York’s Fi h Av­enue, and Brigitte Bar­dot, Cary Grant, Sophia Loren and Frank Si­na­tra all spent time in the city. Even now, high-oc­tane glam­our is the lifeblood that runs through Beirut, and this has al­ways in­formed Mu­rad’s aes­thetic. “There is some­thing about glam­orous women who like to take care of them­selves, who like to be beau­ti­ful and ele­gant. This [fu­elled my] imag­i­na­tion, and helped me grow up with beau­ti­ful memories.”

Driven by a de­sire to cre­ate – “I don’t re­call a day in my life with­out a pen in my hand,” he says – Mu­rad stud­ied fash­ion in Paris be­fore open­ing his ate­lier in Beirut in 1997. He de­buted his first cou­ture col­lec­tion dur­ing Haute Cou­ture Fash­ion Week in Paris in 2001, launch­ing ready-to-wear four years later. In 2007, Mu­rad’s Mai­son de Cou­ture opened in Paris, and by 2012, the com­pany was ro­bust enough to

I can­not imag­ine my ready-to-wear be­ing very mass pro­duc­tion. It’s not in me

war­rant the com­mis­sion­ing of an 11-storey, cus­tom­made head­quar­ters in Beirut. That same year also saw Mu­rad elected as a guest mem­ber to the highly pres­ti­gious Fédéra­tion de la Haute Cou­ture et de la Mode (re­cently re­named from Cham­bre Syn­di­cale de la Haute Cou­ture).

Five years later, and de­spite as­sur­ances that he rarely con­sid­ers the red car­pet when he is de­sign­ing, Zuhair Mu­rad is a go-to for award-cer­e­mony gowns. Jen­nifer Lopez, Mar­ion Cotil­lard, Blake Lively, Jes­sica Biel, Kris­ten Ste­wart and Mi­randa Kerr have all donned his cre­ations, and when Sofía Ver­gara mar­ried Joe Man­ganiello in 2015, she did it in cus­tom-made Mu­rad. More re­cently, he dressed Ni­cole Kid­man for the pre­miere of Top of the Lake. The ac­tress opted for a fit­ted bodice and flared skirt in cham­pag­ne­coloured toile from Mu­rad’s au­tumn/win­ter 2017 cou­ture col­lec­tion. “I love her,” Mu­rad ex­claims “She is ele­gant. With her beauty and the colour of her hair, she looked stun­ning.”

Does he, I won­der, draw in­spi­ra­tion from a par­tic­u­lar woman when he is de­sign­ing? “Many things in­spire me. For me, for cou­ture es­pe­cially, we are sell­ing a dream. And I think with­out a dream, we can­not cre­ate. In fash­ion, cou­ture is the heart, the base, and there are no bound­aries to it. I think about dreams and sto­ries, and ex­press them in my col­lec­tion ev­ery sea­son. My per­fect client is ev­ery woman. There is no spe­cific women I de­sign for, and the woman I have in mind has no na­tion­al­ity; she is not blonde or brunette. I have a muse in my mind and I de­sign for her ev­ery sea­son, but she doesn’t be­long to any cat­e­gory.”

His muse may not be a spe­cific woman, but one can as­sume that she leads a very par­tic­u­lar life­style. The Mu­rad woman is glam­orous, fem­i­nine, sen­sual and, no doubt, very, very rich.

For his au­tumn/win­ter 2017 cou­ture col­lec­tion, Mu­rad took as a start­ing point the ex­ag­ger­ated sil­hou­ette of the Gib­son girl – a de­pic­tion of fem­i­nine at­trac­tive­ness cap­tured in pen-and-ink il­lus­tra­tions by artist Charles Dana Gib­son in the late 19th and early 20th cen­turies. The sketches de­pict women who are youth­ful, ephemeral, grand and ever so slightly haughty, which clearly struck a chord with Mu­rad.

He trans­lated this into an ex­pan­sive col­lec­tion of sump­tu­ous gowns, many with capes and/or trains, that progress in colour through a sub­tle but strik­ing gra­da­tion of blacks, greys, bal­let pinks and nudes. Each piece is cov­ered in swirling hand-ap­plied bead­ing, in a tone-on-tone palette that be­lies the lav­ish­ness of it all.

