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Designer Tony Ward: ‘The ban on the Russian market is a catastrophe for the world of Couture’

By Florence Julienne


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Business |Interview

Credits: Tony Ward

On the heels of Paris Haute Couture Week January 2024, FashionUnited caught up with Lebanese designer Tony Ward, who presented his SS24 collection at the Palais de Tokyo. During the conversation, Ward spoke about his beginnings in fashion, the business of Couture, from private clients to the red carpet, Lebanon and the consequences of the Russia/Ukraine war.

You've been taking part in Haute Couture Week Paris for 10 years now. What has motivated you?

I grew up and was educated in Paris. In 1989, I started at Lanvin, during the Claude Montana era, as a handler. I was 18 and fleeing the war in Lebanon. One day, an American customer arrived. Nobody spoke English, so I offered to translate. I spent two hours with her. She bought [spent] 100,000 francs. at the time. The next day, the manager offered me a job in sales. Having been born in my father's sewing workshop, I replied that I was only interested in workshops.

I showed my sketches to Claude Montana, who took me under his wing and sent me to the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture school for three years. After several other experiences that didn't please me (Dior with Gianfranco Ferré, Max Mara, Chloé with Karl Lagerfeld, Guy Laroche), I came back to Beirut. Having several private clients, I took over my father's workshop at the end of 1995.

My first show was at Couture Week in Rome. At the time, Elie Saab and Zuhair Murad were presenting their collections there. We sold a lot to Romans, Americans and Russians, who loved Italy. I showed in Rome for ten years, but then the city became less interesting in terms of visibility.

Paris is the centre of international fashion, even if Parisian women are very attached to French couture brands. It's the right place for a Couture show.

Tony Ward, Couture SS24 Credits: Tony Ward

What sector is your business in?

Every year, we make two Couture collections, which are presented in Paris, two ready-to-wear collections, shown in showrooms in Paris and New York, and two Bridal collections, unveiled in New York and Barcelona. France has never been able to position itself in the bridal market. No major brand exhibits at the Paris bridal fair, and yet this is an important part of our sales: we make 500 wedding dresses in the US every year.

Tony Ward, Couture SS24 Credits: Tony Ward

Most of our turnover comes from ready-to-wear. I have American customers who change clothes two or three times a day and place orders for 30 pieces. 80 percent of the dresses on the catwalk are eveningwear, but anyone who designs eveningwear can make you look wonderful in daywear. I have a complete collection of 300 pieces.

Tony Ward, Couture SS24. Credits: Tony Ward

Do you have the Haute Couture label?

No, because I parade "off calendar" (to be labelled "Haute Couture", a label officially granted by a decision, valid for one year, by the Ministry of Industry, a brand must go through the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture, editor's note). We've applied for it twice, but there's still one piece of paper missing. There's a very complete grid to fill in. The approval has to come from our competitors, which isn't always easy. This time, we were asked to take another step. We were able to take advantage of Stéphane Rolland's sponsorship.

Where do your customers come from?

The number one country was Russia. I was there for 17 years, where I had a showroom and two boutiques. We made around 200 dresses a year for Russia. With the war in Ukraine, we were no longer allowed to export to that country. We had to make 20 people redundant. The embargo on the Russian market is a disaster for the world of luxury and Couture. Some houses were making 40-45 percent of their sales there. We no longer go to Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Chechnya or Tatarstan. We are no longer in Barvikha, where the richest Russian families live, who can no longer come and see our collections and have no events to wear them to.

Where did the market shift to after the closure of Russia?

We replaced Russia with South East Asia (South Korea, China, Taiwan, Vietnam) and the US (Florida, New York, Michigan, Boston, Houston). When I was in Russia, I cut back a lot on the Middle East, where the taste didn't appeal to me too much, but today the market has modernised and we're back in business there.

Tony Ward, Couture SS24 Credits: Tony Ward

How much does a Tony Ward piece cost?

Ready-to-wear outfits are sold for between 6,600 and 13,000 dollars. They are duplicated a hundred times and sold in around 30 countries through multi-brand stores, hotel boutiques and department stores, i.e. around 50 retailers.

Couture dresses are sold for around 50,000 dollars. One piece per country. To make it unique, you have to multiply by five. I make everything in Lebanon, in a workshop that employs 177 people. Everything is done in-house. We make our own embroidery. The fabrics, made for us, come from France and Italy. I do the alterations in my showroom in Paris.

Is it easy to work in Lebanon in the current economic climate?

This is not the first crisis. Friends have died in my arms, members of my family have been murdered. My house has burnt down three times. My 14-storey building was destroyed in an explosion, staff injured, dresses torn to shreds in the street. My children have missed 30 bomb attacks in the last 15 years. We receive around 2,000 bombs a day from Israel. In three months, 400 Lebanese have died. Our level of seriousness is different from yours. We party, we go out, we work. For the last two months, before the show, we've been working until 10pm.

Tony Ward, Couture SS24 Credits: Tony Ward

How do you define your style?

I appeal to a modern, factual woman who knows what she wants. An avant-garde style, but always practical. Architecture is the basis of our research. I like new techniques, I work with handmade 3D (when you look at a material, you don't understand how it came into being, or how it's made) and machine-made 3D.

How long does it take to design a collection?

Normally, it takes us two months to make 40 dresses. In January, we had 61, because of the chosen theme. For SS24, the Golden Number, Fibonacci's formula, has been revisited in a very modern way. This translates into circular shapes that end up recreating proportions. We created embroideries based on geometric formulae. All we had to do was get the number wrong and we'd have to start all over again.

What is your relationship with the celebrities you dress for the red carpet?

We turn down a lot of people because of their lack of notoriety. For the last Cannes Festival, we dressed around 30 celebrities. For some, like Eva Longoria, Kate Winslet or Sharon Stone, we design special pieces. They have become friends of the house. For others, we offer models that have walked the catwalk for Couture or ready-to-wear.

The red carpet has become very financial. The companies pay or cover the cost of transport and accommodation. These are budgets of 50,000 to 100,000 dollars. Imagine how pretty the piece has to be to be worn by someone you're not paying. Sometimes they have ten dresses ready for an event and, until the last moment, you're not sure they're going to wear your outfit.

Tony Ward, Couture SS24 Credits: Tony Ward

What's behind your interest in dressing a VIP?

For me, the benchmark in business and in the fashion world is Giorgio Armani. He was able to build an empire on his own. He used to say: "A dress on a red carpet equals 500,000 dollars of publicity". What's interesting, then, is the media fallout and the circulation of the name. The idea is not to sell the dress worn, but for customers to hear about the brand. A lot of people don't want a piece they've seen on a star or in a show. People of a certain level don't want to be like everyone else. They can afford to buy something just for themselves. That's what Couture is all about.

From being a handler at Lanvin to today, what has stayed with you throughout your career?

I regret the time I've given to this world and the little time I've allowed myself. It's a very demanding job that leaves you no privacy, but I love it.

Tony Ward, Couture SS24 Credits: Tony Ward
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