New York designer vows to kickstart Mideast fashion

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Catherine Zeta-Jones, Angelina Jolie, Madonna, Halle Berry, Kate Hudson, Eva Longoria are just a few of the famous names who favour her luxuriously embellished evening wear.

From the world of music, country singer LeAnn Rimes got married in one her creations — a low-cut chiffon robe slashed to the thigh and embroidered with pearls — while singer-songwriter Taylor Swift chose a strapless Reem Acra wedding gown for one of her videos.

Acra is proud of her achievements, explaining that is she is the only Middle Eastern woman to establish her own fashion house from scratch in New York.

Now, with success firmly under her belt, she is turning her attention back to the Middle East where she wants to help kickstart a home-grown fashion industy.

The designer is working on a plan for the region although she stresses it is in its early stages.

“There is no (fashion) industry there today. But is there an eagerness for it? Absolutely,” she told AFP in an interview in Paris.

“I am getting involved…. There is an eagerness in these countries; they want to expand, they want to be part of the fashion scene.

“I will help it to develop. I think there will be opportunities to help designers develop and grow the industry,” she added.

With 30 years’ fashion experience in the US and Asia, Acra has plenty of insights to share.

The designer, who has four homes, two in New York, one in Lebanon and another in Nashville, got her first break while studying at the American University in Beirut.

There, she impressed a visiting fashion editor with an embroidered silk organza gown she made from her mother’s dining room tablecloth and wore to a party.

Design for all women

The editor immediately offered to host a fashion show for Acra and in 1983 she found herself in New York studying at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

“It was 100 percent difficult,” she said, adding that there had been no question in her mind that she would have to leave Lebanon, then in the grip of civil war, to make a career for herself.

“(But) I knew from the beginning that something would happen for me in New York in a good way.”

After stints in Hong Kong, Taiwan and China, she said she eventually felt she knew the US fashion industry inside out and was ready to branch out on her own.

In 1997 she launched her own label, beginning with bridalwear. She later moved into evening dresses followed by ready-to-wear.

Acra’s clothes are now shown at New York Fashion Week and sold in over 150 stores worldwide.

In today’s global market, she says, her main challenge is now to design for all women, not just those from one or two countries.

“When I am designing I have to think about the woman in Saint Tropez; I have to think of the Chinese woman and I have to think of the Middle East all in one dress.”

Nor is her fashion targeted at women of any specific age, said the designer whose personal favourite for evening wear is vintage ivory and pale platinum.

“My woman is not of a particular age. I erase her age in my mind,” she said.

Her Middle East plan, meanwhile, is still on the drawing board, although she is confident it will yield results.

“I would say they are at the very beginning (in the Middle East) and fashion does not get established in two days, fashion takes time,” she said.

But she added: “There will be a Middle East fashion industry.”

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