Beirut-Born Designer Roni Helou is one of Sarah Mower’s Six Designers to Watch
I met Roni Helou when he came to London in August 2018, when he was representing Lebanon at an exhibition of emerging designers, the International Fashion Showcase. Immediately, he made an impression as a community-centred voice, making his hip, modern clothes from deadstock fabric sourced in Beirut, and opening the eyes of everyone he talked to. “Roni Helou is a brand for a proactive generation, engaging in methods of sustainability, local action and equality,” his bio read.
Right back then, Helou was using his platform in fashion to shine a light on the struggles his generation is up against – the crisis of waste in a country where rubbish isn’t collected, and their resistance against a corrupt and negligent government and divisive sectarianism. “Lebanese society needs to recognise the critical importance of civil unity,” he stated in a lookbook. A year on, he won first prize in the Fashion Trust Arabia competition; in June, his collection arrived on Matches Fashion, including a beautiful pannelled asymmetric floral midi-dress, made from “deadstock materials that can be traced back to the Lebanese Civil War to ensure a reduced eco-footprint”. Quickly, it began selling – a testament to the strength of his de-sign merits, even as a little-known name in the middle of lockdown.
On August 4, the blast in Beirut wrecked Helou’s atelier and home and devastated the community of designers, couturiers and young creatives and the people who work for them in the fashion district close to the port. “At that moment I had to man up,” he says. “I started to call friends and check up on them.” After looking after his mother and sister, who work for him, he immediately stepped up to rally people together, methodically quantifying the cost of rebuilding 35 friends’ businesses. “I’m an activist. I immediately jump to solutions.”
The collective formed as United for Lebanon Creatives, to crowdfund relief internationally. “We did our homework. For transparency reasons, we needed to know exactly where the money is needed and who we are helping,” says Helou. This conversation on August 14 was relayed via an Instagram Live with Céline Semaan, the Lebanese executive director of the Slow Factory Foundation in New York, who had started the Super Fund for Beirut to send dollars directly to trusted people working on the ground in her home city. Helou can be seen on her Instagram page (@celinecelines), explaining what supporting the eco-system around designers, jewellery designers and concept stores means to livelihoods in Beirut. “When we say ‘we’, we’re talking about the people who depend on these small businesses. This is a humanitarian cause.”
The donation portal to the Slow Factory Foundation’s five-year plan for reconstruction is on the Super Fund for Beirut page of Slowfactory. Foundation. There’s another way to back up Helou and his heroic work, of course: just choose to buy his clothes, through his Instagram page, his website or Matches Fashion.
Photographs courtesy of Roni Helou. Taken from Issue 65 of 10 Magazine – FAMILY, FOREVER, LOVE – available to purchase here.