Fashion designer to the stars Zuhair Murad reveals the good, the bad and the ugly side of the Arab fashion world, where he says investment, education and talent are missing
“He’s a one-man show”, says Zuhair Murad’s assistant, who tries, ironically, to steal the show over the course of our 25-minute conversation through a series of interruptions.
“Yes,” Murad confirms, both of them now chuckling as if over an inside joke or well-kept secret. Murad is a man of few words, as we quickly discover.
His reserved demeanour is reflected in the nearly hollow meeting room at his Parisian atelier, where the Lebanese fashion designer sits behind a white table paired only with a massive marble fireplace and transparent plastic chairs. An empty can of Coca-Cola is the room’s sole pop of colour (apart from Murad’s own attire compromising a mustard fringe jacket, jeans and lavish gold Rolex).
While he doesn’t say much, it doesn’t matter – he lets his work do the talking.
The 48-year-old Lebanese fashion designer started sketching designs as young as 10. Judging by their success, we believe him. In 2016, he made international headlines when he created a $400,000 wedding dress for the daughter of Russian oil tycoon Musa Bazhaev. A year later, he was in the spotlight again when he made a dress for singer-songwriter Adele that took over 500 hours to hand sew and embellish with an estimated 10,000 Swarovski crystals – albeit it is difficult to imagine it was a “one man” job.
Adele is just one of Murad’s many celebrity clients, which range from Celine Dion to Priyanka Chopra and Jennifer Lopez, who was “one of the first people to believe in my work,” Murad says. “She’s a mature woman who is charming, elegant and classy at the same time. That’s the Zuhair Murad woman.”
And if you come across his products’ 35 points of sale in the world’s major cities including New York, London, Berlin and Shanghai (the designer opened his first boutique in the UAE at the Dubai Mall last year) you too can be a Zuhair Murad woman – as long as your budget starts at $1,000.
But what does it take to be Zuhair Murad himself? “Talent”, he says, something most fashion designers in the Arab world “do not possess”.
Murad doesn’t mince his words, few as they may be.
In his defence, there are few Arab fashion designers who have succeeded outside of the Middle East. There’s the legendary Elie Saab, the skilful Reem Acra and the savvy Rami Al Ali, and then there are the emerging names including Yousef Aljasmi, Georges Chakra and Rami Kadi, whose designs graze the runways of Paris and the red carpets of Hollywood.
The “special ones” – as he calls them – are hard to find, but he claims to know exactly where to look.
I went from one client to another client. No investment, no nothing
“Lebanon is the only Arab country where you find a lot of fashion talent. And it’s a small country at the end of the day,” he says matter-of-factly. The problem? The above mentioned figures hail from beyond Lebanon, including Kuwait and Syria. But Murad has faced problems of his own when it came to his hometown. “It was too small for my big dreams,” he says, which meant investment budges were close to “nothing”.
“There is a lot of financial support [towards fashion designers] in Europe, but there isn’t financial support in the Arab world. They’re not used to investing in fashion, sadly. I got offered a lot of investment but from European investors, not Arab investors.”
Does that mean the Arab world’s fashion industry is broke? Maybe for Arab designers. While the MENA Design Outlook 2014-2019 report by the Dubai Design and Fashion Council (DDFC) predicts the region’s fashion industry will total $55bn by 2019, it is unclear whether local designers get a piece of the profit pie, which goes largely towards global brands.
Dubai-based fashion designer Rami Al Ai says, “There are too many designers, too many products and not enough funding,” adding that support from banks and investors is the “biggest issue” facing designers in the region.
“Why would people pay $500 for a local product if they can pay $600 for an international brand?” he says rhetorically.
Fashion Forward Dubai (FFWD), a bi-annual event acting as a platform for local designers to showcase their work, was halted “until further notice” in 2018, just a year after co-founder Ramzi Nakad told Arabian Business, “funding is the main issue” for designers in Dubai.
For Murad, however, investment was never an issue.
“I started from scratch. I went from one client to another client. It was very simple. No investment, no nothing,” he says.
“Now when you meet young designers, they say, ‘Oh I have talent, but I need investment.’ No. You can start from scratch. There are a lot of stories that prove you can succeed.” Some of those success stories include the self-taught Murad himself, Elie Saab and Rami Al Ali, among others.
We need stronger [fashion] schools in the Arab world. Arab students are very weak in their work and projects
But the designer suggests that the lack of funding may be due to the lack of talent – and education is partially to blame. The Middle East is home to few fashion schools including French institute Esmod Dubai and The College of Fashion and Design Dubai. Can they compete with New York’s Parsons School of Design or the London College of Fashion? He doesn’t think so.
“We need stronger [fashion] schools in the Arab world. Arab students are very weak in their work and projects. I see a big difference between them and students that intern with me in Paris,” Murad says.
With or without education, “fashion without talent is a waste of time”, he says. And time is one thing he cannot afford to waste. The current fashion calendar requires him to present as many as eight collections of ready-to-wear and couture a year.
