INTERVIEW WITH ZUHAIR MURAD

The last time I saw you was in the backstage in Hôtel Potocki, just moments before the presentation of your haute couture collection for Spring 2020. This was late January. Even though it felt so distant from Paris, coronavirus was already international news. Having in mind that your brand is present in so many countries worldwide, including China, what kind of business challenges are you dealing in the midst of a global lockdown?

I suppose that back then, no one had taken this matter seriously. We had gotten used to previous viruses that invaded some countries, and disappeared without affecting the entire globe and its economy, so we hadn’t taken any real measures in this regard. This situation turned out to be particular because not only is it a global pandemic but all of our hands are tied, and we are simply waiting to reach the end of the tunnel. Right now, our main company objective is to minimize loss without completely stopping production. It is quite a challenge because we need to keep on adapting to the situation and try to work with what we have. It’s also challenging because we do not know what to expect in terms of sales next, we cannot be sure as to how this pandemic affected our target consumer behavior. Nonetheless, although we are trying to be hopeful, we also cannot be 100% sure when all of this will come to an end, and so altogether it still feels quite risky in terms of production. We started with canceling the Resort collection. By the time all of the ateliers open, we will launch the production of the Fall-Winter collection, which we showed in March, even though we would be relatively late with delivery dates. On the bright side, we will still be able to have the recent collections in all boutiques because they were already produced right before closure. In the future, we hopefully plan on trying to compensate these losses with the Pre-Fall 2020 collection as well as the Couture FW21 due in January. The Bridal Spring Summer 2021 is on track, it will take more time to complete it production-wise but at least we will have new pieces to show virtually.

 

This sudden stop of life and business as we know it has made many people rethink the idea of fashion. There are opinions that it needs to slow down, or even radically change. Do you believe that the coronavirus pandemic has given us a break or a warning? How do you perceive the state of the fashion industry today?

2020 is the year of awakening! We definitely need to rethink the new norm and shift to a slower, and less environmentally damaging model. Especially that our industry is responsible for 10% of the global carbon dioxide emission every year. In my opinion, we'll need to cancel some collections and stop drowning the consumers with flows of voguish products for very short periods. In terms of Ready-to-Wear, two collections per year are enough, it makes more sense not to have all the pre-collections. Not only would we not be over drowning consumers with new designs, and slowing down the pace, but it would give us the time to become more creative as brands. On the other side, there will be a reduced spending power because people worldwide will be insecure. Also, the actual needs of our clients will change. They will go for more timeless pieces, more classical, less fashionable. And we would need to act and adapt accordingly. Our brand’s DNA definitely would not change but we will tone down in terms of intricate creations, sophisticated fabric, and technics, style variation, and quantities…. just to let this period pass.


Speaking of your last haute couture collection, it was a thoughtful homage to Egypt, a trip to the ancient past, but with a contemporary feel. How do you perceive the past and, in terms of fashion history, is there a certain nostalgia that you feel?

Most of my collections blend ancient heritage with a modern twist, it’s a signature to which as a House we are very loyal to. So I would say that when it comes to fashion, I perceive the past as a quintessential part of future collections. Not only in the obvious sense that Fashion is recurring to some extent, but also in the sense of inspiration from different countries, traditions and traditional wear, etc.. When I explore this endless field, I do it with detail and precision, and so I do experience a sort of longing for a specific era, because I begin to feel involved in it!

 

Haute couture is annulled for the rest of this year. With Paris couture week being canceled, are you perhaps thinking about the new ideas of presenting your upcoming collection? Will technological achievements allow us to experience the continuity of fashion?

We’re rethinking a proper strategy for our couture collection. We might end up with a capsule collection that we could show virtually, but nothing has been decided yet for many reasons: The most important one is that for Couture, clients want to physically see and feel the fabrics, materials, etc. They want to experience the many hours put into the gown, not to mention that made-to-measure is a crucial part. They also tend to enjoy the luxurious purchasing experience associated with couture. So it will be a bit tricky to implement that digitally, and the couture fashion industry would really have to step up the game and discover new business models that are adaptable to the situation. The early stages of made-to-measure creation for a specific consumer as per their need would be the easier part to adapt to. Meetings could be done via skype or zoom, with both the team and the consumer, to agree upon and achieve a beautiful, well-suited design. The second stage of the process however is where things get quite complicated, because we would need some physical interaction with both employees and customers, since we are talking about custom made looks. It will definitely be challenging for us to come up with a new, safe business model to replace this phase, all whilst maintaining the lavish customer experience and perfectionism we usually thrive to deliver to our clients. I suppose we will be shifting our efforts digitally for the RTW, releasing a look book shoot, some videos, detailed descriptions, to make the customer experiences the collection as sensibly as possible. The process of Ready-to-Wear would definitely be easier than that of couture, seeing that it could be marketed through websites and e-commerce. There is no doubt that consumers do not require the same sensory experience for ready-to-wear that they do for couture. 360˚ photos, material description and pricing generally would suffice.  Omnichannel is becoming more and more part of our daily routine.  

