Lara Khoury: “You learn what you love with time”.

Lara Khoury: “You learn what you love with time”.

LARA KHOURY IS A RISING AND PIONEERING VOICE ON THE INTERNATIONAL FASHION STAGE. BORN IN LEBANON, LARA GREW UP BETWEEN SAUDI ARABIA AND DUBAI, STUDIED FASHION IN PARIS AND RETURNED TO BEIRUT WHERE FOR THE PAST DECADE, SHE HAS STEADILY GROWN HER EPONYMOUS BRAND THAT FORGES ITS OWN PATH WITH BOLD, MEANINGFUL COLLECTIONS. WHEN WE FIRST SPOKE TO LARA, AN ECONOMIC CRISIS AND THE GLOBAL PANDEMIC WERE PLAGUING LEBANON. THEN, A WEEK LATER ON 4 AUGUST 2020, A BLAST RIPPED THROUGH THE CITY OF BEIRUT, KILLING AT LEAST 200, INJURING 5000 AND DAMAGING THE HOMES OF 300,000. IN JUST A FEW SECONDS, 10 YEARS OF HER WORK WAS GONE. WE SPOKE TO LARA ABOUT CREATIVE LIFE ACROSS CULTURES, FROM FALLING IN LOVE WITH PARIS, BUILDING A BUSINESS IN BEIRUT AND FINDING HER CREATIVE VOICE.

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On living in Paris

I did my fashion degree in Paris. It really is my second home. I love everything about it –  the small cafés, going to The Centre Pompidou and Palais de Tokyo, the museums, the art, the fact that you can get inspired from just wandering down the street. My Paris is centred around the neighbourhood of Gambetta, where I lived with a friend. My favourite thing from those days was drinking my coffee out the window and watching the city wake up. 

On places you like to visit while in Paris

My favourite places are L’hotel Grand Amour, Le Bachaumont, Le Café du Petit Palais, Le Pavillon Puebla, Hôtel National des Arts et Métiers… among many others!

On finding your fashion feet in Beirut

I originally came back to Lebanon in 2006 for a few weeks of holidays. I arrived on 10 July 2006 and the war with Israel started on 12 July. I had to spend a whole month in Lebanon until the war ended, by which time my French visa had expired and that’s why I was rejected for another visa. So I decided to start working here in Beirut. I worked at Elie Saab which is one of the best fashion companies in Lebanon. I had the opportunity to go from pattern making and parchments to working directly with Elie to create his collections. After spending a few months designing in the studio with him, I just decided it was time to try creating a solo collection. 

Not long after this, Rabih Kayrouz (a leading Lebanese fashion designer) came to me about this incubator program called Starch Foundation. I decided to join their first generation and it was a great success. Starch was an accidental accelerator that really helped me to start working.

Portrait top of page shot by Anthony Saroufim. Above: Lara Khoury & the skyline of Beirut city. Photo by Anthony Saroufim on the top of Qasar Tower by architect Bernard Khoury. Below: Lara at work, photographed by Tamara Saade.

On the value of creative mentors

Rabih Kayrouz was our mentor, almost like our north star. We were young and still experimenting and he was always next to us, making us understand how we should create, how we should proceed with the production, and how to work with our clients. You learn what you love with time but there are moments when you slip. 

On creating new designs

It’s very difficult to know and understand what people think of your work when you’re in your own bubble creating your collections. As a designer when I create, I really look at my heart and my feelings and I look for the message I want to convey throughout my work. And this is where I start creating. I continue the process of creating a collection right up until it’s on the models, being photographed. 

I always remind myself how powerful and passionate we, the Lebanese people, are – like a Phoenix rising from its ashes. I’m certain we will find a way to surpass this and be reborn, stronger.

On connecting with people through your work 

My last full collection was called LK Eudemonia and it was about the pursuit of happiness. At that time, I was very, very unhappy. In the collection I was thinking about a way of pursuing happiness, and also the rise of social media and the prevalence of being fake and not fully understanding who you are. I wanted to explore this feeling of not being able to reach myself and my happiness or understand what it was I wanted from life. 

When I presented LK Eudemonia in 2018 we did an amazing exhibition at Bernard Khoury’s Quasar Tower and then held a party afterwards. Whenever someone would approach me to ask me about the collection, I would tell them the story and everybody was like: ‘That’s true! I also have the same problem. It’s amazing that you’re talking about this.’ So through the stories in my collections, I’m also able to reach people’s hearts.

Above: LK Eudemonia collection. Below: Lara Khoury, LK Stripped Capsule collection 2019. Images courtesy of Lara Khoury.

