Style

In the Studio with Rabih Kayrouz

The fashion world’s Lebanese darling is riding high after being made a Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters in France

A young man stands up to measure a shirt seam while an older woman sits stitching a collar.  A rail of yellow and blue dresses stands behind the tables as rooftops glint with rain beyond the wall of windowpanes that have transformed one aspect of Rabih Kayrouz’s studio into a Parisian skyline. Taking a moment to step back, talking softly with his team, Kayrouz plays with a fabric as he feels for what shape his new collection might take.

Rabih Kayrouz Atelier in Paris

Rabih Kayrouz studio in Paris

“From the first drape it’s a whole process. Nothing is studied in my designs, it’s all intuitive.”  Such a natural way of working explains the easy mood and understated cool of the designer’s highly acclaimed collections. Although far from simple in their construction, his clothes convey a brand of modern femininity that is understated and clean. Challenging enough to interest a sophisticated fashion eye, the Maison Rabih Kayrouz style simultaneously manages to have the relaxed air and flattering cuts that give it every woman appeal. “The Rabih woman isn’t just a figure, she’s a person”, muses the designer. “She’s a woman who is strong enough to be strong and strong enough to be weak. I like this kind of woman who can play with who she is because she doesn’t care too much.”

Kayrouz Portrait 1

Kayrouz at his Paris studio

The intellectual-looking details in his collections – the experimental cuts and geometric  pattern play – suggest a more conceptual approach than the designer himself describes.  Taking the traditional draping technique most used in Haute Couture, everything begins with  the fabrics for Kayrouz. His primary step is to commission them from Italy, and once they arrive he drapes them on the mannequin to see how a form might evolve. “Once we see the fabrics and feel the knits they tell a story by themselves. It’s in my mind and I try to convey my ideas to my team.” This tactile, dexterous approach feeds into the sensuality of his style.

The Summer collection uses his love for draping and folding to craft soft, voluminous structures. “I love the way that when you fold these fabrics you get this movement. This is my way of cutting. I was working to create shadows with the way things are constructed.” He’s referring to the Ray collection, which has a weightlessness that suits its central theme, of  light. In a palette of whites, palest pinks, silver, yellow and cobalt blue, Kayrouz combines fluid folds and asymmetric drapes with geometric cut-outs and structures. Dresses are lean and easy going, while skirts, tops and knitwear play with volume and sculptural shapes. “I’m always asked what’s Oriental in my work and I feel that it’s my draping and folding, the way the fabrics embrace the body in an intimate way.”

“From the first drape it’s a whole process. Nothing is studied in my designs, it’s all intuitive, I never plan anything”

 

For Autumn Winter this embrace comes inspired by a quintessentially Oriental scenario – the traditional hammam. “I wanted to express this Oriental feeling about the attitude of getting dressed, how you hold yourself, how you hold your dress when coming from the beach or from a Turkish bath.” Togas, wraps and robes swathe the body in a cool contemporary way that looks sporty as well as Arabesque. Named Barbès-Batroun, it references an area of Paris densely populated by North Africans (Barbès), in counterpoint with the mellow seaside town north of Beirut where Kayrouz used to live during the summer months (Batroun).

Having won the respect of fashion critics from New York to Paris, the designer welcomes his renown for architectural pieces. “It is correct as what I do is really an act construction – I build shapes around the body.” Those shapes range from angular to flowing and feature layering that adds motion and detail. “I have my own way of cutting which gives my work its identity. But every season is an evolution as my cuts gradually mature. They take the collection to a new place each time.”

 

The Barbes-Batroun Collection for Autumn/Winter 2014 by Maison Rabih Kayrouz

The Barbes-Batroun Collection for Autumn/Winter 2014 by Maison Rabih Kayrouz

The Ray Collection for Spring/Summer 2014 by Maison Rabih Kayrouz

The Ray Collection for Spring/Summer 2014 by Maison Rabih Kayrouz

”I have my own way of cutting which gives my work its identity. But every season is an evolution as my cuts gradually mature”

 

Born in Lebanon in 1973, Kayrouz studied at the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne between 1991 and 1994, before returning to Beirut to found his own couture label in 1998 and moving into ready-to-wear in xxxx. Today, all the creative work takes place in Paris, at 38 Boulevard Raspail, formerly the Petit Theatre de Babylone, where the design team numbers 15. He visits Lebanon at the start of every season, choosing the right pieces for each client alongside them. “My clients are very loyal and many have become friends,” he tells me at the Beirut store, shepherding me towards a table covered in pots and spoons bearing Lebanon’s different honeys. As I’m given a tasting by the kind beekeeper who Kayrouz discovered one Saturday morning at Souk el Tayeb, Beirut’s gourmet market, the designer adjusts a dress on a client while she looks in the mirror, and recommends it without a belt and maybe in the other colour – the white and pink looks from this season’s catwalk can be found in lemon yellow and cobalt blue in the store.

Kayrouz Portrait 2

Kayrouz Portrait 2

Every time you visit the Maison Rabih Kayrouz boutique you are greeted by a different spread on the round central table – be it breakfast, fruits, coffee, or honey. “I cannot host people here without offering food”, he says, revealing his Lebanese sense of hospitality, but also his association of food and fashion with feminine allure. “I seduce these ladies with clothes, with dresses, with colours, with fabric – just as I was always seduced as a child, in a way, by my aunts, my mother, my grandmother, by their clothes and their food. What I do is a continuation of that. It’s a seduction.”

– photography at Maison Rabih Kayrouz Paris atelier by Houda Kabbaj

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Kasia Maciejowska is a London-based writer and editor who spent a year with us in Beirut editing Selections and the Art Paper. She has an MA in Design History & Material Culture from the Royal College of Art/V&A Museum, and a BA in English Literature from the University of Oxford. Her regular subjects are the visual arts, interior design, and contemporary culture. She has previously written for The Times and Ibraaz among others.