Weaving meaningful messages into fashion is integral to the works of Beirut, Lebanon based fashion designer Lara Khoury.
Considered to be one of the most experimental young designers in Lebanon right now, Lara studied fashion at ESMOD (Ecole Superieure de la Mode) with two years in Lebanon and the last year in Paris, France. After that, she moved back to her hometown Beirut in Lebanon where she found herself “stuck” because of the ongoing war between Lebanon and Israel in 2006. This led to her working with one of the most famous contemporary fashion designers from Lebanon, Elie Saab, in the same year.
She then joined STARCH (a non-profit organization that helps launch Lebanese emerging designers) under the aegis of Lebanese fashion designer Rabih Kayrouz where she spent about a year and showcased two collections. Six months later, she started out on her own with her eponymous fashion brand, Lara Khoury (LK), out of a studio/showroom in Gemmayzeh, Beirut.
We spoke to Lara over Skype about her life, work, art, Paris, Lebanon, Elie Saab, unity in diversity, risks, and experiments, among many other things.
Tell us a bit about your childhood. You spent a few years in Saudi Arabia and Dubai, before Beirut right?
During the war, a lot of Lebanese families went to Arabic countries where job opportunities were given. My dad was hired by a Greek company in Saudi Arabia, and we moved there when I was a child. When I was around ten, my dad got transferred to Dubai where we stayed for two years. So by the time I came back to Beirut, I was twelve years old.
In Saudi and Dubai, I used to go to a French school where the whole program was in French, and I learned the basics of their principles and values. When I came back to Lebanon, I got lost between the two worlds. I didn’t know who I was or where I came from. Traveling so much as a child made me feel as if I belonged to a culture that’s not mine. And at the age of twelve, I had to re-adapt to a new country, a new society and a new lifestyle, which was quite challenging in so many ways.
So after coming back, how was your experience at your school in Lebanon?
I think it was the worst experience of my life. I couldn’t speak Arabic, since I was in a French school before. I had to learn it the hard way, and on top of that, I got bullied along the way.
My parents had put me in a religious school where we had to wear a uniform every day. I didn’t like wearing the same clothes every day. I remember being punished once because I wore Birkenstock to school.
After you finished your schooling, you decided to pursue fashion?
Yes. I was interested in architecture, photography and fashion, but in the end, I decided to go ahead with fashion.
Were there any early creative influences that led you to make that choice?
Actually, my aunt was a fashion designer in Lebanon and she’s the one who guided me towards fashion. She showed me how my life could be as a fashion designer.
When I came back to Lebanon, I got lost between the two worlds. I didn’t know who I was or where I came from. Traveling so much as a child made me feel as if I belonged to a culture that’s not mine.
Then you went to Paris. How was the experience of studying at ESMOD?
I studied Fashion designing in a French school called ESMOD (Ecole Superieure de la Mode). I actually started my first two years in Lebanon and then graduated from Paris.
My dream was to go to Paris — La Ville Lumiere. I have always wanted to discover this amazing and dazzling city, the fashion capital of the world. Everything that surrounded me at that time was intriguing and inspiring to me. It gave me the courage to evolve creatively. I also met many inspirational people along the way, people that stimulated me to go deeper in my research of self-exploration. I came back to Lebanon as a completely different person.
Why did you decide to come back?
It was never my choice to come back actually. I had it all planned when I was in Paris. I wanted to graduate in Paris, and afterwards, find a job in a big fashion company where I could start practicing the knowledge I learned in school. But unfortunately it wasn’t destined to be.
I spent a month looking for a job after graduation, but due to my Lebanese origin, I couldn’t find any available opportunities. I decided to go back to Lebanon on the 10th of July 2006. And the war against Israel started on the 12th of July 2006, just two days after my arrival. I felt stuck, but I had to stay as a support to my family.
