(Fashion) CYNTHIA MERHEJ
Lebanese fashion designer Cynthia Merhej takes an approach to couture that is closely connected to her work as an illustrator and her time working in her family’s atelier. In this interview, she talks about the social and economic factors of clothing fabrication, her wide-ranging creative inspirations, and her clothing brand Renaissance.
Interview by Isabelle Sakelaris
You’ve spoken about the fundamental aspects of clothing: construction and form, and how they “have been utilized to inform our identities as women.” Could you elaborate on that?
I am very interested in the construction and fabrication of clothing and how it has been influenced by social and economic factors over time. The way that clothes in their essence are made, the process of working on a dummy, draping, industrialized pattern making — I question whether today, given the way we view and process sexuality and gender since those techniques were established — if this process still applies.
To that end, you earned a degree in visual communications from the Royal College of Art in London. Can you speak to the way that clothing and other personal artifacts allow us to communicate our identities visually?
Clothing is a tool that helps us to draw and live out the path that we want in this world.
How can dressing become a feminist practice in which women, always subject to the male gaze, subvert that gaze and reclaim power?
If a woman understands dressing as a powerful tool and utilizes it to fully express herself.
You’re also a visual artist. Does your work as an illustrator inform your work as a designer?
For me communicating visually is the only way I am able to really get my ideas and feelings across. Illustration plays a major part in the development of my concepts since it's my way of speaking, it's a language.
In the past, you’ve mentioned taking inspiration from anonymous 18th Century erotic engravings, Lygia Pape’s work Divisor, and Christo and Jeanne Claude. One of your pieces is called the Chagall top, which brings to mind Marc Chagall. What other art historical inspirations do you have, and how do they manifest in your work?
My inspirations are very wide, many are historical and many are from today. It could be from a book, a conversation, someone I saw on the street. They blend and merge until in the final output there is no significant reference that stands out but it becomes a sum of different inspirations.
Along those lines, what is your relationship to influence? Who are your influences, and do you work toward or against them?
It's constantly shifting, but I have realized that I have core influences and themes that I keep returning to and that I am interested in, and I am working on defining them with every collection.
Your brand is called Renaissance, which means “rebirth.” It seems there are multiple iterations of rebirth in your work—both aesthetically, in terms of construction and form, but also through the history in your family of women opening ateliers. Could you tell us about that family history and what it means to you?
Speaking of influences, one of my biggest influences is my family heritage. As a woman, it empowered me to open my business. As a designer, I learn invaluable information and skills that inform my work. It's my DNA so to speak.
Mentorship and women working together seem to be important to you. You always refer to your models by name in credits on Instagram, and you recently put out a call for interns in Beirut. Does that tendency stem from your family history, from a feminist standpoint, or from another source?
Probably from all. I really appreciate that I have the chance to collaborate with amazing, creative people, and I try to express that as much as I can. To go back to the last question, this is something that has always been extremely natural and logical for me due to my family heritage and having grown up in an environment where women work together to achieve a successful business and goals.
Isabelle Sakelaris is an art writer and aspiring poet who lives and works in New York City.