Beirut's new look: The hip designers reshaping Lebanon's fashion scene

This story, and several others on Beirut, complement the CNNGo TV series. See more of the show here: www.cnn.com/gotravel.

(CNN)It may have been on the global radar for over a decade, but Lebanon's fashion scene is having another moment.

The country first stole international style headlines when designers like Elie Saab, Zuhair Murad, Reem Acra and Rabih Kayrouz began making couture gowns for Hollywood celebs.
When Halle Berry won an Oscar in 2002, it was Saab's famously sheer maroon number that distracted us from her teary acceptance speech.
    But while the couture industry in Lebanon boomed, the more accessible ready-to-wear industry largely stagnated.
    Limited production infrastructure, regional instability and a market that prefers brands with international cachet over a 'made in Lebanon' tag have all played their part.
    Now a new crop of young designers is making serious headway towards bucking this trend.
    Many of them are graduates of the Starch Foundation, an organization founded by established designer Rabih Kayrouz and fashion marketer Tala Hajjar.
    The foundation supports new designers in producing and promoting their collections through fashion shows in Dubai -- the Gulf is still the largest market for Lebanese designers -- and in a boutique space in Beirut's swank Saifi Village.
    "If a Lebanese kid comes to their parents and says they want to be a fashion designer, they won't react as they would have 20 years ago," says Hajjar.
    "People in Lebanon are now realizing that it's a viable industry and you can make a living."
    Visiting Beirut? Here are five young designers to check out.

    Bashar Assaf

    Bashar Assaf was nominated for the International Woolmark Prize this year.
    "People always told me 'you should please the client because that's how you make your money' -- I don't do this at all," says Bashar Assaf.
    While perhaps ill-advised, this cavalier attitude, in sharp contrast to the young designer's baby face and sweet welcome to his atelier, has stood Assaf in good stead so far in his short career.
    His collection has been sold at the Galeries Lafayette in Dubai and this year he was nominated for the International Woolmark Prize.
    Inspired by organic patterns and the physical sciences, the print designer's collections so far have featured body conscious, sheer silks and chiffons printed with rocks, water and skulls as well as a zoomed-in cross section of a human heart.
    Perhaps most controversially, the theme of his latest collection was "Four Stages of a Climax."
    "They changed it to 'Four Stages of Love' for a Dubai fashion show," Assaf says, rolling his eyes. "Sometimes it's better if a client doesn't know about the inspiration for a collection."
    Unwilling to compromise his own brand, the Ecole Superieure des Arts et Techniques de la Mode Beirut-trained designer is currently supplementing his income with a collection of abayas for the Saudi market, with the backing of a Saudi partner.
    Despite the restrictions imposed by conservative Saudi law, Assaf has managed to sneak in cuts and color blocking he is proud to call his own. "It's still my style, in a way," he says.
    Just don't tell the customers.
    Bashar Assaf's collection is available at the Label Queen boutique in Saifi Village (741 Saifi Village, Beirut; +961 01 992 009), and at his atelier in Sin el Fil (call +961 70 702 400 to arrange an appointment). Pieces are between $200 and $1,200.

    Nour Hage

    Nour Hage's designs diverge from the pretty, polished effect that many Lebanese women prefer. .
    "I was actually kicked out of France," Nour Hage laughs, sipping a juice at a downtown Beirut cafe. "My visa expired [shortly after graduating from from Parsons The New School for Design in Paris], but I couldn't just pick up my life and leave right away," she recalls.
    The French authorities, apparently, were somewhat less than understanding.
    This edgy aesthetic is palpable in her three collections so far, as well as the two mid-season single-piece capsule collections she's produced. The pieces are all dark tones, with the exception of one blood red dress.
    Hage's designs diverge from the pretty, polished effect that many Lebanese women prefer.
    "You can always find traces of Beirut's imperfections in my collections; everything is always asymmetrical, raw, a bit rough," she says. "In Beirut, it's always new, shiny, polished buildings next to a building that's been falling over since the civil war. It's that contrast that I really like."
    Outside Lebanon, several of Hage's A/W 2015 pieces will be available at the boutique And Friends in St. Petersburg.
    She's also hoping to begin selling in Rome next year. "A fan base has sprung up there," she says, a product of her social media campaigns.
    Nour Hage's collection is available at the Santiago boutique in downtown Beirut (Palladium Building, Omar Daouk Street; +961 01 993 216). Pieces are between $140 and $360.

