Summer 2005 - Vol 3 issue 4

Hot Couture

Ever since the first formal showing of her designs at the American University of Beirut back in the early 1980s, she has been hooked. The overwhelming feedback she received from that show was all she needed to reaffirm her chosen path. It was an experience that ultimately led Reem Acra to the pinnacle of success in New York, with her trend-setting signature line of bridal gowns and glamorous evening wear. What began with a one-woman show has grown into what in many ways is still a one-woman show, but with a large supporting team, offices on 34th Street, a sprawling atelier a few steps away, an eponymous boutique on Manhattan’s posh Upper East Side, and representation at exclusive boutiques and retailers worldwide.

And Acra’s plans are to keep going, growing, and succeeding.

After graduating from AUB with a business degree in the early 1980s—a degree that her father, AUB Environmental Sciences Professor Emeritus Aftim Acra, strongly encouraged her to complete (and one which she credits with helping her manage her success)—Acra moved to New York to pursue a degree in fashion at the prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology, located just a stone’s throw from the loft she now calls home.

“Education is essential no matter what you study; it’s important to have a degree that makes sense for your future,” insists Acra, whose petite size is offset by her grand vision. “I didn’t particularly want to continue in Business School, but my dad encouraged me to complete my training then pursue my creative nature, and I’m so glad he did.”

“The atmosphere of AUB really helped me, not just the great education, but all of it: the campus life, the friends you make.  There’s a certain aura there that sets you up for life,” she says. “I loved every minute of my days at AUB.”

By the mid-1990s, having paid her fashion industry dues, Acra wanted more. She was no longer content to work and design for someone else. So, with the unwavering confidence that marks her character, she started her own bridal wear line. Her groundbreaking designs incorporated an imaginative use of embroidery, beadwork, and needlework, creating what has become the distinctive Reem Acra look—elegant and simple designs that embody tradition, sophistication, and modern chic. After taking the bridal gown industry by storm, Acra then set her sights on evening gowns. And again, her confidence and talents were right on the mark.

Acra, who grew up in Beirut, began her ascendancy to the heights of the fashion world from her Fashion Avenue loft. Everything about the expansive space subtly reflects the looming accomplishments of its owner: the red plush carpet and walls, the floor-to-ceiling windows, the ultra-swank furnishings.  The space speaks volumes about the cultivated taste and discriminating eye of the fashion designer-cum-bridal industry trendsetter.

It was there that I first interviewed Acra over four years ago, just as her bridal gowns were becoming the talk of the town and being featured in the leading fashion magazines. Already, Acra could see that her star was rising. Her confidence was well-placed.  In the following few years, her wedding gowns were being worn by a number of celebrities, including Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde 2
and by Star Jones Reynolds of the popular US morning show, The View, for her New York City nuptials.  Her evening creations, as well, have graced the glamorous likes of
Halle Berry, Angelina Jolie, and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

As the business expanded and demand for her designs grew, Acra opened a separate atelier—her sample room, where she still spends at least part of her time creating designs and sampling with sketches and tissues, where the walls are full of sketches and swatches, and where not many people are invited to enter.  “I will sometimes let camera crews shoot me there, but very rarely,” she admits. “That’s where my creations happen.”

With five collections a year, two bridal and three evening gown, Acra spends much of her time at the atelier, particularly before a show. And, despite the growing pressures and demands, she remains full of inspiration and creative ingenuity for her unique designs.

“The ideas come from within me,” she says. “Inspiration comes from finding the right moment for me and by myself.” The triumph of her shows says it all: “Everybody expects something from me, but nobody really knows what I’ll show,” she says. “It’s the surprise and mystery that make my shows such a success.”

Two years ago, with much fanfare and media attention, she opened her first Reem Acra boutique at a coveted Manhattan address. Situated on the very fashionable block of East 60th Street between Madison and Fifth Avenues, the extravaganza—because it really is more than a simple boutique—features a luxurious reception room with its plush waiting area, a large water fountain, monitors showing the latest Acra designs, and a “magic door” (as Acra describes it), through which clients are eventually ushered. The door is extraordinarily striking, antique with a blend of the modern, much like Acra’s designs.

Earlier last year Reem Acra New York moved into spacious new offices and showrooms on 34th Street, effectively separating the business from Acra’s personal space. From this address, also strikingly designed and furnished to her vision, the Beirut native rules as designer and CEO of the company.  Here, she greets special clients, gives interviews, and conducts her wholesale business. While she may have physically separated her home from her work, however, there is no real division on all other levels. Reem Acra is Reem Acra New York. And, she wouldn’t have it any other way.

In a few months, there will be another move, this time to expand the present offices. Since she first appeared on the fashion scene less than a decade ago, in fact, Acra has been doing lots of moving and expanding. Her dresses are now available in several international destinations—in London, Dubai, Mexico, Singapore, and Turkey, to name a few. But the growth has been on her terms. She is still very much in control.

“I dress thousands of brides a year and this means I have to be aware of each one,” she says. “There’s always pressure on a daily basis now...but it’s still fun, lots of fun.”

It is at her new offices that I interviewed Acra again this past spring. Again, we spoke of her designs, which are now being worn by a growing number of stars, and also about her success and her vision. She admits that she has always been confident of achieving her goals.

“Even at the pace it happened?” I ask her.

“Yes,” she responds without a moment’s hesitation. “But if you ask me what tomorrow will bring, I will say I don’t know.  But it’s looking big.”

“So, if I interview you again in four years?” I ask, almost certain of the response.  She doesn’t disappoint. “I’ll have lots more to tell you,” she replies.

From the list of cities now selling Reem Acra gowns, however, one name is conspicuously absent.

“And what about Beirut?” I ask.

“Not yet,” she smiles, as if anticipating the question. “There’s so much I still want to do. The list is long, but I have to figure out what I want and what opportunities present themselves.”

Again, Acra pauses contemplatively, before she continues, “Beirut is very special to me.  When I go to Beirut I want it to be my way, the Reem Acra way, just like in New York.”