Renaissance Renaissance Designer Cynthia Merhej on Lebanese Culture

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Cynthia Merhej
Cynthia is wearing a dress in cotton and polyester by RENAISSANCE RENAISSANCE. Shirt in cotton (in her hands) from CASSIE MERCANTILEPhotography by Kingsley Ifill, Styling by Molly Shillingford

In the new issue of AnOther Magazine, Cynthia Merhej talks about Jo Baaklini’s “dreamlike” EP, and being an “outsider in the system”

This article is taken from the Autumn/Winter 2023 issue of AnOther Magazine:

“It’s not just the album itself, it’s the fact that Jo made it. He and I dated when we were 19 and we’ve always stayed in touch, but the friendship had become strained when I first heard Safar Barlik. Jo [Baaklini] asked me to sing on the EP when he was recording in London, except he had one vision and I had another. Maybe we’re too similar in that sense. He doesn’t come from a traditional music background, so we’re both outsiders playing with the system and I get so excited by that feeling. We’re also both Lebanese, but Jo’s nostalgia is different from mine because he didn’t grow up there. Safar Barlik is melancholic, dreamlike and uplifting, which are the same notes I want to hit in my own work. It’s this feeling of displacement, like driving through the mountains at sunset or driving along the highways at night. Driving is a big thing in Beirut. I love that the vocals don’t stick to one language, because language is such a fraught and fragmented part of Lebanese culture. It adds to this feeling of being nowhere, like the only place you belong is the Beirut you create in your mind. It’s like being in love with someone, knowing you can never fully have them. How rare it is to relate to something on such a deep level that you feel it in your bones.” 

Cynthia Merhej is based in Paris, having left Beirut in 2020 following the port explosion, but if she wants to feel like she’s back there she will take a three-hour train ride to Marseilles, where the horizon, coves and chickpeas feel close enough to home. The designer first left Lebanon aged 18, to study visual communication at Central Saint Martins and the Royal College of Art, returning in 2016 to launch her label, Renaissance Renaissance, and now goes back intermittently to develop seasonal collections with a small team of seamstresses. Rarely amounting to more than 20 looks, her proposals are concise, in the hope that the garments will become lifetime companions to the women she designs for. Even in pale pinks and medicinal yellows, there is a pragmatic and assertive sense of the feminine: a drop-waisted skirt, blouson culottes and balloon-sleeved blazers that are imbued with the craftsmanship of her mother and great-grandmother, who ran their own ateliers in Beirut and Jaffa, Palestine, respectively. That’s three generations of women who saw their cities devastated by conflict and explosions, their clothes a signal of rebirth. 

Hair: Kyoko Kishita. Make-up: Akari Sugino at St Vincent Management using SUQQU. Producer: Philippa Schoeman at Artistry 

This story features in the Autumn/Winter 2023 issue of AnOther Magazine, which is on sale now. Order here.