Interview with Lara Khoury

Designing Clothes with Meaning

Ghida Ladkani

Lara Khoury isn’t your run-of-the-mill designer, she is superbly talented and incredibly passionate, while keeping her humility and natural charm. A Lebanese fashion designer early in her career, Lara is constantly inspired and inspiring, making sure that all her work holds a meaning much deeper than what might show on the surface. It was a pleasure meeting her at her gorgeous studio in Beirut’s Gemmayzeh, where she discussed her passion for design and her early beginnings, as well as her latest line.

I want to start by talking about where you grew up, and how that has shaped your artistic vision?

My dad worked for a Greek company in Saudi Arabia, so we lived there for ten years and then two years in Dubai, and then we came back here in Lebanon when I was 12 years old. We’re five kids in the family. I was in a French school in Saudi Arabia and in Dubai, and I learned from French people, I learned how they think, how they live. When I came here in Lebanon, it was a clash, at first I couldn’t feel the link between me and my country, I couldn’t understand a lot of things, especially socially… with time I learned how to love my country, and it wasn’t easy at all.

I was especially affected by my aunt who is a fashion designer. She used to have a shop for pregnant women, and she’s the one who pushed me to do this.

Was there a certain moment in life when you realised that fashion is what you wanted to do?

Actually, in my work I always have other kinds of disciplines, I work on sculptures, on videos, I direct the shootings and other similar stuff for my brand. Fashion always came with a question mark: is it the best thing for me to do? And still, till today, I always ask myself: what if I picked architecture or photography? I have other passions. Life took me where I am now, and it’s good!

Design is definitely my passion, my brother is an architect, and every time I see his work I wonder: wow, it would have been amazing if I were an architect. And this translates into my work, because I always work in volume. My vision in fashion is always to try to shape the silhouette of a woman in a flattering way.

In 2010, you launched your own line, under your own name. How did you know it was the right time?

I’m the kind of person who would get depressed if I wake up with nothing to do. I came back to Lebanon in 2006 after I had finished my diploma in Paris, and I wanted to come spend two weeks here and go back to work in Paris. After the war, I didn’t have my Brazilian passport, and I wasn’t allowed back in France with the Lebanese one: I couldn’t go back there for a year, so I started working here in Beirut.

I began working with Elie Saab, and then things started to evolve; after a year I decided to quit my job and that’s when Rabih Kayrouz asked me to be part of Starch; and when that was over I decided to spend 6 months starting my own project. It was the obvious thing to do, and I knew then that if I was to start so early – I was 24 years old – it would be difficult for me to pause or change my mind, but I just went for it.

You mentioned working with Elie Saab and Rabih Kayrouz, I was wondering if there was anything specific that each of the designers taught you that you would always remember?

Elie Saab is a very interesting guy: he knows what he wants and he has a huge company that functions very well. When I was working with him for a year, I understood how the company works all together, and how each department fits with the other. It was my first experience in fashion, it was my first job, and it was interesting for me to see how this huge machine works.

He works in glamour, in fashion, and when you set a certain style, you have a certain way of working. So you know, he has his work in sections, for instance he has his own section for embroidery. When you do this kind of work, you must have this kind of technique, and it’s not applied at every fashion house. But it was definitely very very interesting for me to understand.

After that, Rabih was very helpful because our relationship was a friendship. He told me: “Listen, you were with Elie Saab for a year and you must have been influenced by his work and how he does things, but you have to find your own style, your own way.”

The first pieces I did had embroidery: he looked at them and said that this is not me. He already knew me from university, and he was able to guide me to the right direction.

Can you walk me through the process from having an idea to having a piece hanging in the studio?

I always like to have a message behind what I do, and it’s very interesting for me, especially being in Beirut, as there are so many things you would want to communicate. I felt that it was a great opportunity for me to design not just clothes, but clothes with a meaning.

The first collection I came up with in 2011 was created at a stage where I was still experimenting and finding what I wanted to do. By the end of 2011, I went back to zero, and I started again with a new direction and it was a sort of rebirth.

The first collection I presented in 2012 was entitled “Gluttony”, and it was about how society always wants more and people are so greedy and they want everything: socially, politically, economically. And this is why I experimented with volumes: for instance, I had a pair of trousers big enough for four people that was only for one person. It was about over-sizing the volumes, having very extravagant forms and shapes.

