Made To Order: What It Takes to Design a Zuhair Murad Couture Gown

Leah Bourne
Made To Order: What It Takes to Design a Zuhair Murad Couture Gown
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Haute couture is a term that’s often bandied about in fashion—and often inaccurately. French for “high sewing,” the official definition is “clothing that is made-to-order for a specific customer, using handwork techniques.” In other words, if you can buy it off a rack at a store, it is not couture.
The French take haute couture so seriously that it is a protected name that can only be used by firms that meet certain standards. Only 24 design houses made the Fédération Française de la Couture’s official haute couture calendar for the latest round of shows which just wrapped up in Paris, including Chanel, Christian Dior, and Jean-Paul Gaultier—some of the most revered fashion brands in the world.
Another name in this ultra-exclusive club is Lebanese designer Zuhair Murad, who launched his business in 1997, and by 2001 was showing haute couture in Paris. In many ways, Murad is the example one points to as the antidote to the assumption that couture is a dying art. With ateliers in Beirut and Paris, as well as more than 100 employees, Murad’s couture business is thriving. With an estimated 4,000 couture clients in the world, it’s safe to assume that Murad has a big chunk of that list on speed dial. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that celebrities like Miley Cyrus, Kristen Stewart, and Jennifer Lopez (whom Murad calls a “muse”) regularly wear his designs on the red carpet.
Murad invited us to his Paris atelier on the eve of his Fall 2013 haute couture show to get a behind-the-scenes look at what goes into a couture fitting, and it was immediately clear why not all designers are up to the task of putting on a couture show. A single Murad couture creation takes at minimum 300 hours to produce, with some gowns taking up to 1,000 hours of handwork.
“The process of making a couture gown is very personal, almost a catharsis,” Murad shared. “Couture is a place where I can allow my imagination to take center, and I am able to create pieces that reflect who I am as a designer and more importantly, as an artist. It’s the best part of being a designer, for me.”
Murad’s latest couture collection has an Enchanted Forest theme, featuring details like Madame Grès-inspired pleating, as well as beading that is executed so perfectly that it looks like it’s tattooed on the skin. Fabrics included in the collection include silk chiffon, ostrich feathers, and devoré velvet.
It takes a certain woman to devote the money and time necessary to wear couture; several fittings are involved and prices start at $5,000. Murad’s client base includes Qatari royals and Tunisian oil heiresses—all part of couture’s new breed of clientele. “They don’t see couture as a gown or another item of clothing,” says Murad. “They choose it just as they would a piece of fine art.”
“The couture customer is a dedicated customer,” Murad adds. “They’ll always be fond of couture even if there are five couture designers, or just me.”
Scroll through the gallery above to go behind the scenes.
Photography by Adam Katz Sinding

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Lebanese designer Zuhair Murad invited us to his Paris atelier on the eve of his Fall 2013 haute couture runway show. Click through to get an up-close view of a couture fitting!

Murad eyes the lineup of the 45 looks in the collection, which was inspired by the Enchanted Forest. Murad is a veteran of Haute Couture week in Paris, and has been showing as a part of the highly exclusive lineup since 2001.

"This season, I was inspired by a glamorous woman sleeping in her bedroom on a winter night," Murad shared. "She is wearing silk and lace, and she wakes at midnight to go for a walk in a cold and dark forest. It’s cold and there’s a thick midnight mist surrounding her. But amongst the black, leafless trees, she continues her journey, sparkling within the night." 

The hand-beading and other handwork that goes into Murad's haute couture collections is what sets his work apart from what you can buy off the rack.

"A single look can take up to 300 hours of work from creation to production, [and] sometimes the most spectacular pieces can take up to 1,000 hours," Murad shared.

The beadwork on this gown is meant to achieve the look of beading tattooed on the skin, according to Murad, seen here finalizing a gown. 

It's easy to see why haute couture gowns are considered an art form, considering they appear architectural even when not being worn. "Each piece feels like a personal extension of myself and a display of the dedication, talent, and skill that fills my atelier," Murad said.

Murad watches the way that one of the gowns in his collection moves to preview how it will look when it hits the runway.

What's the biggest challenge each season for Murad? "Editing the collection," he shared. "We usually show 45 looks and it’s hard to choose what goes on the runway in the end."

The model boards for the couture runway show, which was held at the Hotel de Montmorency. "From an idea, a fabric sample, and embroidery swatch to developing a cohesive palette—voila, the couture collection is born once again," Murad said of his process.

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