Portrait of Cynthia Chamat
© Courtesy of the designer
Portrait of Cynthia Chamat
Last updated: April 7, 2017

Lebanese society seen through fashion

Banner Icon Design “For every radicalization, there is de-radicalization,” says designer Cynthia Chamat.

Can there be a fashion designer from the Middle East without a political conscience? Probably not. A little more than one month ago Your Middle East spoke to Lara Khoury, a fashion designer from Beirut, and learned about her opinionated views. Today it’s Cynthia Chamat’s turn to give her perspective about the fault lines between fashion and politics in Lebanon and beyond. Cynthia Chamat is a self-made entrepreneur, has majored in Law and Political Science and prefers to be called clothing caterer, rather than fashion designer. 

While Lara Khoury and Cynthia Chamat are very different personalities they have one thing in common that sets both of them even more apart from the crowd: their shaved heads.

Who do you have in mind when you design fashion?

I design for the marginalized. Mainly women going through post-pregnancy or menopausal physical and hormonal metamorphosis. It could be any woman really, not necessarily Lebanese, because the syndromes are global and inherent to women's nature. But I do take into consideration Middle Eastern pear-shaped body features.

However I've recently introduced a few unisex pieces to URBAN SENSE to test male waters and a few unisex brands with a confirmed younger crowd.

How have the markets that you create for changed over the years?

I first started off in the fashion business in 2012. In 2014, Boutique Hub was born with URBAN SENSE, the in-house label, simultaneously.

Today the market is still the same as when I started, but what has changed is customer behavior because of Internet shopping which was not too widespread in Lebanon back then. So now, it is just more challenging to convince my potential clients why they should buy from my shop and support local production rather than benefiting from seemingly more attractive offers on the net. 

A hypothesis (excuse me if I’m ignorant): in Lebanon the clothes you design are mostly worn by Christian women. How does the migration of Christians from Lebanon to Europe and North America affect your business?

The question indeed does not apply to me. The fact that my shop is located in Sodeco, which is a very central district of Beirut - not specifically hip and happening, but very commercial - and also a former demarcation area between former East and West Beirut, makes it very accessible to both communities. Consequently I have as many Christians as Muslims visiting the shop. 

Basically I am against the current trend of designing specific garments for specific segments (cf. Dolce & Gabbana, Tommy Hilfiger, etc.) because I see it as a risk of drawing an even deeper segregation line between people.

In Lebanon, in the Arab world, and also in Europe, fundamentalists are on the rise. How does this affect your work? 

Allow me not to agree. As a Lebanese - Christian if you may want to know - born and bred in this part of the world, I owe it to my Muslim fellow citizens to testify that this is not an accurate depiction of the world we live in.

I partly give it to you that there may be a rise of 'widely reported' fundamentalism in our region and the world, but there are also lots and lots of positive initiatives trying to counter the syndrome however with no coverage whatsoever. 

Why not talk about the advances in KSA's women's rights? They're shy, true, but the younger generations know that everything happening around them is at their fingertips, so change ought to be inevitable.

I would like to take this interview as an opportunity to share with the rest of the world that on Christmas of 2016, the southern Lebanese city of Saida, known to be a stronghold of the Sunni Community and Sunni radicals more specifically, celebrated the Christian holiday for the first time in ages as a positive gesture towards the local Christian minority. The Christmas decoration was so fancy it put that of Beirut to shame.

I say, for every radicalization, there is de-radicalization.

How do you deal with questions like: who will wear my designs? Who will be allowed to wear my designs? 

Questions like who will wear my designs are obviously normal questions any designer should ask oneself before starting the creative process.

The only challenge that I face when designing is the actual opposite of what you're probably thinking of when you ask me these questions: the overall aesthetic of URBAN SENSE is not too sexy, chic and structured of course, but not tight-to-the-body. So in a predominantly patriarchal society where men spend on their women, not as a sign of generosity but as a sign of strong objectification, it is sometimes challenging to convert certain women to my style because their men wouldn't find it sexy enough. And this has nothing to do with religion!

Why is it always the women’s clothes (and never the men’s clothes) that are the objects of disputes and politicization?

