Imagine a fashion line so charmed as well as so charming that it can change as easy as abracadabra from an enchanting evening gown into a bewitching cloak—a fascinating dressing gown—a cocktail frock—a coat—a vest—a ski jacket. Or even, with a wave of the designer's wand, into devilish smoking jackets and opera capes.
To find such versatile fashion, just say the magic words: abaya, a handsome cloak worn for centuries by Bedouins (and sometimes called aba) and kaftan, a simple gown out of Morocco and other areas of North Africa, both of which, thanks to the magic of some enterprising Arab designers in Lebanon, have begun to edge into the high fashion scene in London and Paris.
According to Madame Rene Moua'wad, a young, chic, jet-setteuse of Beirut, the new kaftan was inspired by the elegant gowns once worn by Lebanese princesses at the court of 18th century amirs.
"That was a few years ago," says Madame Moua'wad. "I was lamenting the disappearance of the Arab traditions and the loss of old skills when I thought: 'If the women in the mountain villages can still make these handsome old gowns why can't I sell them?' "
Encouraged by her husband, a member of the government's chamber of deputies, who was delighted at a chance to help his constituents, Madame Moua'wad began roaming the mountains of North Lebanon, asking villagers to search their attics for samples of traditional patterns.
Next, she went to work persuading friends that the kaftan, which is as elegant open as closed, is the perfect thing for hostesses to slip into for dinner on breezy penthouse patios or cocktails in cool mountain gardens. She really scored, though, when women in Arab diplomatic circles began to wear creations from her Artisanat Zghorta abroad; orders began to come in from all over Europe.
The revival of the abaya is a similar story. Traditionally a man's square, generously-cut garment, it served Bedouins and mountain shepherds as cloak, blanket and coat. A few years ago, Madame Pierre Edde's charitable society I'Artisanat Libanais began to make an abaya for women in pampered wool from 16th-century handlooms in the village of Zouk near Jounieh.
Then, two years ago, George Asseily was lunching at a Beirut restaurant owned by "Madame Abaya," a lady of such generous proportions that she had taken to wearing the figure-hiding abaya instead of dresses any time and anywhere. The "anywhere" intrigued Mr. Asseily, whose factories produce towels, linen and blankets. He consulted his wife, who runs the Domestic Textile Center (Domtex) on Beirut's busy Hamra Street and soon her seamstresses were turning out abayas for the bath, the beach and the boudoir, adapting short versions for wear as debonair smoking jackets and even as cozy apres-ski wear.
Prices are as flexible as the garments themselves. Madame Moua'wad, for example, asks only $60 to $70 for a modern A-line kaftan in silk or felt, in all colors and several lengths, some with elaborate embroidery and a long row of crocheted buttons in silver or gold. Artisanat Libanais goes as high as $200 for elaborate museum copies with intricate gold needlepoint and massive collars, while Domtex practically gives away colorful, embroidered terry cloth abayas for $10 to $20 and asks only a modest $30 for blanket cloth dressing gowns so handsome that Beirut's with-it women began wearing them to the theater.
Two more designing women, Mesdames al-Khazen and al-Khoury, have also opened a shop called Artisans in a seaside cellar. They're selling hand-woven wool abayas in bold stripes, and positively psychedelic mixes from their color caldrons: coral, pink and purple; or lime, turquoise and yellow. With different sleeve lengths and in different weights they sell as evening coats or dressing gowns for $30 to $70. The ladies also offer belts made from traditional donkey ropes with blown glass slip rings.
Although orders from abroad are still pouring in and show no sign of peaking, the Lebanese designers know that fashion is a business where change is everything and have already begun to prepare for the future—by adaptating two other traditional Middle East garments. We'll tell you about them next season.