“It’s becoming a nightmare,” he says. “You don’t have time to rest.”
“There is competition everywhere and the system became really fast. The biggest challenge is to create your eight collections a year and to always have something new and expand your ready-to-wear with a total look from denim to t-shirts to outwear to dresses,” he says.
It hasn’t stopped him from expanding, however, with the designer planning to open several more stores (each of which cost a minimum $5m) across major cities including Paris and London over the next five years, as well as growing the brand’s accessories and perfume line. But make no mistake. Murad is not in a hurry to grow. “I don’t want to open 100 stores. I’m very realistic.”
Realistically, he could open as many stores as he’d like. “We receive a lot of offers from investors. But I don’t want investment at the moment. I want to keep full control of the company. It’s like my baby. I don’t want to share it with someone who could not have [my best] interest [at heart]. I’m happy this way,” he says.
He ought to be, having come a long way from selling his sketches to brands to earn a living. “Becoming a fashion designer was a dream for me. Actually, it wasn’t a dream. It felt impossible.”
I want to keep full control of the company. I don’t want to share it with someone who could not have [my best] interest [at heart]
His secret to success? Being a workaholic, he says, laughing.
“You have to be passionate, otherwise it’s impossible to succeed. You have to give all your time. I’m trying [to have a balance between work and personal life]. I’m doing my best,” he says.
His assistant laughs just as Murad’s phone rings (for about the tenth time throughout our conversation). He rejects the call and continues, “but I’m giving more [time] to my work.”
Would he ever opt for an initial public offering to ease the pressure? “One day, yes. But not anytime soon,” he says.
Our several attempts at getting him to share financial figures for the private company fail. He insists he is not involved in the business’ finances. “I don’t have a financial background at all. I was zero in mathematics. I’m more artistic,” he says.
“I always follow my feelings, my heart, not my mind.”
It’s got him to where he is today, which is among the Arab and international world’s most acclaimed fashion designers. He’s had his fair share of mistakes and failures along the way, though his assistant claims “The word failure does not exist in his vocabulary.”
Murad explains, “I’m a very careful person. I study my moves beforehand. I don’t take a lot of risks. I take my time to be 90 percent sure. Of course I failed a lot in many ways. I’m the type of person who criticises myself a lot. Sometimes destiny works in a certain way, but you end up learning from your mistakes and you learn to make less mistakes.”
What frustrates him the most is not his mistakes, rather the price he has to pay for his success.
“You’re living in a constant state of stress,” he says.
Sometimes destiny works in a certain way, but you end up learning from your mistakes and you learn to make less mistakes
“Sometimes we work on three collections at the same time. You have deadlines and you have to be ready... We work with a big team and if one of them makes one mistake, we have to repeat everything from the beginning… I’m a perfectionist,” he says.
Has he ever thought of quitting and retiring on an island?
“My work is my life. Sometimes I say I can’t continue anymore and I want to stop, but I can’t. It’s my oxygen,” he says, his assistant nodding in agreement.
It is when he is home alone that Murad manages to escape the frenzied world of fashion.
“I like to spend time alone… I love listening to [Lebanese singer] Fairuz. You know, our work is very hectic, so I like my alone time, quiet time by myself at home,” he says.
Perhaps that’s what his assistant meant by “a one-man show”. To be fair to Zuhair Murad, he makes for one magnificent act.
Zuhair Murad grew up in Baalbek, Lebanon. Since his childhood, he always dreamt of evading to a world of fantasy. He started sketching dresses at the age of ten, quoted as saying “I don’t recall a day in my life without a pen in my hand!”
1997 – Murad opens his first atelier in Beirut, catering to a growing private clientele.
2001 – Murad presents his collection for the first time during Haute Couture Week in Paris, gaining momentum with international media.
2005 – Murad launches the first RTW evening Collection (Rendez-vous), a simpler – yet still aesthetical, glamorous and contemporary line.
2006 – Murad opens his first boutique in Melrose Building, listed as architectural heritage and located in Bab Idriss Street, Downtown Beirut.
2007 – Murad inaugurates his Parisian “Maison de Couture” in the heart of the Triangle d’Or at 1-1bis Francois 1er street. The ground floor of the Parisian showroom is dedicated to ready-to-wear collections, whereas the first floor displays the couture and bridal dresses and encompasses a design studio and workshop.
2010 – Murad relocates to a new, 11-storey building in the heart of Beirut.
2011 – Murad kicks off his RTW bridal collection in timeless pieces where romanticism and sensuality are perfectly depicted in all his garments.
2015 – Murad opens his second showroom in Paris dedicated to the development of the Prêt-a-porter and Accessory lines, on 68 Pierre Charron Street.
2016 – Murad opens a store-within-a store at the Harrods store in London.
2017 – A shop opens in Istanbul at Vakko – Zorlu Centre.
2018 – Murad opens his first boutique in the UAE, at the Fashion Avenue in the Dubai Mall.For all the latest fashion trends from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.