    Timi Hayek

    Timi Hayek's Beirut boutique has been open since April 2015..
    Speaking to tiny Timi Hayek, it's almost possible to imagine what her clothes look like before you even see them.
    She's impossibly sweet and youthful, quick to laugh, but much too articulate to be called ditsy.
    Inspired by mythology and nature, the print designer, trained at London's Central St. Martin's College, imbues her clothes with a dreamy, whimsical aspect.
    Silk scarves, tops and dresses feature her intricate depiction of Nijinsky's sylvan "Afternoon of a Faun" ballet performed in Paris by the Ballets Russes in 1912, including nymphs, tiny animals and verdant nature.
    She uses heavy fabrics like burlap and rough linen to make frilly, pleated frocks and crop tops.
    Housed in a 1940s brick building constructed at the direction of her great-grandmother (a Lebanese supermarket tycoon who made her fortune in Gambia), Hayek's boutique has only been open since April 2015.
    Sales have been "growing slowly," she says, as she teaches herself how to run a retail business.
    Her next project will bring things closer to home.
    It's too soon to reveal details, but it'll be another silk print, this time inspired by the "nature, history and mythology of Lebanon," she says, smiling shyly.
    Timi Hayek's boutique is located at the top of Monnot Street, Achrafiyeh. Appointments can be arranged by calling +961 01 611 545. Tops start at $90, dresses top out at $600.

    Krikor Jabotian

    Krikor Jabotian's wedding dresses sell for $25,000.
    As the only couture designer on this list, Krikor Jabotian occupies a rather different place in Lebanon's fashion scene than the others.
    A graduate of Starch's first class of designers, Jabotian began developing his client base beginning in 2008, before the flow of Gulf tourists coming to Lebanon stopped due to the war in neighboring Syria.
    He has managed to retain their business despite the decrease in tourist traffic and, unlike many of his peers, he hasn't struggled with growing his business.
    This may be because he's not selling the kind of pieces that tourists casually pick up as a souvenir.
    These are destination dresses: Jabotian's wedding gowns start at $25,000 and are hand sewn, embroidered and pearled down to the last detail.
    For this kind of deal, he and his business partner (who happens to be his mother Suzanne) can afford to fly all over the Gulf for fittings.
    With steady business from clients in the Gulf (his team of 43 in-house staff have deadlines for 30 dresses this month alone), Jabotian is now looking to the rest of the region -- and world.
    "When we dressed Queen Rania [of Jordan, for a lunch with Britain's Queen Elizabeth II] it opened us up to the Jordan weddings market," he recalls with glee. "We also just got our first client in France, one in the UK, one in Singapore, as well as a few in Panama."
    Krikor Jabotian is available by appointment at his atelier in Tabaris. Arrange a meeting by calling +961 01 204 793. Wedding dresses start at $25,000; evening gowns start at $18,000.

    Lara Khoury

    Lara Khoury's collections are inspired, she says, by the Lebanese experience.
    One day in the summer of 2006, Lara Khoury returned to her hometown in north Lebanon for a break from her course at the Ecole Superieure des Arts et Techniques de la Mode in Paris.
    Two days later, the country was at war.
    "My dad asked me to stay here with the family," she recalls as we sit in her airy Gemmayzeh atelier, her dog Miles asleep at her feet. "It was very difficult for me to leave Paris, but eventually I realized I want to be part of the evolution of this country."
    After the July War, Khoury worked for several years in the local fashion industry before launching her own ready-to-wear label.
    Each of her five collections have been inspired, she says, by the Lebanese experience.
    Phoenix, her spring/summer 2015 collection, featuring bright, happy colors, was "an invitation to Lebanese people to find a better future together."
    Gluttony, the voluminous autumn/winter 2013 collection, was intended as a reprimand of the country's politicians and businessmen for their "greed."
    The latest collection, inspired by the Lebanese diaspora, features big coats that evoke the rigors of travel.
    Her collections have garnered fans, predictably, in Kuwait, Saudi and the UAE, but also in Japan -- she's sold whole collections to boutique buyers in each country.
    Up next?
    "I'm just starting to attack the Latin American region -- it's a really exciting time," she says.
    Lara Khoury's atelier is at 406 Gouraud Street, Gemmayzeh, across from Le Chef restaurant. Appointments can be arranged by calling +961 01 443 426. Tops start at $150, evening gowns cost up to $2,000.