Lebanese-born New York designer Reem Acra has a message to successful Lebanese entrepreneurs: No matter how big you become abroad, in the end you have to return home.
On Wednesday, Acra opened her first franchise boutique in downtown Beirut — more than a decade after launching her fashion journey with a bridal collection in New York.
"I’ve always been proud to be of Lebanese origin and today I’m even prouder," Acra said as she stood smiling amid elaborate evening gowns in the gleaming two-story boutique.
Clutching Loulou, a small Maltese dog she takes everywhere, Acra said it seemed like "grand timing" to enter the Lebanese market.
Many would disagree. Political and sectarian tensions have risen recently over speculation the UN tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister would indict the country’s militant Hezbollah group.
There are mounting fears the indictments, which could come as early as next month, could re-ignite hostilities between Lebanon’s rival Shiite and Sunni Muslims.
Acra said she speaks only about fashion.
"I do not know anything about what is happening … I’m just excited about the fashion part of Beirut and that’s all I know," she said.
A tiny Arab country of 4 million people along the Mediterranean Sea, Lebanon has produced an impressive crop of designers. They include Elie Saab and Zuhair Murad, whose work is regularly featured at celebrity events such as the Oscars and the Golden Globes.
The Lebanese have a reputation for being among the most fashion-conscious people in the Middle East — and are extremely liberal about the amount of skin they show.
Downtown Beirut, an area rebuilt over the past two decades from civil war destruction and the place where Acra opened her boutique, is dotted with high-end luxury boutiques such as Gucci, Dior, Vivienne Westwood and Prada.
Like many Lebanese, Acra left Lebanon with her family at the height of the civil war in 1983. But she said she first got her sense of fashion from living in Beirut.
Acra grew up as the only daughter — with three brothers — in a well-to-do Beirut home. Her father was a prominent doctor at the American University of Beirut. A seamstress lived in their home because her mother, who had a passion for luxe fabrics, needed a steady stream of gowns. Acra remembers being very well dressed as a girl.
"Growing up in Beirut, I used to go to the souks with my mother to buy fabrics … I understood fashion at an early age and my first designs were when I was five," she told The Associated Press.
While Acra studied at the American University of Beirut, her talents were spotted by a fashion editor who was captivated with the party dress Acra had fashioned out of her mother’s dining room tablecloth. She later went on to study in New York and Paris.
Acra got started in New York in the bridal market in 1997. Her company has since expanded to include evening wear, ready-to-wear and her prized-jewel couture. Famous for her gold-stamped and hand-pleated strapless gowns, she boasts red-carpet credits on Angelina Jolie, Eva Longoria and Christina Applegate. Jill Biden, wife of US Vice President Joe Biden, wore a red Reem Acra gown to the inaugural ball.
Acra, wearing a gold and silver sequined knee-length dress Wednesday, said her designs are for American women as much as they are for the Lebanese.
"I am someone that blends the two cultures together. I am myself, I am the one that blends the East and the West, so you see it whether it’s here or there it has the same glamour, the same attitude," she said.
Her message to successful Lebanese scattered across the world: "No matter how big you become abroad, in the end, you come back to your country and you do it the right way."
The storefront of Reem Acra’s first boutique was festively decorated for her store opening. (Grace Kassab/AP)