 

Being so exclusive and limitedly produced, haute couture acts as a special bond between a fashion designer and his client?

Of course, with couture, the client not only becomes the center of attention, but she is also the main and indispensable part of creation as well ! The look is specifically made for her, to suit both her needs and preferences. Through the process of made-to-measure, we encounter the client through several appointments. These appointments of course provide us with the privilege to get to know each client on a personal level to some extent, in order to tailor to their needs, and so I would definitely say that Couture allows us to create a beautiful bond with the client. Nonetheless, the majority of times, the client returns for next occasions, and so this bond is strengthened.

 How do you maintain your communication now with your haute couture clients?

As for every connection in our lives currently, communication becomes virtual, through telephone, messages, and zoom meetings. We’ve also been trying to reach all of our clients through social media platforms, by posting content that hopefully encourages them to keep going, but also spreads awareness.

Do you agree that haute couture is the most sustainable part of fashion? As it acts as the anti-thesis to prêt-à-porter, what kind of future does it have in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic?

Couture will always be couture and will have a world of its own. We could consider it sustainable because couture doesn’t follow the flow of the trends. As it is made to measure, to some extent as an industry of its own, it results in less waste and of course is more durable due to the highly valued materials that shape it.

You are now back in Lebanon, quarantined in your home. How does that feel? How do you organize your days? I noticed that you're spending time reading, claiming that it gives you a feeling of dreaming with open eyes?

I believe that we all need to look at what is happening from the bright side and enjoy this quality time at home. This is a once in a lifetime experience.  So I am trying my best to keep myself busy. I set up a routine like walking, reading, listening to music. I check social media but I try not to check the news. I want to stay informed but not overwhelmed. I also communicate with my team; we share ideas and thoughts and we try to think about the future, and what would possibly be the best solution to overcome this crisis. Reading definitely teleports you to a world of its own, and nowadays I think we all need to escape a little bit.

How does it feel to work remotely from your team? Is it difficult to organize work schedules via technology, having in mind the delicacy of your creative processes?

This is a standstill period where we will try to cope with the situation. Working from home concerns only a few departments, such as administration, accounting, etc. But the ateliers in Beirut Paris and Italy, are completely closed because we cannot work remotely not even in the creative process. We need a physical presence, for creation, production, embroideries, les petites mains, etc. We can never do this remotely.

 

 I assume that you spend a portion of your day sketching. Are there new ideas being born from isolation, especially in terms of the way you perceive clothing?

I believe that we are messengers of beauty, hope, and aesthetics, that we share through our creations. At the beginning we all didn’t take this isolation seriously and considered it as a short break that would end very quickly. We got ourselves busy or even relaxed hoping we would come back quickly. Then the lockdown was postponed from one week to another and other and so on… we started looking around us, witnessing the number of people who got infected and those who have died. In that stage, creating was definitely wasn't my daily focus, but our continuity and constancy are what worries me now. The creation will come as soon as we all go back to normality.

 

It is too early to plan this, but we all hope that we will be able to travel freely by the next autumn. What are your plans for September in terms of showcasing your prêt-à-porter collections?

The next SS21 creation supposedly showed the end of September will depend on the end of the lockdown by May 11 in Paris. This is where our studio is located. On the other hand, there will be I suppose a change in the official calendar that would give us all the time to accommodate in order to ensure the production of our collections. As you may know Italy is awakening from its “hibernation” giving us hope that we could at least start production.

 

In a series of touching social media posts, you stated that this is the time to give time its time… To our loved ones, our families, our friends…?

We addressed this message to the world after realizing that we have all been living in a crazy world tied to a clock, always waiting for its next tick. Although this pandemic has forced us all to take a break from the world, take some time off from extreme existence, and reconsider our priorities, with time, we all started to experience some sort of impatience. We hadn’t expected quarantine to be this long. We started becoming eager to go back into the world, we started craving our connections, and the negativity made us want to become reckless. Through this post, we wanted to remind everyone that in our fight against this pandemic, time and patience remain our most powerful weapons. The sooner we remained fully compliant to social distancing, the sooner it will end. That this is a matter that takes time, but it too shall pass, and we are closer to the end.

 

You also posted the idea of stitching the world together. In a globalized society, should we rethink the concept of togetherness once our lives return to normal?

I think that if this quarantine has taught us something, its that we are all equal. No amount of money, status, fame, years lived, degrees earned, positions held, etc, could ever mean anything if we do not have our health. Through the post, we were trying to emphasize the concept of togetherness, because, for the first time in a very long time, the world as one had to unite and fight together. One loose end would create a domino effect on us all.  I really hope the concept of togetherness is spread even more after this is over.

When the gates of the world open again, what lessons do you think we will learn as human beings?

 

As I just mentioned, I think the most important lesson is equality and togetherness. It is the fact that whoever we are, we are all intertwined, and on a daily basis, for our most basic necessities, we all need each other’s expertise and support.

(Interview was originally published in Elle Croatia, June 2020)