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“Everybody wanted a piece of Starch”. Not the carbohydrate. The fashion program. Those words uttered by fashion designer Lara Khoury are as telling as her irreverent straight-shooter approach to our interview questions. Intrigued yet? Read on.
SoBeirut: Tell us more about how you came to be a fashion designer.
Lara Khoury: I was 18 at the time and I needed to make a decision before college. It was going to be architecture, math or fashion.
SoBeirut: We’re having a hard time seeing a common thread…
Lara Khoury: yes exactly! (with a coy smile). Actually, my aunt is a fashion designer and she had a shop for pregnant mothers at the time. She encouraged me to pursue a career in fashion and that’s what exactly I did and never looked back.
SoBeirut: You studied in Paris, What made you come back to Lebanon and work from Beirut as your base?
Lara Khoury: yes, I studied at ESMOD. I started my training in Lebanon for 2 years then completed the third year in Paris. After graduating from ESMOD, I had planned to look for a job in Paris but decided to make a post-graduation holiday trip to Beirut in 2006, which turned out to be fateful. I arrived home 2 days before the war* broke out and I was stuck. Given the circumstances, I chose to stay with my family. To make matters worse, it became problematic to travel with a Lebanese passport at the time. Long story short, 2 weeks became 9 years and here we are today. That year, I decided to try to forge a career path for myself in Lebanon and that’s when I found a job at Eli Saab.
SoBeirut: Tell us about your experience at Eli Saab .
Lara Khoury: His style is very different from mine but it was a very interesting experience in that it gave me invaluable insight into the fashion world. I was able to learn the inner workings of an internationally renowned company like Eli Saab. I had the opportunity to acquaint myself with many different departments each with its unique Modus Operandi. From the studio to the workshop to working directly with Eli Saab and our clients, my stint at the company felt very much like school. The fashion bird’s-eye view I got helped me find my own path.
SoBeirut: It’s been almost 10 years since you’ve been back now. What is a regret or let’s say a memorable mistake you’ve made in your professional journey so far?
Lara Khoury: I don’t regret coming back because if I had stayed in Paris, I would have probably not been able to make a name for myself as I am doing here in Lebanon. Ultimately, it was the right decision because it made me the person I am today coupled with the help and support of the people I met along the way.
The only thing I regret is going with the flow during all those years. I wasn’t really pushing myself to meet deadlines for example, international ones in particular. I was marching to the beat of my own drum if you will. It’s just this year that I’ve started to fully comprehend the importance of such work ethic and apply it!
SoBeirut: Did you face any challenges setting up your business in Lebanon? As a woman, a young woman in particular, we would venture to say it must not have been a piece of cake! What kind of challenges have you had to face?
Lara Khoury: I have to say the beginning was smooth. Thanks to my dad who was also my angel investor at the time, I had enough capital to start my business and a space to work out of- this house (Lara’s atelier is housed in a beautiful old building in Gemmayzeh). That was the easy part. I subsequently faced some challenges, including acquiring the appropriate fabrics for my designs. As I’m focused on ready-to-wear, it was difficult to get fabrics such as cotton, linen and others here in Lebanon’s retail shops. We had to go abroad to Paris for our supplies. The silver lining was that I obtained access to the international fashion industry and that ultimately moved my career forward.
I also had difficulties selling my clothes in the Lebanese market at first. During my time at Starch ** , it was easier because it gave me the exposure I needed. It was 2008- their first year- and everybody was buzzing about the new program. Everybody wanted a piece of Starch! When I left and started working on my own, however, selling my creations wasn’t as straightforward. That gave me the push I needed to join an English platform called Not Just A Label in 2011. It enabled me to sell my clothes online to an international clientele. I also ended up being selected to represent Lebanon in a fashion program called Maison Mediterraneenne des Metiers de la Mode. It’s a kind of Masters program for young designers where they teach you how to manage your company excluding the creative part. Sort of like an entrepreneurial workshop. It was an exciting learning experience for me. I stayed there for a whole year, going to Marseille every month with the other designers (there were 7 of us). At the end of the program, we got to exhibit our creations at Who’s Next, a prominent biannual fashion trade show that takes place in Paris, and expanded our target clientele.
