• Hailey Gates visits Lebanon in 'States of Undress'. (SBS)Source: SBS
'States of Undress' examines the changing nature of the country's haute couture industry.
Shane Cubis

19 Oct 2017 - 1:52 PM  UPDATED 19 Oct 2017 - 1:52 PM

It may shock you to learn roughly one out of five people living in Lebanon now is a Syrian refugee. The countries share a border, making it an obvious place to move to in the wake of war’s devastation, but that’s still an amazingly high number.

When we picture refugees (by which I mean, when we are shown refugees in the majority of mainstream media stories), we are seeing them as people whose lives have been ruined, we are seeing them as victims and we are seeing them as a “mass” rather than individuals. We might see them as a burden or downtrodden families needing our help, depending on our political views, but we are decidedly not seeing them as fashion designers.

But tailoring is what Aleppo was known for. And the majority of Syrians who crossed the border have come from that city. So in Lebanon, the haute couture industry – worth a fortune despite the region’s economic upheaval because of their high-end market – is chock-full of Syrian refugees. They are behind the scenes in almost every fashion house, handcrafting beautifully bejewelled frocks for an customer base that’s 70 percent Saudi. Lebanese designers are building their names on the labour of these highly skilled workers, some of whom had their own ateliers back home, but lack the political capital to open a new business off their own name.

In fact, the politics here are understandably very delicate. You can’t complain about utilising your 30 years of tailoring experience to enhance someone else’s reputation in the market because you’ll look ungrateful to the country for taking you in. And from the Lebanese designers’ point of view, this isn’t necessarily a predatory arrangement. They might be paying Syrians less money and working them longer hours, but they’re doing these unexpected guests an additional favour by offering them jobs that allow them to feed and house their families.

Of course, the Lebanese tailors they sack to replace with cheaper labour don’t share this point of view, but they tend to blame the easy target, leading to violent clashes with refugees in the streets – and in at least one municipality north-east of Beirut, night-time curfews for Syrians are in place to “keep the peace”.

To say it’s a complicated situation is an understatement, particularly when you introduce the pro-Hezbollah views (and therefore pro-Assad regime views, and therefore views that are broadly in support of the destruction of these refugees’ lives back home) of at least one of the atelier owners employing an Aleppoan tailor. As always with States of Undress, it’s amazing how the world of fashion can illuminate the deeper geopolitical situation facing any given nation.


Watch the Lebanon episode of States of Undress on Thursday October 19 at 8:30pm on SBS VICELAND.

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