A month later, the war ended. I tried to go back to Paris, but my visa got rejected, like it did for most of the Lebanese citizens at that time. So I had to start all over again, and look for a job in Lebanon. That’s when I found Elie Saab.
You spent a year with Elie Saab. How was the initial experience? How did you see your work and yourself evolve in that one year you worked with him?
My experience with Elie Saab was very fruitful and interesting. I was lucky enough to work in most of the fashion sectors of his company. Starting as a pattern maker for clients in the first few months, where I understood the importance and uniqueness of couture gowns made for unique clients; then I switched to working as a pattern maker for collections, where I was working in person with Elie and creating incredible gowns for his fashion shows; and then I finished my year with a few months at the design studio, where I got the opportunity to understand the entire process of creating a collection — from sketching to the runway show preparation.
My experience with Elie Saab was very rich and rewarding. It opened my eyes to the importance of a company such as this one, and its mechanism and incredible management. It gave me a different perspective in fashion, and made me understand the business side of it. But a year later, I decided to leave Elie Saab to be able to fly with my own wings.
What were some of your first steps as a young emerging designer?
After I quit Elie Saab, I decided to organize a fashion show and begin my introduction in the Lebanese fashion market. But it wasn’t easy due to the difficult political situation we still had in the country, post war consequences where, for example, moving around was forbidden at night and people were still quite scared.
I launched my very first collection in Batroun, in the North of Lebanon, and ever since I was known to the public as the courageous young emerging designer who’s not afraid of liberty of expression. That’s also when I was discovered by Rabih Kayrouz, who invited me to be part of a project he was working on. His vision was to open a shop for upcoming Lebanese designers and help them launch their brands.
At that time, things weren’t very clear, and he didn’t really know if this project could be a potential success. But he gathered a first generation of designers, and asked us if we were up for the challenge. It was exciting and new, and it turned out to be one of most amazing experiences in my career. STARCH came to life in the heart of Beirut, with the collaboration of Solidere. It was the best next thing. The talk of the town. And people were curious to visit and discover this new concept. I had the opportunity to meet local people from the press and potential clients. I understood the market needs and tried to answer those needs in the best way I could.
I spent a year in STARCH, where I showcased two collections. Six months later, I opened my own workshop/showroom in Gemmayzeh, Beirut.
What are some of the most important learnings when you started on your own?
When I first opened my company, I had to put up with a lot of issues I was never told about in school or during my practice years. I had to deal with many different aspects such as employees, inventory, accounting, production, distribution, client servicing, budgeting, etc. It was a big challenge, and it wasn’t easy.
In 2011, I was lucky to be selected to represent Lebanon in a French program held in Marseille. This program was basically a master course for young Mediterranean designers, where several mediums were taught such as communication, distribution, production…everything except fashion. During that one year, I flew to Marseille every month for a week and assisted during private talks and discussions, held by influential people from the French fashion industry. This experience was life changing to me, and it helped me organize myself and my company in the most professional way possible.
So are you now able to balance between the creative and the commercial side of your business?
I had to learn it the hard way. I come from a creative background, and it took me time to understand that fashion doesn’t exist if it’s not sold and worn. I had to learn from my mistakes and understand with time the best way to balance between my creative side and my business side.
When I create something new, innovative and strong, it lifts me up to the extent of pure happiness itself. This is when I tend to experiment, explore, discover and look for new forms and solutions. This is my only inspiration.
You are considered to be one of the most experimental designers in Lebanon right now. What really inspires you to take risks and experiment?
I am the kind of person who does not think about risk and challenges consciously. I love my job and the challenge of being better and stronger pushes me above my limits. When I create something new, innovative and strong, it lifts me up to the extent of pure happiness itself. This is when I tend to experiment, explore, discover and look for new forms and solutions. This is my only inspiration.
It got me to where I am today, and hopefully will take me higher in the future. It’s also a challenge though because it’s not easy to be able to create constantly. The hardest part is to be able to maintain the same level of creativity and significance in my work.