Mu­rad’s re­cent re­sort 2018 col­lec­tion is far less for­mal, of­fer­ing trousers, shirts and even a zip-through bomber (ad­mit­tedly cov­ered in lace and beads), but even here, the col­lec­tion builds in glam­our un­til it gives way to cou­ture-esque pieces. Mu­rad is seem­ingly un­able to help him­self – you can take the man out of cou­ture, but you can’t take cou­ture out of the man.

“I wanted al­ways, even in ready-to-wear, to keep a cer­tain stan­dard. If I do a very sim­ple shirt, it should be done in a very spe­cific way, be­cause in the end, I am a cou­turier. I can­not imag­ine my ready-to-wear be­ing very mass pro­duc­tion. It’s not in me.”

Such obsession with de­tail is the hall­mark of ev­ery great cou­turier. Each gown is a labour of love that be­gins as a sim­ple sketch, re­quires the work of count­less highly skilled ar­ti­sans, and in­volves count­less hours of in­tri­cate, painstak­ing work, to be­come a re­al­ity. En­tirely made by hand, with the finest ma­te­ri­als and most in­tri­cate em­bel­lish­ments, there are no short­cuts when it comes to cou­ture.

“I am lucky to have all my team here,” Mu­rad says, ges­tur­ing to the space around him. “From the de­sign­ers to the embroiderers to the tai­lors, ev­ery­thing is done in-house. It is very easy, be­cause I can change ev­ery­thing at the last mo­ment, and fol­low my pieces, day by day.”

It is clear that Mu­rad rev­els in the process, and in cel­e­brat­ing the hand of the ar­ti­san, but he ac­knowl­edges that these skills are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly hard to come by. “Why is cou­ture very ex­pen­sive? Why is the value of cou­ture dresses so high? Be­cause it is all done by hand, point by point. It is,” he pauses, “not in­dus­trial. If we lose the hand­work, we lose the beauty. It’s an art. If you see them work­ing, pearl by pearl, bead by bead, it’s very im­pres­sive. And we need the pas­sion of the per­son who works eight hours a day – some­times when we are pre­par­ing the col­lec­tion, it’s 12 hours – mak­ing sure each bead is per­fect.

“We have older peo­ple [in the ate­lier] who have the ex­pe­ri­ence al­ready; they started 10 or 15 years ago in my house, and have good ex­pe­ri­ence. But for the younger gen­er­a­tion, we have a big prob­lem. From the new gen­er­a­tion, we can’t find peo­ple that want to work in the ate­lier. All of them want to work ei­ther as a de­signer, in the mar­ket­ing de­part­ment, in fash­ion or in pub­lic re­la­tions. It’s very dif­fi­cult to find those who want to work as cra speo­ple – tai­lors, sew­ers or pat­tern-mak­ers. I don’t know what the so­lu­tion is go­ing to be later on, be­cause ev­ery year it gets more dif­fi­cult to find them.”

But that is a con­cern for an­other day. For now, Mu­rad is rev­el­ling in all that he has achieved and look­ing for­ward to the fu­ture with cus­tom­ary verve. “Ev­ery day there is a new chal­lenge, a new project. For me, we are at the be­gin­ning, with a lot of things to do. Maybe there will be a per­fume, maybe make-up. I am lucky be­cause I do some­thing I re­ally love. I have worked very hard to get here, and it’s not easy to get to this level. It is a lit­tle stress­ful, but I en­joy what I do. This is my life and it is amaz­ing.”

As we sit in his pur­pose-built head­quar­ters, watch­ing a play­back of the fi­nal parade of his lat­est cou­ture show, his dream­like gowns pass­ing in a blur of op­u­lence, I am in­clined to agree.

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DE­SIGNS ON THE WORLD Zuhair Mu­rad poses with mod­els prior to this year’s haute cou­ture show in Paris

RUN­WAY TO RED CAR­PET Le , em­bel­lish­ments are a Zuhair Mu­rad sig­na­ture. Above, Jes­sica Chas­tain wears a Mu­rad de­sign dur­ing the Cannes Film Fes­ti­val

EM­BEL­LISHED EN­SEM­BLES Above, Zuhair Mu­rad’s au­tumn/win­ter 2015 col­lec­tion was in­spired by the cos­mos, and fea­tured crys­tal stars and show­er­ing me­te­ors. Op­po­site page, back­stage at the Zuhair Mu­rad show dur­ing Haute Cou­ture Week in Paris

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