With more than 150 deaths, thousands injured and many businesses obliterated after the August 4 explosion in Beirut, the full scope of the city’s damage is still being assessed.
For Andrea Wazen, both her store and offices in the Beirut Central District were completely destroyed. But the Lebanese shoe designer is already thinking of how she will rebuild in her hometown.
“Within 48 hours, everyone had brooms and shovels and back on the streets cleaning up, when it’s not even their job to do it. You had every single person on the street working, asking the elderly if they need help, asking if they have food and water,” the designer told FN in a phone interview. “You just feel in some way that it is OK, because everyone is going through the same thing and everyone is hurting.”
It was by chance that Wazen was not in her store the day of the explosion. After a government-mandated lockdown on Monday due to the worsening coronavirus outbreak in the country, the designer made a last-minute decision to stay out of the city for another day.
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She was an hour away, in the mountains outside Beirut, when she heard the explosion on Tuesday, just before 6 p.m. local time. “It felt like there was a huge earthquake, the whole house was shaking, for 30 seconds. No one understood what was going on. And then I heard this horrible sound, a huge bang,” she said. “Then we started hearing about all of these people who were missing, and looking at these houses, and hearing the sounds of glass. All we heard that night was the sound of glass breaking.”
Wazen ventured back into the Beirut Central District on Thursday to find her apartment, office and store, the last of which was located at 55 Pharaon Street, all destroyed. The designer shared footage of the remnants of the boutique on her Instagram page, showing a tangle of metal, sheet rock and wires, the shop’s namesake sign crushed to the ground.
The designer’s flagship store — her only brick-and-mortar boutique — was located just a few small blocks away from the port where the explosion occurred, in a pocket of the city’s historic district that had become known for emerging brands and trendy restaurants.
“It was a hub for designers, for start-ups and there were all these old Lebanese houses. And you can see them completely broken down, shattered. Everything was on the floor. It was like an apocalypse,” said Wazen. “As soon as I walked on the street, I could remember every single day, walking from my office to my store. And suddenly I’m just walking on glass.”
Last week, Wazen and her Beirut-based team had pulled much of the brand’s inventory from the shop after the citywide lockdown mandated complete closures of shops and restaurants on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. They moved much of the current season product to a warehouse in another area of the city, while the upcoming fall collection is still in production, also in Beirut.
While Wazen is waiting to see if the government will provide assistance in rebuilding, the Lebanese designer said that it’s likely she will reopen the shop — though she acknowledged that her growing international and online presence will help soften the blow of the shop’s closure. “I know that at the end of the day I cannot build a sustainable business only out of Beirut,” she said. “The fact that I have this international presence and support, it gives me more of a drive to do things.”
Despite the sustained challenges in her home country, where its October Revolution was followed by a sustained currency devaluation, a worsening Covid-19 outbreak and now Tuesday’s explosion, Wazen has seen both critical and commercial success with her brand in the past year. In May, she was named Accessories Designer of the Year by the Fashion Trust Arabia, whose judging committee included Christian Louboutin, Diane Von Furstenberg and Alber Elbaz. In 2019, FN named Wazen to its Emerging Talent list. And the designer’s shoes are continuously worn by big-name celebs like Jennifer Lopez and Hailey Bieber.
Looking ahead, Wazen plans on staying put.
“As a designer based here, it has not been easy, but we find a way,” she said. I’m proud to be working from here, even though I know it would be much easier to be working from somewhere else. This is where I’m from and it’s my country, and I don’t feel comfortable leaving it.”