By ZEINA KARAM
Associated Press Writer
BEIRUT - The gowns are cut low in the front, slashing down to the navel, or low in the back, swooping below the waist, inset with delicate see-through fabric. They couldn't be further from the modest dress generally worn by women in the Muslim Arab world.
Yet these fashions come from Lebanon, a tiny Arab country of 4 million on the Mediterranean. This nation better known for military conflicts than the arts has produced an impressive crop of designers, such as Reem Acra and Elie Saab, whose work is showcased at celebrity events such as the Oscars and the Golden Globes.
"Lebanon's name has always been synonymous with war, but when it comes to fashion ... these designers really make us proud," said Laura Seikaly, 39, who was among a recent crowd of bikini-clad sunbathers on a beach north of Beirut. "I guess it comes from the society itself, the way Lebanese women dress. They're very courageous, even more than Europeans."
Perhaps best known among the long list of couturiers is Saab, a Lebanese icon. He catapulted to fashion superstardom in 2002 when Halle Berry accepted an Academy Award sheathed in a dazzling Saab burgundy gown - a first for a Lebanese designer.
The list also includes Zuhair Murad, Robert Abi Nader, George Chakra, George Hobeika, Abed Mahfouz and New York designer Acra, best known in the U.S. for her bridal designs and dressing such celebrities as Eva Longoria, Kate Beckinsale and Jill Biden, the wife of the U.S. vice president.
Lebanese fashion is shaped by the country and its people. Unlike many other Middle East countries, Lebanon is an open, pluralistic society with 18 different religious sects and a parliament split equally between Christians and Muslims. It is also the only Arab country with a Christian head of state.
The country is believed to be roughly 60 percent Muslim and 40 percent Christian. It is a favorite travel destination because of its European flavor, a legacy of French colonial influence, as well as the stark contrast between women with barely there clothes and others covered from head to toe. While there is sometimes tension, religious tolerance generally prevails, and that tolerance translates into fashion.
The country has a huge diaspora - an estimated 8 million people of Lebanese descent, or twice the country's current population, live in countries as distant as Brazil and Australia. The hundreds of thousands of Lebanese who work abroad also contribute to the openness.
"The Lebanese people are well educated, modern, they travel everywhere ... all of this contributes to their talent in many fields, not just designing clothes," said designer Murad, who has quickly become one of Hollywood's favorites. His clients include country singer Carrie Underwood, teen star Miley Cyrus and Paris Hilton, who wore a custom-made Zuhair Murad electric blue silk chiffon gown to this year's Golden Globes.
Murad said it's hard to assert oneself on the international scene when coming from a small nation plagued by conflict. Lebanon has survived the 1975-90 civil war, a 1982 Israeli invasion as well as a fierce monthlong war between Israel and Hezbollah militants two years ago.
"It's difficult to present ourselves to the press, the customers, the new markets like the Americans and Europeans," he said, sitting among his gowns at his seaside Beirut showroom. "It was a dream even to do a fashion show, to create a collection and to present it to the public."
The Lebanese have a reputation for being among the most fashion-conscious people in the Middle East, and liberal in the amount of skin they show.
Lebanese women often wear plunging necklines and tight clothes and spend a lot of time and money on their makeup, hair style and accessories. They'll wear dressed-to-kill attire even on the most casual occasion.
While it's mostly Christian women who wear revealing clothes, many Muslim women also sport daring, edgy, fashion-forward attire. However, women tend to dress more conservatively in areas where religion is a stronger influence - such as southern Lebanon, dominated by militant Hezbollah Muslims, or the northern city of Tripoli.
Lebanese men are also generally smartly dressed and have a soft spot for flashy designer accessories - glasses, shoes, pens, lighters and wallets.
"Lebanese women are very elegant ... even men. They like fashion," said Robert Abi Nader, sometimes referred to as the king of Middle East couture.
The country itself is breathtaking, bordered by the Mediterranean and a mountain range an hour's drive east that is high enough to offer skiing.
"I am inspired by the Middle Eastern culture, especially Beirut and the richness of its culture and scenery," said Elie Saab. "Hence my sensitivity to rich fabrics and warm colors."
Saab spent his free time as a kid sewing clothes for his sisters using his mother's tablecloths and curtains. He launched his own atelier in 1982 when Lebanon was in civil war.
He studied fashion in Paris and quickly climbed his way up. In May 2003 he was invited to become a member of the prestigious Chambre Syndicale de la Couture, joining the ranks of international designers such as Valentino and Versace who show officially as part of the French couture tradition.
Among his celebrity clientele are Beyonce, Elizabeth Hurley, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angelina Jolie, who wore a black sweetheart-neck strapless gown by Saab for this year's Oscars. Jordan's Queen Rania, something of a fashionista herself, is known to be a loyal client.
Saab, 45, has big plans to put Beirut on the international fashion map, including a Beirut Fashion Week in the works. During the 2006 war, when Lebanon was under Israeli bombing, all the models parading the 55 outfits at his Paris 2007 spring collection were dressed in gold as a tribute to the "sun that shines over Beirut."
Although he caters to an opulent Middle Eastern clientele and Hollywood stars, Saab remains deeply attached to Lebanon and Lebanese women.
"They have been my very first clients, and they still give me that drive of loving elegance around me," he said.