It goes without saying that I find it unfair to belong to a segment that still is, in 2017, under constant scrutiny for gender-based reasons, when at the same time a long beard, normally associated with radicalism, gets away with it, and with a sexy name too: Lumberjack (!); talk about (Western) double standards.

But that's just the way the world has been since forever. And it is specifically how societies covered or uncovered their women that has always been an indicator of the advancement of said societies.

You have customers in the Gulf (Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, UAE, etc.) as well. How do they wear your designs?

Yes I do, and they're very fashionable ladies. Especially Kuwaitis - I love how they master elegant layering to a point you would not even notice their hijab.  

Not that the hijab is not elegant. It just adds up to the challenge of scoring the right balance of colors and layers around your face and upper body. 

My Saudi clients obviously think the niqab is inappropriate, otherwise they wouldn't be my clients in the first place. Half of them wear the hijab, the other don’t, although they're Muslim practitioners. Most of their kids study abroad and their daughters do not wear the hijab unless in the homeland.

How much of a driver of creativity is Beirut’s nervous energy for you? And how much are you slowed down by the many inhibiting factors of Lebanon? 

I think we all have that love-hate relationship with Beirut, it is not even an original statement anymore.

I wouldn't say that the day-to-day living conditions and difficulties are a driver of creativity of their own, because you stop noticing them when they're all you've known all your life. They do not particularly slow you down either, because that's the only pace you've known too. 

However, the real challenge is the human factor, not the power cuts, not even the suicide bombings. It's what I call the 'Insha'allah syndrome’ that is very inherent to our Arab culture and which completely drives me mad. It is almost impossible to guarantee that the people you’re working with will meet their deadlines.

Second challenge, also pertaining to the human factor, is that you don't get to build solid long-lasting teams. In less than three years, I've worked with more than ten tailors and three production assistants. 

The tailors are either too old, or foreigners of Syrian or Egyptian nationalities, transiting in Beirut. One day they're here, the next they call you from some Western country saying they're sorry. But can you blame them?

The young production assistants want it all and they want it now. You may offer them the best career prospects in the world but they'd still trade you for the job of a modern slave because you're not an empire.

Where does the avantgarde-spirit of Beirut come from?  

What avant-garde? Have you checked the fashion scene in Kuwait? Dubai? KSA? Teheran? Have you checked Indonesian emerging designers? That's raw avant-garde.

Lebanon is a relatively small third world society that is characterized by deep discrepancies between the mid-to-high classes and the lower classes, and where the mid-to-high classes tend to absolutely want to differentiate themselves from the lower classes. So we keep on our radar the slightest bud of a new trend hitting the countries of the first world and we imitate them and we exaggerate them in a way that we look like we too are avant-garde. When all we are, most of the time, is mere imitators.

How are freedom of expression and freedom of speech related to fashion design? 

It goes without saying that fashion design is yet another form of visual communication and expression with clothes, accessories and shoes as the medium. 

Expression is inherently absolute, and absolute is synonymous with free, except when free becomes restrictive for someone else and therefore ceases to be so. So yes, you would rarely see a conservative fashion designer.

Last question: tell me about your short hair. Very un-Lebanese, isn’t it? What’s your message with this haircut? 

I first shaved my head almost 20 years ago. I think it always meant to be a sign of strength for me, the ultimate self-challenge to detach oneself from everything, to be able to look oneself in the eye and not be able to hide behind anything. 

Recently, I've gone completely skinhead. And the message I want to convey is that in a shallow society, so deeply attached to looks, where the average woman goes to the hairdresser twice a week, it's ok not to look good, it's even ok for a woman to be ‘ugly’. For I am aware I may not have been looking my best, but that's exactly my point, and I mainly want my husband to get it. He's actually starting to find it sexy, at least the initiative of it.

I personally have never felt as confident and sexy in my entire life. I feel almost unbreakable, but I'm starting to sense an addiction, which defies the purpose so I should stop soon and go back to normal machine-trimming which I've been doing for almost four years now.

Victor  Argo
Victor Argo, which is a pseudonym, regularly writes for Your Middle East. He is personally connected to Lebanon.
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