On fashion as a storytelling tool

Each of my collections has a story. My first collection was called LK Gluttony, which was about how people want more of everything. They want more politically, more socially, more financially. There’s so much greed everywhere and LK Gluttony was an interpretation of that. Then I created LK Beirut at a time when Lebanon was in a rough phase. We had a political crisis where we found ourselves surrounded by trash, the roads were full of it. We would wake up smelling trash, go to work smelling trash, it was a difficult thing to experience. So I decided to mourn Beirut and made a collection all in black with little hints of blue, as a sign of hope. Each collection has a really different story – yet is tethered through my visual sense of identity – and interestingly each attracts very different people. 

On creating with a conscience 

You have to adapt with what’s going on around the world and what’s going on with yourself. I find inspiration in everything so I cannot pretend that the world is well and happy. The situation in Lebanon is really catastrophic. It’s heartbreaking to see my country like this.

I really didn’t want to be creating collections that nobody could afford. That’s why I decided to launch a special collection, very dear to my heart. It’s a sewing kit called The Secrets of Survival or LKSOS, in which I share my design secrets with the world.

On running a business during a revolution

In December 2019 Lebanon had completely stagnated and the revolution had already started. Everybody at this time was talking about politics, people were losing their jobs and poverty was really surfacing. We all forgot about our own worlds. The Lebanese Pound started to lose its value, meaning that people who did still have jobs were getting paid half their salaries. I thought, in a world like this, I really didn’t want to be creating collections that nobody could afford. That’s why I decided to launch a special collection, very dear to my heart. It’s a sewing kit called The Secrets of Survival or LKSOS, in which I share my design secrets with the world. I gave all of the instructions and ideas as a guide. The patterns are open for individual interpretation and everyone can create their own garment according to their lifestyle and their preferences, it’s as easy as choosing different fabrics. And part of the profits go towards the Lebanese Food Bank. 

On joining the uprising

When the revolution first started, people had had enough. So, we all took to the streets. We would chant and dance all night, with flags flying from our hands. It was such a beautiful moment in my life, and I’m so grateful I was able to be present. But eventually people had to go back to their lives, to their work. And there was a real sense that our government and foreign leaders didn’t care about the people in Lebanon. They just wanted to dominate the land and play around with its population. 

“When the revolution first started, people had had enough. So, we all took to the streets. We would chant and dance all night, with flags flying from our hands. It was such a beautiful moment in my life, and I’m so grateful I was able to be present”. 

On the day of the Beirut explosion

I wasn’t there on the day of the blast. In the morning I made a last minute decision to leave the city and go for lunch in the mountains with some friends. I feel so lucky, even though my house and my office were completely destroyed. But some of my neighbours died in the blast, people I know were killed in the streets. One of my friends had a neighbour ring him and ask to check in on his dad. My friend found the dad dead, he then had to convince the son not to take his dad to the hospital. We’re all so traumatised. I don’t know anyone, or any family or business who didn’t get hit. People have lost their homes, their jobs and their loved ones. It’s devastating.

On the ongoing fight for justice in Lebanon 

We’ve never had anyone apologise for the explosion. Even though the government resigned after the explosion happened, we feel we are still being abused and occupied by them. They are sabotaging every little thing. Even after they destroyed our city, they didn’t have the decency to say sorry or to support us. We haven’t even seen them try to help us out. The only people who were cleaning the streets and helping the elderly, who are still living in Beirut, are the younger generations. We are trying to rebuild our city with zero help from the government. Don’t they also consider Beirut to be their home? Don’t they love Lebanon as much as we do? 

I wasn’t there on the day of the blast. In the morning I made a last minute decision to leave the city and go for lunch in the mountains with some friends. I feel so lucky, even though my house and my office were completely destroyed.

On having the support of the international community

I’ve had so many friends from around the world checking in and making sure I’m okay. I had one friend, Jules Kim, who’s a jewellery designer in New York call and say she was selling an earring inspired by my work and donate the proceeds to help rebuild my brand. Another friend, Jackie Barbosa in New York, asked 20 designers to donate pieces and auction them off like art – it’s called Still We Rise. I’m receiving so much love and I’m so grateful. Roni Helou, a fellow Lebanese designer who lost his home and office, has created an initiative to keep the young design scene here alive. He and the Starch Foundation have collaborated with the Slow Factory Foundation in New York to create The Super Fund for Beirut. They’ve gathered 53 artists in Beirut who were affected by the blast with a fundraising target of US$850,000 to cover the damages of these designers. I really want to express my gratitude to every single person who has helped in whatever way they can, from clients to followers, family and friends. The love has really acted as a comforting pillow in this awful time. 

