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Lebanese designer-to-the-stars Zuhair Murad finds magic in Beirut

By George Webster for CNN
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How Beirut's mix of old and new inspires Zuhair Murad's designs
  • Zuhair Murad is one of the world's hottest fashion designers
  • Based in the Lebanese capital of Beirut, his work is heavily inspired by his surroundings
  • The city's ancient heritage, its people and landscape are all infused in his creations
  • Above all, Murad's greatest influence are Beirut's effortlessly glamorous women

London, England (CNN) -- When Hollywood's A-list need to strut the red carpet in style they call Zuhair Murad.

Superstars like Beyonce and Eva Longoria Parker regularly make it on to best dressed lists rocking the Lebanese designer's extravagant creations at glitzy showbiz events.

With an eye for opulent fabrics, classically cut and often intricately patterned with jewels, Murad has become the go-to-guy for celebrities craving old Hollywood glamour with a modern twist.

Murad's home is in Lebanon's cosmopolitan sea side capital, Beirut. The city's fusion of ancient monuments and cosmopolitan nightlife is an ongoing source of inspiration, the designer told CNN.

"Everything is unique here you see," he said of the city that has influenced his work.

A bustling, vibrant trading center facing out to the Mediterranean Sea, Beirut has, over the centuries, lived under the rule of diverse cultures including the Greek, Roman and Ottoman empires.

And that history shines through Murad's designs.

Gallery: Murad's tour of Beirut

The geodesic shapes and fancifully designed patterns found in Islamic art through to the strong lines and bold columns of Grecian architecture are all starting points for collections, Murad told CNN.

After completing his studies in art and design, Murad opened his first atelier in Beirut in 1995. He hit the world stage in 2001 when his collection showed at Paris Haute Couture fashion week.

Beirut, he says, is a city where the past, including the country's long history of conflict, is a part of its vibrant present. The ongoing process of rebuilding means ancient buildings jostle cheek-to-cheek with modern structures.

Like Beirut, Murad's collections contain a "touch of the ancient with the modern at the same time," he said.

At his boutique, located in the city's downtown quarter of Solidere, Murad illustrates the connection between his work and the capital's architectural heritage.

The shape of a dress reminds him of the "ancient columns" of his home town, while its color was was inspired by the "antique gold mixed with the ivory and stones" found in an Ottoman-era chandelier.

Beirut has a touch of the French and the Ottoman and the old Phoenician
--Zuhair Murad

For a man this engrossed with his surroundings, it's no surprise that religious symbolism is prominent among Murad's influences.

At the Al-Omari Mosque in the city center, the designer charts the spiritual significance of particular colors and shapes.

"Blue dresses I like because blue is something that you know from God," he says. The color is connected to the sky, the sea and the future, all of which have "no limit".

But not all of the city's religious influences are as visual. Murad also enjoys the tranquility he finds in its mosques and churches.

"It's a calm place. You can feel the history and you can feel the silence," he explains.

"This is my character - I love peace and serenity and this makes me feel creative."

Of course, the peninsula city's monuments do not hold exclusive rights over Murad's imagination.

He takes us to the garden of Sainte-Anne de Besancon school in the heart of Beirut - discovered, he says, while searching for the right spot to open his boutique in 1995.

"It's amazing," he enthuses. "It's like an oasis in the desert -- you see the palm trees and the beautiful flowers all around."

Murad elaborates on his creative process as it is sparked by the detail he observes in nature.

"When I start drawing the ideas come directly," he says. From the "style of the leaf" to the "color of the trees" the qualities that excite him are infused in his designs.

As he stands in the garden, the palm trees to him feel "very romantic, very sensual" and he imagines "plisse [fabric with a crinkly finish] or pleated dresses."

The mixture of different civilizations in Beirut is what gives the Lebanese people their distinctive character, says Murad. He senses the "touch of the French and the Ottoman and the old Phoenician." This, said Murad, "makes us very special."

The outlook of his countrymen is creative and hard-working. "They love artists, they love traveling, they love to be different," he says.

From a man who has rocked the internationally competitive world of couture fashion in the space of just a few years, it's no shock to learn that the Lebanese also "love to be successful at their job."

Those on a quest to discover the true source of Murad's success, however, need look no further than the women of Beirut themselves.

"The woman is the first thing that inspired me," he reveals. "She's always well-dressed, even on the street, even if she wears jeans or a T-shirt, she's always perfect."