‘Thanks God we are all safe – everybody at the company is safe’, says Zuhair Murad, speaking from his home in the mountain 20 minutes from central Beirut. ‘But the damage is unbelievable’.
Still sounding shell-shocked as he relates the events of 4 August, when a series of explosions in Beirut’s port killed some 150 people, wounded thousands and destroyed half the city, the designer known he is lucky to be alive. The 11-story office block which comprises the headquarters and atelier of his eponymous couture and ready-to-wear label is situated several hundred metres from the port. ‘We were on the street, and the explosion was like Hiroshima – you cannot imagine the sound. We saw this huge mushroom of cloud. Broken glass everywhere, sirens’.
When he picked himself up and walked back to his office to survey the damage, the destruction reduced him to tears. ‘I couldn’t help myself: I cried like a child’, he says. ‘Eleven floors of workshops, studios, showrooms, our bridal boutique, stockrooms, our achieve, our upcoming ready-to-wear and couture collections for the new season – everything lost. Completely lost. We are still in shock’.
Murad founded his brand in 1997, and quickly build a loyal following for his sensuous, feminine designs. In 2001 he began showing on the official Haute Couture scheduled in Paris, and soon his designs were regularly worn by singural stars, such as Beyonce and Jennifer Lopez. In the last year alone he has dressed Hailey Bieber, Tracee Ellis Ross and Kerry Washington in his extraordinarily detailed beaded gowns. (Sofia Vergara’s wedding gown, one of his most famous creations, took 1,657 hours to make). Glamour does not come at the expense of comfort. ‘I like when the woman feels sensual and confident and happy when she wears my dresses’, he says.
Now, he will have to rebuild from the ground. ‘The effort of many, many years went in a second’, he says. ‘It’s unbelievable – I built these offices stone by stone, day by day. It was a very sad feeling, I cannot express my sadness and my sorrow’.
The pandemic has been a challenging period for Murad, and for Lebanon at large, currently experiencing its worst economic crisis in decades following a period of political unrest. ‘My line is mostly for red carpet events and weddings. during the pandemic there have been no occasions like this – we skipped resort, and we skipped the couture shows in July, too’, he says. ‘We want to be ready again in January with a live collection’. Murad’s clients are an international bunch; bridal is one of his biggest revenue streams, with brides seeking gowns that will live up to weddings with 1,000 guests. ‘Now, there are weddings for just 50 people. Many brides have postponed’, he says.
Many are leaving the city, too, an option he has considered, but cannot countenance. ‘It’s such a beautiful country, full of life and history, but the Lebanese people are suffering’, he says. ‘We are on the way to becoming the second Venezuela’. He has an atelier and offices in Paris, but he doesn’t think anything will be solved by moving the business there. ‘The pandemic is everywhere’, he points out.
Instead, he is determined to rebuild his business in Beirut, buoyed by calls and messages from clients and friends of the brand. ‘I feel very blessed and thankful for those who have offered support. They have encouraged me to be positive’, he says. A 20-strong team is working from his home to strategies and plan logistics, and his 250 staff will be temporarily relocated to new headquarters. Eventually, he plans to rebuild the original office building. ‘It will be an experience but we need to move forward. So many clients are waiting to receive collections – we don’t want to lose the opportunity to deliver the pieces. We are a very resilient people. We want to be happy. We are positive, and ambitious. And we will never give up’.