Challita’s Couture | Interview
JOE CHALLITA’S HAUTE COUTURE
JOE CHALLITA, 31 year old Australian-Lebanese designer, adores women. RAGMAG knows this because only a self professed “dreamer and a helpless romantic” could create gowns that virtually sing. We decided on JOE for our ROYAL ISSUE because the man brings out our love affair with fashion on a grand scale. Graduating with a double degree in Arts and Law and becoming a qualified solicitor, he then transitioned into fashion. We spoke to JOE about celebrity, geographical influences of the Commonwealth and Lebanon, Khalil Gibran, and WHAT MAKES HIM FIT TO DRESS THE QUEEN.
Do you feel that couture is as highly valued in North America as it is in Europe and the Middle East?
Haute couture has always been valued in all three, but in different ways. Europe is the birth-place of haute couture and the godmother of haute couturiers. It is the place where its appeal stems from, and it is the place most sought after by designers wanting to take part in the most prestigious fashion shows, like Paris Fashion Week. Whilst North America gives the opportunity for these creations to take life and shine in the spotlight on the red carpet, like the Oscars, the Emmy Awards etc.. Most importantly through Hollywood and art we are able to see fashion and couture take life and form. It becomes the platform of inspiration and aspiration. The Middle East is giving birth to new big names in the Haute Couture world who are making a statement in Europe with their distinctive style and feminine appeal. Hence, they are most sought after on the red carpet. According to recent reports the Middle East is saving the dying couture in Europe, as the Middle-Eastern taste and quest for luxury is sustaining haute couture, through Arab royals, princesses and wealthy women.
Who would you like to dress from the new glitterati in Lebanon, North America and Europe?
Yasmine Hamdan – she is avant-garde, alternative, modern and edgy. A new fresh face in the Lebanese scene. In North America Natalie Portman for her classic beauty and Dita Von Teese in Europe. She oozes femininity, I love her style and her vintage beauty.
Designer that you feel most influences your style?
Christian Dior, we share the same sentiment. Making women be in touch with their femininity through design principles. I appreciate Galliano’s modern interpretation of the Dior label.
One collection of yours was opera inspired. Name a few operas and arias that really embody your work?
“Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again” and “Think of Me” from the Phantom of the Opera. Maria Callas was also an inspiration.
As for classical masters in music, please name a few composers and pieces that SOUND like a gown of yours?
The Concierto de Aranjuez is a composition of classical guitar and orchestra by the Spanish composer Joaquín Rodrigo. He described the concerto itself as capturing “the fragrance of magnolias, the singing of birds, and the gushing of fountains” in the gardens of Aranjuez, and that description gave me a vision of a butterfly hovering over Rodrigo’s magnolias and gushing fountains; hence my pink butterfly dress in my Opera collection is a dedication to that, and the delicate, ephemeral white wedding dress of the Opera collection a dedication to his magnolias.
How do you feel about being from the Commonwealth?
My inspiration is deep-rooted in Australia’s English heritage beginnings. I am inspired by the Victorian heritage of Australia…the romance of Victorian costumes, appreciation of natural fibres – old English looms and laces and usage of organic cottons in couture. I have been an avid collector of Victorian remnants, clothing and accessories since I was 18 years old. The availability of these in Australia have inspired me deeply in appreciating old fashioned handiwork and couture sensibilities, and kept me in touch with English heritage. When I make wedding gowns I think of them as heirlooms to be passed on from one generation to another, and this approach is a Victorian-English sensibility. Often a client would use part of a wedding gown in the making of a Christening gown of a future baby, so I take this into account, and it adds romanticism to the making of the wedding gown.
Do you think today’s monarchy brings the same élan to couture? Which royal would you like to dress?
Today’s monarchy is definitely not the same as the past unfortunately. Today monarchs are more physically active, and in turn they need to be more practical. Princess Mary of Denmark and Queen Rania of Jordan are worth noting for their style. Queen Rania is the most beautiful royal alive on our planet. She oozes style, grace, chic and at the same time she is real with a modern approach. She is the best example of a modern royal.
What should a couture gown say about the woman wearing it?
A gown should be an extension of a woman… the gown must be able to highlight a woman’s persona and style and not overkill her.
Do you feel that the Middle East has given rise to real fashion talent? What did you learn during your training under Elie Saab?
Yes, most definitely. We have a fresh young generation that is far more diverse, experienced and cultured, and are making a statement globally. The most valued lessons [I learned from Elie] were more on a personal level. Determination and a humble approach are two key elements he instilled in me. His support and encouragement has helped me fulfill my dream.
Talk about the values and traditions of couture and how your line follows that mantra. What sensibilities do you incorporate? Discuss some of your methods.
Exclusivity and making only oneoff garments. A couture garment is a piece of art, hand-made and one of a kind with many, many hours spent on making the garment by hand. The point of difference offered to clients through couture is uniqueness. Moulding and draping fabrics on the actual body of the client. Hand embroidery, crochet and beading are all done in-house.
Can you compare yourself to a man in history?
Gibran Khalil Gibran, the Lebanese poet and mystic. He wrote his feelings in poems, I transcend my feelings through fabric. I feel as though we are kindred spirits.
Do you feel that women today are less invested in their appearance?
On the contrary, there is a return or a revival to elegance and style and appreciation of couture. The point of couture is to be unique, and that uniqueness and exclusivity is most sought after. Couture is not about trends.
Where in the world is for you an ideal place to draw inspiration from?
Beirut has always been the source of my inspiration, it is the only place where I feel most alive and inspired. Maybe because it is where my roots lie, especially coming from a culturally rich background, it has so much to offer from history and art to music and geographic location. Contrary to my Australian inspiration, Beirut gives me excess, glamour, and drama. I am fortunate to have deep awareness of both cultures as my work embodies the melange of the two.
Do you believe that some of history’s most notorious couturiers were also some of the biggest fashion icons of the day?
Most definitely like Chanel in the 30’s and Dior in the 50’s. Chanel freed women from the restrictions of previous fashions, and Dior created the luxurious New Look after the restrictions of the war-stricken 40’s.
What was your opinion of Sophia Coppola’s interpretation of Marie Antoinette and more importantly, what did you think of the fashion involved in the movie? There was such a heavy wardrobe and wig and shoe focus.
The movie was a gorgeous looking soufflé with pastel-coloured hues. It is a visual feast of extravagant costumes, opulent surroundings and fluffy cakes and macaroons! The movie lacked political subtext, but it is most definitely more of a celebration of feelings and visual voyeurism into Marie Antoinette’s private life.
Do you see your designs evolving? What are some transition points in your life that have been reflected in your gowns?
Yes, I am ever evolving- it is a natural course of personal growth, however my signature style and touch will always remain. My upcoming collection is ethereal and light. What I do is a passion to bring back the appreciation of couture and the beauty that lies within it. In a world of commercialism and lack of authenticity, I feel compelled to share my art that is made with love.
Photography by Dave Kai Piper
BY FIDA CHAABAN