Could you tell us about one particular collection and take us through its making?
I can tell you about LK Phoenix, Summer 2015 collection.
Phoenix is inspired by the mythical bird and tells the optimistic story of regeneration and rebirth. Just like the vibrancy of Lebanon and its citizens. Lebanon itself is a concoction of culture and religion, but a long-standing struggle for power has transformed this melting pot into a volatile battlefield, which is destroying the Lebanese identity and portraying a defective one to the outside world. But I continue to see Lebanon as a treasure in its diversity, a treasure in its variety, a treasure in its history. And I dream of a peaceful and glorious Lebanon, where people can unite with all differences set aside.
The colors used in this collection are the colors of a phoenix, in different tonalities. I merged several tonalities in one garment to express unification. When I create my collections, I always connect it to a message I want to share. I think fashion is an important tool. It’s not just a piece of fabric. Why should something be yellow or black? It can have so many meanings. For me, it’s important to tell my story or my thoughts to the people who are really listening. Giving a message is integral to the vision of my brand.
In terms of the technical part of the collection, I start by finding a way to translate my vision into the clothes. The first step is to find my fabric, which usually comes from England, France, or Italy. In the meanwhile, I start drawing the pieces, and then I try to experiment with the fabric — molding it on a dummy and retrieving any kind of interesting volume that might result into a wearable piece. This is how I try to understand the movement of the fabric.
After creating the collection, we shoot it, which usually always happens in abandoned Lebanese houses. I think that Lebanese architecture is absolutely great, and unfortunately, the government is not doing much to protect our heritage. I want to push people to understand the importance of our heritage. So for a long time now, I have been wandering around Beirut to discover its treasures and its beauty. There are a lot of abandoned places because many people left the country during the war.
And after the pictures are done, I start sending out my collections to the buyers.
You just mentioned about how having a message in your work is integral to your brand’s vision. What’s the kind of impact you think your work has created so far?
The direct impact is that I’m attracting the right kind of people as clients. They are people who are down to earth and who have or appreciate the same vision as mine. In fashion, unfortunately, it’s much easier to find people who are shallow. But I am fortunate to find people who look for meaning.
We saw this really interesting video by you — Lunch with Lara Khoury. Apart from your fashion line, what are the other art initiatives that your studio undertakes?
I’m always interested in discovering new artistic mediums, and when the opportunity presents itself, I go for it. The video ‘Lunch with Lara Khoury’ was made for the presentation of the Phoenix collection actually. I invited a group of my friends for lunch in a magical place in the South of Lebanon. Everyone was asked to describe Lebanon in one word, and some really interesting answers came out of that. The aim of this video was to show the different perspectives and backgrounds we have here in Lebanon, and how easily we can come together.
I also created an installation in an upscale wine bar in the heart of Beirut. Leading Lebanese architect Gregory Gatserelia constructed the starting point of layers of cream-colored clouds, to which I added a decadent sea of blown glass grapes on its meandering periphery. The monumental one-off design uses an extravagant 50,000 glass balls sourced in Syria and hand-shaped by skilled women in southern Lebanon. Absorbing inspiration from my roots, I used the idea of outdoor vines found in gardens of old traditional houses, to plant the concept of self-growing art in a modern location.
Are you well settled in Beirut now? Do you still think about moving elsewhere?
I never really wanted to live here. As I said earlier, I pretty much got stuck here otherwise I would have been slaving away in some big company in some part of the world (laughs). I obviously can’t lie and say I dreamt of living here. I always think about what if I was able to do something else better, or what if I had a better lifestyle somewhere abroad.
However, I would have never been able to start my own brand without the support of my parents, my friends, and my hometown. I’m very thankful for what my country has given me in terms of the opportunities. I think that it’s very important for a person to be surrounded by their family and friends in their own country. Just to be aware of the support could be a very positive thing. And I am very thankful for it.
You can read the rest of the Issue 1 here.