For now Beirut remains the regional capital of East-West cross- pollination, and one entrepreneur who’s betting big on the synergy is Tony Salamé, owner of the high-end retail emporium Aïshti. Between his gleaming department store and the luxury tenants he has lured to Beirut’s downtown pedestrian area (Burberry, Dior, and Yves Saint Laurent have all moved in during the past six months), Salamé is securing a near monopoly on the sweet spot where European taste meets Middle Eastern money. Showing me blueprints of the downtown district, where he has commissioned Zaha Hadid to design Aïshti’s new flagship, he says, “I’ve taken all the strategic corners, like in a war.” One bombed-out building may eventually become an exhibition space for Salamé’s fast-growing contemporary art collection, and in the meantime he’s been loaning artworks to shops around town: That’s his Tracey Emin behind the cash register at the Chloé store.
Salamé, 44, got his start selling jeans, and later had the idea of branding the shamagh, the traditional men’s head scarf, through licensing deals with labels such as Valentino and Gianfranco Ferré, which he then sold at big markups to sheikhs and emirs. Several of those Gulf royals are now Salamé’s neighbors in the mountain hamlet of Faqra, where he and his wife, Elhan, an effervescent beauty who is Aïshti’s chief buyer, spend weekends. Their glass and cedar house, with its infinity pool and impressive assortment of Urs Fischers, Kristin Bakers, and Anselm Reyles, could be mistaken for a little corner of Bel-Air were it not for the camouflaged army troops patrolling the nearby hills.
When I join the Salamés and their friends for dinner one night at the glossy restaurant Centrale, near Gemmayze, it’s easy to see why the city’s upscale boutiques are able to move so much merchandise. Packing the tables among the patio’s jasmine trees are groups of tanned 40-ish men smoking cigars and wearing major Patek Philippe watches, while their yoga-toned, meticulously groomed wives compliment one another on their Lanvin necklaces. Beirut’s pampered ladies, long known as the Middle East’s chicest, if showiest, fashion addicts, still have a certain recognizable style, which Salamé sums up this way: “The Lebanese woman will buy the same designer item as a European woman, but she’ll wear it in a sexier way. And she’ll wear it at lunchtime.”
The Lebanese woman also has a growing appetite for Rabih Kayrouz, one of several designers muscling in on local kingpin Elie Saab, who still has a lock on the Middle Eastern market for $300,000 couture wedding dresses. A onetime intern in the ateliers of Chanel and Dior, Kayrouz recently opened a showroom on Paris’s boulevard Raspail, and embraces a bling-free aesthetic that he diplomatically calls “a bit more modern” than Saab’s. We meet for lunch at Tawlet, the preferred canteen of Beirut’s organically inclined denizens in Mar Mikhael. Scattered among auto repair shops are other new outlets of understated grooviness, such as the art- design bookshop Papercup and the showroom of architect Karim Bekdache, who moonlights as a dealer in midcentury furniture. “In Beirut these things happen fast—as soon as one new place opens, five more are suddenly there,” Bekdache says. “Nobody knows if things will be okay in a year, so you move in, make some money quickly, and wait for the next war.”