"Rules are meant to be broken – especially in fashion," says Racil Chalhoub, sitting cross-legged on a giant purple sofa in her art-filled apartment in London’s Knightsbridge. In just three years, the Lebanese-born designer has charmed the fashion industry with her modern take on the tuxedo, brilliantly tailored to the female form and available in a rainbow of bold colours. Her eponymous brand is actually a tribute to her mother, after whom she was named. “She was always been a big inspiration to me,” Racil says. “Had she been called something else, I would have used that instead.”
The designer was born in Beirut, but moved with her mother to Paris when she was a baby, after war broke out. “In Paris, you’re always surrounded by beauty,” she recalls, “and I felt in love with fashion at young age.” She has fond memories of attending catwalk shows at the Hotel George V as a child, and of the first time her grandmother came to visit from Lebanon. “Grandmothers in the ’80s just didn’t wear trousers, but she arrived in grey flannel flares, a short navy bomber and flower-print headscarf. She looked so chic.” As well as her stylish matriarchy, Racil cites 95-year-old Iris Apfel as one of her idols. “I love how original and individual she looks. That freedom of wearing whatever you like is something I have a lot of respect for.”
Jacket, Dhs3,430, trousers Dhs2,020, both Racil. Shoes, Dhs2,700, Aquazzura
She studied fashion design and marketing at Regent’s American College in London, and then returned to Beirut and worked as a buyer for Kitsch, a boutique she co-founded with Bazaar’s food editor Dalia Dogmoch Soubra, a childhood friend, appearing in Harper’s Bazaar Arabia’s annual Best Dressed edition in 2011. “Everything felt like a stepping-stone until the day I was ready to start my own label,” she says. This moment came when she wanted to buy a new jacket. “I needed something I could wear with trainers during the day and then swap into heels to go out, but when I looked around everything was too stiff, too androgynous or made me feel too mature.” So she decided to design a more versatile version of the tuxedo to fit her lifestyle. The 20 pieces in her first capsule collection were mostly black, but their enthusiastic reception gave her the confidence to move beyond the classic palette to include shades of dusty pink, lemon yellow and light blue, and to experiment with velvet, brocade and print. “We’ve taken the seriousness out of ‘Le Smoking’ and given it a more playful side while staying very elegant,” she says.
Although the business is based in Europe, it was fellow Lebanese designer Rabih Kayrouz who gave Racil the nudge she needed to move from fashion buying into design. “I love Rabih’s creations. He is a very dear friend and the one person who told me to go for it when I was thinking of launching my brand.” Now stocked across the region at Boutique 1, The Modist and Rania’s Corner in Dubai, as well as Bloomingdale’s in Kuwait, Racil is also available internationally at Selfridges, Matchesfashion, Avenue 32, Browns and The Shop at Bluebird in London. The Racil collection has grown to six times the size and includes silk slip dresses, ruffled tops, T-shirts and accessories such as scarves, pouch bags and earrings. “It’s amazing to see how people style a tux in their own way, whether you wear a jacket over a floral dress, or tuxedo trousers with a crop top and heels,“ she says. “Ultimately, you’re meant to have a great time with your Racil clothes on.”
Coffee table tomes
After a nomadic upbringing, Racil has made London her home, and she commutes between her design studio in Notting Hill, meeting at Little House or the Arts Club, and her flat, just around the corner from Harrods. The apartment is a lesson in sophisticated bohemia, with colourful accents including a baby-pink Smeg fridge, a rose-tinted glass pendant light in the hall, coral shower tiles and fuchsia paint on the inside of her front door with the words ‘Enjoy life’ spontaneously scrawled on by an artist known as Mr Brainwash, who is a friend. More of his work hangs on the wall in the living room, alongside Robert Indiana’s Love canvases and a painting called Racil’s Yellow Gun, which is a bespoke creation by Hadi Sy. “I believe that you should only have pieces in your house that you completely fall in love with,” she says. It’s similarly varied story in her wardrobe, where Prada and Aquazzura stilettos are lined up neatly with Stan Smith and Converse trainers; above, the shelves are filled with Charlotte Olympia and Edie Parker clutches, Dsquared jeans, cashmere jumpers and lacy Stella McCartney camisoles. Racil shops at Miu Miu, Saint Laurent, Dries Van Noten, Gucci and Maison Labiche, and has amassed an impressive collection of vintage Chanel jackets. But her favourite piece is a gold sequined Chloé jacket given to her by her mother. “I love it so much that I’ve hidden it somewhere I don’t remember; that’s how much I needed to keep it safe!” she says with a laugh.
Read the full article in the July/August issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia - out now
Photography: Harry Crowder