PARIS: Racil Chalhoub was 10 years old when she told her mother she wanted to be a fashion designer. They had gone to see a Marinelli fashion show at the Hotel Georges V in Paris when — blown away by what she had seen — the young Chalhoub turned to her mother and said: “That’s exactly what I want to do!”
In 2015, her dream came true when she launched her line of tuxedos for women — Racil — in London. The name is not an exercise in self-promotion, but a tribute to her mother, with whom she shares not only a first name, but also a keen and quirky fashion sense. She has since expanded her line to include dresses and tops.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, bringing the fashion industry and most of the world to a halt, Chalhoub — who was born in Lebanon, raised in Paris, and now lives in London, took the opportunity to pause, reflect and refocus her efforts.
Out of that time, a new collection was born earlier this year: an explosion of colors counterbalancing the black leggings and gray sweatshirts worn during lockdowns. For her Fall/Winter collection, black was replaced by brown and fresher colors, including coral, fuchsia, yellow and many more.
In her London apartment towards the end of summer, Chalhoub reflected on the past peculiar year, and discussed her inspirations and desires for her next collection with Arab News.
How would you say the COVID-19 pandemic has affected your creative process and your daily work?
There are two complementary aspects in my field: creation and management — whether that’s regarding the brand, the business, the employees... The pandemic has really affected both of those aspects.
Creatively, it’s hard to stay inspired when you’re locked up at home, alone, for several months. Especially when you’re worrying about other things — the business, the employees, and family in Lebanon. So, honestly, I was facing a bit of a creative block. There are three elements that are always on my mood board: First, my mother, who is my muse and inspires me a lot, but whom I hadn’t seen for nearly a year. Second, (discos, clubs and) parties — and all of a sudden, we can’t go out. And third, the street. I walk a lot. I can find inspiration in a park or café, people-watching. During COVID, none of these three elements were present.
It was only when I managed to escape from London in the summer to meet up with friends on vacation, to soak in the sun, roam the streets — when I was able to live a little again — that I found inspiration. Then I would sit in my corner and draw.
As for the management side, that was also difficult, because I came home one day and then never went back to the office. I have a team of 12 girls, whom I consider family. If I’m not doing well, the chances are they’re not doing well either.
So this period allowed me to think a lot about the structure of the company and the brand: what my identity is and where I’m heading. Coming out of all this, would I want the same thing as before? How could I adapt without losing my vision? I mean, with COVID we realized that the first thing we can live without is a suit or a tuxedo. A tuxedo is usually used to go to a gala or to a dinner, which we weren’t doing. We wear a suit to go to the office, where we weren’t going. But, at the same time, it’s what I love. It’s my brand’s DNA and I don’t want to lose that. So, why not translate it in a more relaxed way? I felt I couldn’t resume where I left off: I needed something different. So, in September, I decided to rebrand. I designed a new logo, launched new pieces, new categories and started new collaborations.
I was feeling very restricted even before the pandemic. I had started this brand with this DNA and I really felt like it was the only thing I could do. So COVID was both an opportunity and a great excuse to say, “I’m going to try this, because it’s my brand. I’m going to allow myself to do it, and I’m going to see how my customers react.” And, so far, the reactions have been quite positive.
Would you say this new collection is more focused on the essentials?
For me, a jacket is essential. I’ve remained in that lane, but with different ‘essentials,’ adapted a little more to today's lifestyles. I have reduced the size of the collection, too. And I also worked a lot slower, which was quite stressful, but a lot more enjoyable as well. Before the pandemic, my days were always very stressful. It was a constant race. Then, all of a sudden, it was like we’d unplugged everything. So then we had to work out how to reconnect everything. But one thing I’m sure of: I cannot afford to run that fast anymore.
We’re in a situation where we have to accept that some things are beyond our control. Before, if a delivery from a factory was late, I’d go crazy. Now I just do what I can. I can set a schedule and do everything I can to make everything work as it should, but you have to accept the slowdowns and setbacks. In the fashion business, where everything is so fast, this is refreshing.
Taking things day-by-day, not knowing what tomorrow holds, and realizing you can’t control everything… Would you say that resembles the Lebanese outlook?
That’s the Lebanese attitude, indeed. We still live day-by-day.
Do you still have a strong bond with Lebanon?
I was born in Beirut, but I grew up in Paris and I didn’t live in Lebanon for long. But my family is there. I have lots of friends there. It’s a country I adore and which touches my heart infinitely. Before the pandemic and the various crises affecting Lebanon now, I would always take my dresses, my tuxedos, and my heels when I visited Beirut. I knew there would be great parties; that we were going to go out and see people. Beirut often makes me want to dress up more than London does.
I definitely think Lebanon influences me. I like the attitude of Lebanese women, who like to go out, to look beautiful, to dress well. They have this glamorous side.
So, you take inspiration from France, Lebanon and England?
Yes. I think every country has offered me something different. I have a very Parisian side to my everyday look, which is both a little nonchalant and quite chic at the same time. Fashion in London is very funky and colorful. You can really express yourself. There is a great contrast between French and English looks. All of that mixed together gives something quite unique, which I try to represent with Racil.