Since he was about 8 years old, Joe Challita knew he wanted to be a fashion designer. When asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, Joe gave this answer at primary school in Lebanon, and this dream came true. But he didn’t take the traditional path — or the straight one, for that matter.
Thinking he should keep fashion as a hobby, Joe pursued a law degree at the University of Wollongong in Australia during the early 2000s. This seemed like the more reasonable, stable career choice, but after working as a lawyer for a matter of months, he knew what he had to do.
Joe had long known that he wanted to be a fashion designer, and he decided to leave the law profession to attend fashion school in Sydney. During fashion school — and on a whim — he applied to be on Mission Fashion, a Lebanese fashion reality TV show aired on LBCI. And then he forgot about it.
But several weeks later, in the middle of the night, he picked up a call to learn that he’d been selected to be on the show. “I wake up, and it’s the TV station in Lebanon,” he says. “They’re like, ‘you’re accepted, you’re one of the candidates, and we’re flying you to Beirut in two weeks. Make sure you pack your luggage,’” he says. “And I was like, what? This is changing the course of my life if I go on this TV show.”
In 2007, he left his life in Australia and moved to Lebanon to be on Mission Fashion.
What he didn’t know is that his brother, Michael Challita, also had applied to be on the show and was accepted. Although his brother Michael won the competition, Joe’s work garnered the attention of Elie Saab, who then invited Joe to work with him.
In 2009, Joe launched his fashion label in Sydney, but it didn’t completely feel right. Although he had lived in Australia for quite some time, it was in Lebanon on Mission Fashion where he launched his fashion career.
“In Lebanon, when I was walking down the street, I was like a celebrity,” he says. “People were screaming out my name. I’ve been on live TV for two months. Everyone knew who I am. But in Australia, I’m a nobody. Then I decided that I’m in the wrong country, and I got to go back to Lebanon. That’s where I made a name for myself and that’s where everybody knows me.”
And in 2011, he returned to Beirut and worked with artists all over the world, especially in the classical music sector. Since then, he has continued designing and has also started Lebanese Fashion History, his project to document and archive Lebanon’s rich fashion heritage.
At Ichtus Magazine, we were fascinated by his dramatic designs as well as his commitment to Mediterranean heritage. We sat down with Joe and asked him about his archival project, his career path and spirituality.
Let’s be inspired
Tell us about your development as a designer over the years since being on Mission Fashion.
In Lebanon, one of my highlights was working with music producer Oussama Rahbani for his stage productions for Hiba Tawaji, most notably, her grand autumn-themed theatrical stage dress that she wore at the opening of the Batroun International Festival in 2014. Myleene Klass is a well-known classical musician and she’s also the host for the Classical Brit Awards. I flew to London and dressed her on the red carpet.
I am also a contributing writer and I have written for magazines, such as, The Carton and Vogue Arabia. Today, I am curating and archiving the history of fashion in Lebanon and investigating past Lebanese designers and their influence of fashion on Lebanon.
Your commitment to preserving and celebrating Mediterranean fashion history is truly inspiring. Can you tell us more about your Lebanese Fashion History project?
As a designer, I draw inspiration from matters that relate to our roots and heritage. During my time in Lebanon, my inspiration came from our culture and history and all things tactile, but I noticed there was a lack of documentation of our fashion history and the works of our predecessors. From this realization, my curiosity arose, and the decision came to start investigating our fashion history thoroughly.
What is your hope for this project?
The aim of my Lebanese Fashion History project is to develop an educational tool, whilst archiving and preserving the colorful history of Lebanese fashion and craftsmanship.
Sadly today, much of Lebanon’s traditional artisanal work and craftsmanship are on the verge of extinction, if not completely lost.
This unfortunate reality gave rise to my urgency to start researching the history of Lebanese heritage in clothing, artisanal traditions and the protagonists who were influential in the industry in the past and who have been rarely or never credited.
It is important for us as Lebanese designers to know about the history of fashion of our country and the past can teach us of the achievements of our predecessors and generate inspiration to continue the legacy.