SoBeirut: Whom do you design for? Who is the Lara Khoury woman?
Lara Khoury: I usually target women between the ages of 25 and 45. I would say the Lara Khoury woman is daring, stylish and has a strong personality. I admire women who are secure in their bodies and are not afraid to show their feminine side; that includes those who happen to have a more androgynous shape. I try to make sure I always showcase that femininity in my clothes.
SoBeirut: Which designers do you admire?
Lara Khoury: I was inspired by Viktor and Rolf’s earliest collections. They were very conceptual and I admired the direction they took for their first 5 or 6 collections. Similarly, I appreciated Martin Margiela’s beginnings.
SoBeirut: This may be an impossible question to answer but do you have a favorite collection? If so, why?
Lara Khoury: Actually I do! My Gluttony collection in 2012. I became keenly aware of how the Lebanese and others seem to always want more and more, be it socially, economically or politically. It struck me how human beings, in general, are never satisfied. The Gluttony collection reflected our innate inability to be satiated by exaggerating all aspects of the given design. It was characterized by oversize shoulders for example, large volumes and an excessive amount of fabric. I even made a pair of trousers that could fit four! I am still selling pieces from this collection to this day, which I like to think speaks to their timelessness.
So Beirut: Where can we find your designs?
Lara Khoury: I’m currently working on my own online boutique, which will be launched in August. I have a few points-of-sale in the KSA, Dubai, Kuwait, Japan and Ecuador. For clients living in Beirut, they can view the collections by appointment.
So Beirut: Have you found customers in the Arab world other than Lebanon and elsewhere to be different from Lebanese customers?
Lara Khoury: Yes, they’re crazier! They are more eccentric in their choices. They’re not afraid of wearing a statement piece because they’re so proud of their wealth and forms and they kind of like to dare each other. So it’s fun to work with them; they also genuinely appreciate fashion.
SoBeirut: What advice would you give a young fashion designer-in-the making?
Lara Khoury: The most important thing is to follow your heart. Of course there will be bumps along the way but you have to be hungry and persevere. It’s important not to be defeated by potential roadblocks. The fashion business isn’t as easy or playful as people think. It’s hard work. As long as you’re willing to push yourself beyond your own boundaries, you will succeed.
So Beirut: What’s next for Lara Khoury?
Lara Khoury: Many projects are currently in the pipeline. I’m cooking my Menswear collection. I currently have 2 lines today: the Ready-to-wear for women and the Bridal for men and women. I’m concerned I may be putting too much on my plate; that’s why I will probably stop at Menswear. I’m not even sure when I will be launching it but it’s the next step.
SoBeirut: What are your favorite places in Lebanon and why?
Lara Khoury: During weekends I like to leave Beirut. The stress of the city gets to be too much at times and I find myself needing to vent. My boyfriend has a vineyard in Nahla next t Tannourine; we go there a lot with my dog. I also visit my parents in Adma; they have a house with a big garden. I find that those outings bring me much needed peace and tranquility. Mind you I wasn’t like this before! A couple of years ago, I partied like crazy!
In Beirut, food wise, I love Tawlet in Mar Mikhael. They surprise me every time. I also like Bread Republic , a cozy wine bar in Ashrafieh.
SoBeirut: What is a question you would like to answer that we didn’t ask you?
Lara Khoury: Actually your questions are very interesting; we kind of talked about everything I can think of! I would add that I thoroughly enjoy the creative side of things. That’s why I try to find other kinds of artistic forms to express myself, including installations and furniture for example. I’ve also done a video called Lunch with Lara. You’ll be able to find out more when we launch our website in August. The thing is I’m so curious by nature, I’m always looking to discover new things and end up dabbling in fields I haven’t formally trained in. I think this attracts a diversity of individuals and projects. I don’t go looking for them, they usually present themselves to me quite organically.
*Refers to the 2006 war between Lebanon and Israel
** STARCH is a non-profit organization launched by prominent Lebanese designers Rabih Keyrouz and Tala Hajjar to catalyze Lebanese emerging designers’ careers.