Cynthia Chamat Debbané is an entrepreneur and designer whose clothing business challenges the fashion industry's 'rules'.
How did you get into fashion?
I have no academic background in fashion design, or any design-related field. I studied law and majored in political sciences.
But I am the daughter of a fashion retailer, who had over 40 years of expertise. That was crucial to my professional development. When I was young, I learned about designer brands like Alaïa, Gaultier, and Yamamoto, and the first generation of fast fashion brands such as NAF NAF and KOOKAÏ.
That is how I became curious about 'deconstructed' tailoring and high-quality materials. My own clothing line, Urban Sense, is built on those pillars.
What inspires your work?
Japanese lines with a subtle touch, and Italian design. My best-sellers are sirwals (loose trousers or harem pants), kimono jackets and coats, and obi-inspired belts (an obi is a wide fabric belt traditionally worn in Japan).
I finish fitting my ready-to-wear clothes on the clients themselves. I like to call myself a ‘clothing caterer’ rather than designer.
Tell us about the location of your store, Boutique Hub, in Beirut's Sodeco neighbourhood.
During the 1975 to 1990 Lebanese war, Sodeco was a demarcation line between what was Muslim west Beirut and Christian east Beirut.
Today the demarcation line is gone, but it is still one of the few areas of Beirut where you can experience true social diversity and a rich mix of cultures.
In Sodeco, I like to think that I’m choosing the real over the hip. I’m choosing to meet more people, to get familiar with different backgrounds and listen to more stories.
What is the connection between that location and the clothes you create?
I want to make clothing that caters for most people, regardless of religious belief, budget or lifestyle.
Since the store is located centrally, it serves all kinds of people. Most Beiruti areas would not give me access to such a large cross-section of society. Other neighbourhoods have more homogeneous social, economic or even political identities. For example, Monot, Gemmayze or Mar Mikhael, are ‘bobo-areas’, which have become hubs for Lebanese designers. ‘Bobo’ stands for ‘Bourgeois Bohemian’ – tech-savvy, constantly connected and recording their lives, and wearing the world’s latest trends.
Your clothes are designed for 'real body types'. Why?
My mother was going through menopause when I was entering the fashion industry. The drastic physical transformation that my mother’s body was undergoing in her first stages of menopause echoed my own experience with body image. I had always struggled with my weight.
Those feelings of marginalisation by the fashion industry – feelings my mother now shared with me – gave me the fierce desire to create clothes that can be worn by anyone.
That is why my brand is inclusive of all body types and beauty ideals. I never dismiss a client, no matter how challenging it might be to tailor clothes for them, because I’ve been in their shoes.
I try to make it to every fitting session, but I also have three amazing and very-well trained assistants, Nadia, Annie and Nora.
What does your clothing line and business tell us about Beirut now?
I want my work to compete with other international designers' work, whether they come from developed or developing countries.
I like to tackle international debates that speak to me, rather than trends that are specific to my city. So all of my campaigns focus on an ethical aspect of the fashion industry.
One of those campaigns was called 'Normal Bodies'. I asked my clients to model, wearing clothes they had purchased from me. I also did a campaign called Figure(s) de Style, an anti-fashion film about the beauty of aging. Anastrophe was another film about gender fluidity, featuring a woman and a man wearing the same clothes.
My next campaign will be called O-Kay. In these extremely visual times, where everything is recorded and used to carefully construct a brand image and persona, I want to say that it’s okay to be just 'o-kay'. Not fabulous. Not extraordinary. Just 'o-kay'.
Why do you create gender-neutral clothing?
I call my line gender-fluid rather than gender-neutral. It simply means that my designs are not too tight to the body or revealing. They’re comfortable and humble without being labelled ‘modest fashion’, and they’re not specifically for women. Men could easily wear them too.
My clothing is structured, and a lot of my inspiration comes from Japanese avant-garde fashion and men suits’ bespoke tailoring.
How does that fit in with fashion and wider society in Lebanon?
In Lebanon, there is a small yet solid market for silhouette and style. That market is mainly conservative women. Looking sexy is not their priority, and they appreciate and are willing to pay for good quality and design.
The men who come to my shop are less adventurous. Our society still has strong convictions of what a ‘real man’ should look like, just as society pressures women to either cover their bodies or look beautiful at all times.
You describe your designs as 'already out of fashion'. Can you tell us more about that?
Fashion fads change, and designers introduce something new every season. But every season, if you pay attention, it all comes down to one costume, with minor variations.
I do not follow fashion news. I like to think my clothes are evolutionary and not revolutionary. They are not edgy, they don't make a statement, and they age with dignity with their wearers because they blend well in any wardrobe.
You pay careful attention to fabric quality and the supply chain in your business. Why?
In Lebanon, it’s almost impossible to track down the sources of fabric. My only guarantee that the workers who make my fabrics are paid well and are entitled to a minimum of rights, is to choose fabrics that have a clear side embroidery stating their countries of origin. I usually choose fabrics from the UK, Belgium, Italy and Japan, which have stricter labour regulations.
I also have a responsibility to cut back on synthetic micro-fibre based fabrics, because of the heavy impact they have on the environment. I trade them for natural fabrics such as linen, cotton and wool, which are breathable and age better with the customers.
How can people have a more sustainable wardrobe?
Buy less. Invest in better quality clothing. Shop locally and know who made your clothes. You have the power to make a difference.
My team and I make sure our clients are aware of the production process behind every product that they purchase. They understand why we refuse to mass-produce, and we try to show them the difference that they make when they boycott fast fashion and choose local products instead.
What can the world learn from emerging economies about sustainability?
The world still ignores the effects of the fast fashion and luxury fashion industries.
It is not okay to comply with strict regulations in your nation, and do the exact opposite in other nations just because they do not have regulations. The developed world needs to understand and start acting upon that.
We cannot blame emerging economies for relying on non-sustainable industries. Their populations need jobs to put food on the table. However, within those economies, there are more and more radical initiatives pledging to bring 'local' back.
Fashion Revolutionaries is a partnership between the British Council and Fashion Revolution. As part of Fashion Revolution Week, 23 – 29 April 2018, we have commissioned seven short films profiling seven practitioners across the world.
Watch Cynthia's short film directed by Kate Cox and produced by the Smalls.