Another message is in the Fall 2016 collection. It’s called “Beirut” and it’s about what was going on in Beirut, especially when the garbage crisis started and we could really feel the corruption in our daily lives. We would wake up in the morning and we could smell the trash and understand how our leaders are completely taking us for fools. I was very sad about what was happening to Beirut, and in this collection I decided to mourn my city, so I had the whole collection in black. It was a very difficult decision and I knew I was going to be criticised, especially when I had other collections that were the opposite of that. For instance, four collections ago, I had one named “Phoenix”, connoting hope for a better Lebanon.

You went abroad to study fashion; I want to know how your family reacted.

When I told my dad that I wanted to be a fashion designer, he wasn’t very understanding at first, because he was a civil engineer, my eldest sister a dermatologist and the second is a finance major… But with time, seeing the way I pushed myself to make connections to have people know me and want to buy my pieces, he understood that it’s because of your personality that you can be successful, not because of the major you choose.

This was over 10 years ago. Being a fashion designer wasn’t something very realistic, there wasn’t a future in it, especially for the Lebanese society. But I think he didn’t have the choice, that’s why he supported me!

What about your life in Paris?

Paris is very interesting; I’ve only had the opportunity to live there for a year and had to come back because of the war in 2006. My parents supported me a lot when I came back, especially when I stopped working with Elie Saab. At that time, I wanted to go back to Paris, and live the life I always dreamed of, but with the support of my parents and specially my father, I decided to stay in Beirut and start my own business here.

My father was like my guardian angel. He helped me financially to open my space and launch my collections. It wasn’t easy as I didn’t come from a business background and I only thought of doing things artistically. He couldn’t understand why I wanted to have certain things done in different ways. But even though, he was really supportive and I would have never been able to be where I am today without his love and constant support.

Tell me more about your current collection and the message you are trying to convey through it.

This one was quite different, because after “Beirut”, I didn’t want to talk about my country anymore. So I decided to change ideas and take a new direction for this one, and it’s about a book called “The Fountainhead”, by Ayn Rand; it’s an old book from the 1940’s. It’s about an architect who was very talented but couldn’t afford to be as famous as other people. In this book you really feel the structure of society through the characters, as they’re very strong in their personalities. One of them would try to control the entire country, the other would be very rich and he would also be very controlling… The idea is that the main character was very talented and he was finally able to do what he wanted. He didn’t care about anything, he didn’t care about anyone, all he wanted was to do it his own way.

I began to imagine his mind, and how creative it is, how strange a person’s mind can be. So this collection is more about how a creative person’s mind works, and how far imagination can go. And that’s why this collection has new textures, new fabrics, and new details.

Who is the woman that you design for?

That’s a question I’ve been trying to answer for a couple of days as Aïshti [a Lebanese luxury concept store] is asking me to do a shooting with a “muse”. And it’s very difficult because, in the end, I am the person I design for, and it’s challenging to find someone like me. Someone who is creative, opened to new ideas, and confident about her own thoughts and her own design, her own creativity.

I guess I design for a woman with a strong character that is daring to wear things that are a bit unusual for this society, where everyone seems to try to have the same look.

When I design, I definitely want my customer to feel comfortable in the clothes they are wearing. So they aren’t always very tight or constricting, and the body can really move in them. I also think about the little details; the pockets, the collar. They can be very nice and comfortable for the client. I always think of the client wearing this piece and how they’ll be experiencing it. A part of my brand is also to convey a feeling and a memory. I use fabric that is nice to the touch, and this is why we have small pouches of scent in my clothes.

Can you name some designers or artists that inspire you?

Every couple of years I think of someone new that is inspiring. But the only person who has stayed from the beginning is Yohji Yamamoto. He’s the only person who remained faithful to the same vision since the beginning. He knows that black sells on the rack but not on the pictures, but he stayed with it because that’s what he wants. And he also plays with volumes. He also thinks about how the fabric falls and how it reacts to the body when it’s not completely close to the body. I’m always inspired by him, and I believe he is one of the best designers in the world.

How is it different designing for men and for women?

It was definitely a challenge because menswear is something that I really wanted to do since the beginning, but I just had to start with women’s clothes. I launched a menswear collection last October, and the next one will be available in a few weeks, hopefully. And I also launched my bridal collection in February, and it has menswear as well. So I have three lines out now.

When it comes to menswear, it’s a completely different way of thinking, and I’m convinced that if fashion is not worn it doesn’t exist. But unfortunately, Lebanese men just go for black on black and don’t really experiment. So I started my experience here with pieces that would be worn by these men. I’m now focusing on suits and jackets, and we will see what the future holds.

What’s your favourite era for fashion?

I would say today, especially with globalization, there are so many moods happening all together. And if I had to pick a certain mood, it would be the Japanese style of today.