If Lebanon is known for one thing, it’s couture fashion. Fadwa Baalbaki is one of many gifted couture and bridal designers in the country, who are all a part of a national heritage of gifted designers. “Couture has always been crafted in Lebanon, it is embedded in our culture and has been passed down through generations. Couture back then was not something that was commercial or exclusive, it was created by mothers and grandmothers, the craftmanship and know how was passed down through generations and eventually made its way outside Lebanon,” she says.
Lebanon throughout its history has been controlled by empires. The Romans, the Greeks, the Ottomans, Phoenicia, Egypt, the Hittites, the Assyrians, Babylonia, Persia, Macedonia, the Seleucid empire, the Sasanian empire (Iran), the Arabs, the Selijuk empire, the kingdom of Jerusalem, and the Mamluk Sultanate were all civilizations and empires that the tiny sun-kissed Levantine nation has been a part of. This in turn has created a surge of cultural creativity. All of these nations left much in Lebanon, one thing being their intricate fashion, which has translated today into couture craftsmanship like thousands of hours of beadwork and sequin placing.
These time-consuming techniques is a language that Fadwa speaks. Her designs are sensual yet tasteful, and modern with a hint of yesteryear. But one thing you don’t see much of within the circle of Lebanese couture designers are women couturiers. This space is mostly dominated by men and while there are gifted men couturiers, it’s a space that needs to see women because women know what other women are looking for in a gown.
“The fashion industry like other industries has always had this gender gap issue. However, it is more prominent in a patriarchal society, where women are expected to prioritize the family life over developing their careers and passions. At first, it was hard for me to break into the industry in Lebanon, however I let my work speak for itself and the support I was getting from women around me was fueling my desire to continue with my path and gave me enough confidence to put my name on the brand. And recently I have realized that more and more women in Lebanon are refusing to be bound by these rules,” says Baalbaki.
Her atelier and flagship store are located in the bustle of Hamra, a vibrant area of the city where the American University of Beirut is located. With three floors the atelier is located on one of the floors. Because of Lebanon’s civil war from 1975 to 1990, many people like Fadwa fled the tiny Levant country. It was in France that she settled and a curiosity and love for fashion blossomed.
“Paris was an eye opener for me, as a child and a teenager, I was heavily influenced by the different fashion scenes, this helped me in developing a keen eye for details and awakened an urge to design and create at a very early age.”
It’s here where the second-hand stores in Chatelet gave her a new passion. And the designs of Yoji Yamamoto and Azzedine Alaia that birthed a love of fashion into young Fadwa. By 1994 she returned to her native land and started her own family, three children that she put first. It was after they reached an older age that she was able to develop her creative spirit further.
Countries like Lebanon, Colombia, and Venezuela that are prone to economic and political instability and corruption have a creative surge. Creativity is an outlet for the people to express themselves in the midst of pain. “There’s a distance between the creative scenes due to the economic challenges, that creates need to build everything from scratch to push ourselves to think outside the norms. Creativity emerges normally out of necessity. And every challenge I underwent has had a positive outcome because it has taught me a specific lesson,” she stresses.
In 2008 Fadwa started making jewelry. This was the beginning of her fashion entrepreneurial pursuits. “A background in anything artistic can be developed if it is worked on, art is no longer defined by a specific category. Having opened a concept store has helped me a lot in understanding what the customer is looking for and how we can cater to them, as the business aspect is essential for any fashion house. If you are designing and you don’t know how to develop or manage your brand, then it won’t flourish,” Fadwa explains. Realizing that there were no creative hubs for emerging designers Fadwa opened a concept store, Little Black Dress, giving a place for up and coming talent to showcase their creations. And three years later she opened her own design house on a made-to-measure basis for her clients.
“Modernity and elegance manifested by intricate craftmanship is the cornerstone of our brand, and the appreciation for the human factor in the creation process is essential to our identity,” says Fadwa of her brand. She designs all of the collections but that may change soon. “Since I started designing, I have always relied on myself, I have a very hands-on approach on each piece and I believe it should be that way to stay true to my name. However, we are now looking into onboarding a team of young and inspired designers.”
In 2014 Fadwa unveiled her first couture collection in Abu Dhabi, which gave her exposure to the region. And for the past eight years she has created a couture and bridal collection every year but in limited number to ensure sustainability and the brand’s commitment to zero waste. Actress Gabourey Sidibe, Emmy winner Hannah Waddingham, and international celebrities have all worn Fadwa Baalbaki.
There is an ethos within the brand of inclusivity. The brand ensures gowns for all female shapes. “I believe that we should embrace our bodies because of our differences, my pieces reflect the uniqueness of each woman and her beauty. I want every woman to wear whatever her heart desires; I don’t believe in boundaries. When I create a piece, I look at the woman in front of me and I try to bring out the beauty in her.”
Finding inspiration from everywhere, Fadwa doesn’t force it, but she’s always paying attention to what is around her. But one of her greatest sources of inspiration are her clients. “I listen to them and try to add my twist to the final piece,” she says. The SS22 collection was inspired by the mythological symbolism of angels. This collection like all others has a hint of past collections, whether in a simple cut or in a complex silhouette.
For now, the brand is getting ready to introduce their ready-to-wear collection in their Beirut store that can be purchased on the soon-to-be unveiled online shop. Looking towards the future they are looking more to international markets and building more of a presence around the world.