We love seeing your passion for not just the fashion itself but its heritage in the Mediterranean, Joe. We also saw you have another project exploring the history of the nightclub Les Caves du Roy.
My interest in Les Caves du Roy, Beirut’s hottest nightclub of the Golden Era, arose upon my discovery through research that Brigitte Bardot visited Lebanon with Gunter Sachs, her husband at the time, in 1967. The press at the time covered the famed visit to Les Caves du Roy in Beirut and how in her honor the owner in Beirut, Jean-Prosper Gay-Para, decided to launch a second Les Caves du Roy in Saint Tropez as an act of his infatuation with Bardot, and second, his wish to build a bridge across the Mediterranean between the two cities, Beirut and Saint Tropez.
From here, my interest and curiosity took off with Les Caves du Roy Beirut that had an intriguing history.
Les Caves du Roy had hosted an incredible list of local and international celebrities and royals from around the world.
We heard you received a grant from Maison Mode Méditerranée. Tell us more about this experience.
The grant that I received from the Maison Mode Mediterranee, was under the category of Heritage and Give Back, which supports projects that aim to preserve, archive and educate about fashion heritage traditions from countries from the Mediterranean region.
My project, “Lebanese Fashion History,” received a second prize, the “Enthusiasm for Fashion” prize, which was added by the jury because the project greatly attracted their attention.
From your history interests to designs to Vogue Arabia articles, you have a vast resume and full workload, I’m sure. What does a typical week look like?
In Lebanon, I was 100% designing. I moved to Abu Dhabi in 2020, just right after the explosion in Lebanon. Since I moved to Abu Dhabi, 80% of my time is the Lebanese Fashion History project. I’ve dedicated my whole time to this project because I really want it to grow. I’m reading, researching, interviewing, archiving and curating. And the other 20% is still designing. I’m planning to do a new collection and to do a relaunch of my label.
My week is always busy. Most of the time you will find me reading, researching and diving into archives, investigating and putting pieces of a story from various sources together like a puzzle. Each week brings me an exciting discovery through my research, which connects me to interesting people.
Why is studying Lebanese fashion history important?
In these times of uncertainties, especially what Lebanon is going through currently, a look back at our history gives an insight and defines who we are and how we evolved.
Our history is definitely certain and should be preserved. It is a treasure in the Mediterranean region. The richness of Lebanese culture came from its geographical location, and we owe it to the Mediterranean region by preserving our heritage.
Studying our history has given me a deep understanding of our heritage, and it has affected my work on a daily basis by being conscious of my heritage and by applying these sensibilities that may highlight my heritage and roots.
At Ichtus, we’re strong believers that all art is spiritual. Would you consider yourself a spiritual person?
I am definitely spiritual. You have to delve deep. Sometimes I find my creations or whatever I do, it comes from within. For it to come from within means it is spiritual; it comes from your spirit and who you are. It’s an embodiment of who you are deeply inside.
What are your best travel recommendations in Lebanon?
- My favorite hotel in Lebanon is Dar Alma in Tyre. It is an old traditional Lebanese villa turned into a boutique hotel right on the shore of the sea, in one of the oldest cities on the Mediterranean and in the world.
- My favorite restaurant in Beirut is Makan. It is a gorgeous restaurant that looks like you have walked into someone’s home. I love that the menu and the cuisine changes every few days, depending on the host chef of the day.
- My favorite boutique in Beirut is Orient 499. It is a stunning mix of traditional arts and crafts, furniture and traditional clothes with a modern twist. The store supports local artisans in Lebanon and showcases the finest of local and regional handicrafts, whilst preserving the rich heritage of the region.
- Anfeh is one of my favorite getaway spots in North Lebanon, and is known as “little Greece” due to its white and blue homes and chalets dotted along its coast. I simply love to hang out there in one of the outdoor restaurants where you can easily dive into the sea for a swim.
- Byblos is another favorite destination in Lebanon. It is where I go as a refuge from Beirut’s hustle and bustle. Byblos is a charming ancient city, rich in history and beauty. A stroll along the old Phoenician port and a lunch at the famed Byblos Fishing Club is just special.
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