Above L to R: The Beirut explosion captured by Joe Kesrouani, and Lara’s closed studio and home after damage from the blast. Bottom L to R: Ground zero of the explosion, and lost heritage in the surrounding neighborhoods. Images courtesy of Lara Khoury.

On favorite places in Beirut making a recovery

The founder of Sip came from Australia and decided to open a coffee shop in Gemmayze. He really set the mood of the neighbourhood and came up with such a beautiful concept that then allowed a different wave of people to come into the area. His shop was completely destroyed, but with the help of his international network he was able to gather funds and reopen five weeks after the explosion. Papercup bookstore was very close to the Port. It had an inspiring selection of books that you wouldn’t be able to find in the commercial stores. I’ve spent so many afternoons there with a coffee or friends. They’ve had to relocate to share a shop space with Kalei Coffee in Ras. And finally, Sursock Museum had so many beautiful pieces of art that were damaged. The building, a palace, also had incredible Lebanese architecture, with heritage mosaic glass work. This queen of Beirut now has all her windows shattered, it’s as if she’s naked.

I really do love Beirut because it allows me to dream, to explore who I am and who I want to be, and to be courageous and throw myself into the risks of life. For creatives Beirut really allows you to be whoever you want to be. But it also crushes you.

On finding peace outside of the city

Beirut was a busy, loud city with lots happening. So whenever I wanted to have a bit of time for myself, I’d go to my hometown Batroun on the north coast. It’s an island lifestyle where you can let go of all your problems. When there, I can always go into the water and swim very far out and give all of my thoughts and worries to the sea. 

On seeing some beauty among the destruction

On the day after the explosion I went to my office to assess the damage and to collect all of my work materials and valuables. Unfortunately there was a lot of looting and theft. Then I had to find anything I could to secure my front door. Afterwards, I ran to the streets and started to help where I could. A lot of my elderly neighbours were hurt. But you could feel the love of ordinary people working together. I also had so many friends fly internationally during the pandemic to come and help out. My plan is to leave, but until then I will do whatever I can to help my city. And most of the youth feels the same way.

Top: LK Eudemonia collection. Bottom: LK Stripped collection. Images courtesy of Lara Khoury.

On not letting the world forget about Beirut

Initially it was very, very hard and then as time passed I became numb. When I walk the route to my office or home now I don’t feel the sadness that I used to feel straight after the blast. This transition makes me worry that the world will forget us and will forget what happened here. I felt it myself, yet the destruction happened to me. That’s why it’s so important for me to raise my voice and talk openly and often about the devastation of the blast.

To help the people of Beirut get back on their feet, please consider donating to the following NGOs who are helping to rebuild the city and assist those in need. 

Lebanese Food Bank   https://lebanesefoodbank.org

Impact Lebanon   https://www.impactlebanon.org

Live Love Beirut   https://www.livelovebeirut.com

On a window or aisle seat

Window. I love to look outside of the plane and see what’s going on and see Earth from above.

On Paris in three words

Beautiful, exciting, hope. 

On Beirut in a word… plus a few more

Home. 

It always will be my home. I really do love Beirut because it allows me to dream, to explore who I am and who I want to be, and to be courageous and throw myself into the risks of life. For creatives Beirut really allows you to be whoever you want to be. But it also crushes you. It wasn’t long ago that Beirut was one of the best destinations in the world, but unfortunately the political complications are putting us down. These problems aren’t new though, they’ve been around for generations. But I always remind myself how powerful and passionate we, the Lebanese people, are – like a Phoenix rising from its ashes. I’m certain we will find a way to surpass this and be reborn, stronger. 

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Nuggets in this interview

industry

Lara Khoury, Beirut

"As a designer when I create, I really look at my heart and my feelings and I look for the message that I want to convey".

–Lara Khoury

food and drink

Sip, Beirut

"The founder of Sip came from Australia and decided to open a coffee shop in Gemmayze".

–Lara Khoury

inspiration

Papercup, Beirut

"Papercup bookstore was very close to the Port..They’ve had to relocate to share a shop space with Kalei Coffee in Ras".

–Lara Khoury

travel

Batroun, Lebanon

"Whenever I wanted to have a bit of time for myself, I’d go to my hometown Batroun on the north coast".

–Lara Khoury

food and drink

L’hotel Grand Amour, Paris

"Favourite places In Paris.. L’hotel Grand Amour.."

–Lara Khoury

events

The Centre Pompidou, Paris

"Going to The Centre Pompidou and Palais de Tokyo, the museums, the art, the fact that you can get inspired from just wandering down the street".

–Lara Khoury

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