Beirut, also known as the Paris of the Middle East, is home to brands such as Chanel, Dior, Brioni, Valentino, Cartier, Bulgari, Longines, Rolex, Panerai, Louis Vuitton, Armani, Tom Ford, Gucci, Alexander McQueen, Hermes, Dolce & Gabbana, Louboutin, and many others. Despite having a host of top labels, the Lebanese capital is suffering from a dearth of buyers who seem to be not wanting to buy, or simply cannot afford to buy.
The staff at the stores of these posh brands stand suited-up and made-up all day long but hours go by and there is hardly a customer to serve.
In normal summers, many of the super-rich from the Gulf states visit Lebanon on Summer holidays and enjoy a lively, cosmopolitan, Arabic-speaking city that thrives on the culture of conspicuous consumption.
However, this year is a break from the past as Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich Gulf states have urged their citizens not to venture in the Mediterranean country, citing security concerns as civil war rages in next door Syria.
“Business is a bit down for sure,” said Walid at Alexander McQueen. “But about 70% of our clientele is Lebanese, either from here or living abroad. So we don’t depend on Gulf visitors entirely.”
For the Lebanese, it is always up and down as many people have memories from the 1975-1990 civil war that ripped the capital to bits, and the bouts of violence that have punctuated political life since.
Some luxury vendors are adamant they are doing just fine.
“It’s a matter of brand awareness,” said one impeccably dressed salesman at Louis Vuitton. “We’re doing very well,” he said with a smile on his face.
A sales assistant at Louboutin, where $6,000 gets you a pair of Daffodile spike-heels encrusted in Swarovski crystal, business is “not as great as expected but better than last year”.
“But they’re still coming from the Gulf,” said a manager at one top-of-the-line clothing outlet, offering Versace and Kiton among other celebrated Italian tailor-designers. “Those who know Beirut and have apartments here, they’re still coming.”
Some brands even have the ‘not so visible’ “Sale” signs on their aristocratic shopfronts.
The Lamborghini website is currently offering a 40% discount on keychains and fashion accessories but cars such as the outrageous 700 hp Aventador still costs $400,000 or more.
The Gulf Cooperation Council states are advising their nationals to stay away from Beirut which has seen some street fighting earlier this year after the Syrian revolt sparked sectarian tensions in the country.
Beirut is doing its best to dispel fears by attracting people to its impressive postwar downtown after removing some of the scars of the civil war and opening the new Souk in the town centre.
The place is lofty, quiet, and airy with marble and glass shop fronts, surrounded with streets of pale golden stone facades, cut in neo-Ottoman style.
The streets are swept spotlessly clean by an army dominated by African migrants, often using Ostrich-feather dusters.
However, critics of this place label it a hub of commercialism that is robbing Beirut – a historic Levantine city with market streets full of shops, traders and customers – of its cultural heritage.
The rest of Lebanon stands in stark contrast with Beirut as it suffers from a chronic lack of electricity as well as other infrastructural shortcomings.
The Lebanese also put up with daily power cuts, which they have endured for decades. A generator in every home could be the national slogan.
However, the restaurants present a different picture yet again, filled with customers who find it hard to resist good food at affordable prices. The bars and discos are humming till late in the night with people who seem to be more bothered about their income and appearance than by the nuances of daily life or dangers of a looming civil war.
And these are the very people who keep the Yves Saint Laurent, Jimmy Choo, Mont Blanc, Chloe, Hublot, Boucheron, Stella McCartney, Joel Robuchon and several others up and running…