Renaissance Renaissance designer Cynthia Merhej joined our Zoom call from her parents’ house in Beirut. She’d recently relocated to her hometown after moving to Paris during the pandemic, which was just a few months after the explosion that devastated the Lebanese capital on August 4th, 2020. To say the past, give or take, three years have been plagued with conflict is an understatement, but seeing the work that is coming out of those singular experiences can help put things into perspective.
Merhej is the third generation in a family tree of fashion designers and makers. Her great grandmother used to have an atelier in Palestine, as did her mother in Beirut (“it kind of skipped a generation,” she says), and now her. “I grew up understanding the power and craft behind clothes and the impact they have on a daily life,” she says, adding that she always planned on working with her mother, but she wanted to make sure that if she entered the business of fashion she’d truly have something to offer.
“I come from four generations of war and loss,” she says, “I want to make something that lasts, things that are considered. I don’t really come at all from Western society where it’s normal to consume and throw away, that’s very foreign to me,” she adds. For this reason her collections are small, focused, and developed with her mother and a small team of seamstresses in Beirut. Well, all except for this one; fall 2022 was developed while Merhej lived in Paris after the explosion and during the pandemic, away from her team, space to work, and lacking of her usual process. Merhej describes this delivery in two ways during our conversation, both earnest but dissimilar in demeanor. First as “the collection that came at the most turbulent time in my life,” which she says solemnly, and then as “the nervous breakdown collection,” which she delivers with a laugh. Both descriptors are equally valid, and both are the mark of a person who has evolved through turmoil with the self deprecating humor that is so common these days in our generation.
For fall, Merhej looked for softness in cut and materials, which came alive in her use of gathered tulle, the balloon hems in her skirts, and the rounded sleeves in her tailored jackets (deliciously achieved by cutting the style in a curved kimono sleeve pattern, avoiding the need for an armhole). She tells me that her inspiration often comes from construction rather than aesthetic ideation, which becomes evident once she tells me that this time around she fixated on the circular form — most of her cutting and construction details revolve around curved or circular patterns. “I really needed softness after telling myself to keep going for so long,” she told me. Merhej has a talent (and one could say inherited skill) for making distinct but very wearable clothes. The collection was at its most believable when she leaned into its most paired down elements. The tailoring, shirting, jackets, and even the tulle strapless dresses and mini skirts will all likely find happy homes in her customers’s closets.
Now that she’s back in Beirut, she says things are still not easy but that folks have adapted, as most living in conflict tend to do, and she is happy to be there. “It’s important to me to be here, not only for my process but for the country,” she says, “so many people have left, including myself, and I now have no friends here. It’s important to be here and keep some kind of creative energy going.”