Originally published in CONTRIBUTOR MAGAZINE
‘No problem at all,’ said the driver.
I fumbled for the electronic switch on the armrest for a few seconds until I found it. The sound of the wind gradually subsided until everything fell silent. Everything but the seamless drone of the car engine. A sound I like as it usually tends to calm me down. Because when you think about it, I had all the reasons in the world to be nervous: I was in the middle of the Beqaa valley blindfolded in a random car being driven by an armed stranger on my way to meet Rabih El Khoury – arguably the most controversial fashion designer in the industry’s history. I say ‘controversial’ because I have a thing for euphemisms. In fact, since the release of his latest collection, El Khoury has been immediately indicted for crimes against humanity and is currently wanted by authorities all over the world. His felony: the production of leather garments and accessories made out of human skin.
I first met Rabih El Khoury at the Parisian Hotel Amour in the late 2000’s. I was a young graduate who’d decided to take a couple of years off and live in as many different cities as possible, meeting as many bizarre people as possible, eager to gather stories and experiences for my envisioned writing career. El Khoury was an exciting up-and-coming designer, ignored by the mainstream media but cherished by alternative fashion lovers the world over. And of course I’d heard of him. Unlike his fellow Lebanese commercial superstars, El Khoury didn’t feed on Arab princesses and Hollywood celebrities at red carpet events, nor did he content himself with making the same Cinderella-and-her-ugly-sisters-style evening gowns over and over again, sometimes a bit longer, often a tad heavier, always flashier. No. Rabih El Khoury was a real designer, creatively and artistically. A thought-provoker and an innovator. He came over to our table once to ask for a cigarette and my Middle Eastern features must’ve betrayed me because he confidently spoke to me in Arabic. I responded just as naturally, in Arabic, as if the scene was taking place at Le Gray Hotel in Downtown Beirut, and not 3000 kilometers from home. After that, we immediately hit it off and started hanging out whenever we had the chance. He took me under his wing and introduced me to some of the hippest faces and places in the city, then in another city, then in a few other cities. I enjoyed his company because he was a very interesting and funny guy and, to be honest, I kind of loved having access to the most exclusive clubs and restaurants in the world and being constantly surrounded by kill-me-now-gorgeous models. I moved back to Beirut a year later and it wasn’t easy keeping in touch. There was, of course, the occasional Facebook message every few months – the usual “hit me up when you’re in Paris” and “call me when you’re in Beirut” shit; but his career was racing forward, and as his popularity kept reaching newer heights, as did his elusiveness. Actually, it’s kind of weird to think that the last time I saw Rabih El Khoury in person was nearly a decade ago.
I felt the car veering out of the main road and slowing onto a rugged path. Branches and leaves slamming against the windshield. Alien chirping and warbled melodies. And my heartbeat. I felt like Sean Penn meeting El Chapo, but unlike what happened to El Chapo, I really didn’t want El Khoury to get busted. The vehicle stopped and I was escorted out into a 3 minute walk on concrete. And when the light was markedly reduced behind the cloth over my eyes, I knew we’d gone indoors. Then a door slammed behind us. Then voices echoed. Then the bandana was removed and I saw him. And it was like a flashback. Standing tall, clean and sleek, not a single wrinkle on his face, and his usual gorgeous smile. “Smiyeh!” he laughed. He always called me that – it basically means someone who carries the same name as mine.
“Long time, smiyeh,” I giggled back. A warm hug. The whole have a seat thing. The whole would you like a drink thing. The whole it’s been a while thing. The whole you haven’t changed thing. The whole I’ve missed you thing. The whole how’s everyone thing. The whole are you still seeing the guys thing. You know the drill. And then I asked my first question: “Why me?” Because after the initial uproar over his acknowledgement of capturing and skinning humans and producing and selling high-quality leather garments, the Interpol ordered the media and all the main Internet search engines to completely ray El Khoury off their lists – which explains why the designer has been virtually dead for the past 12 months. No articles. No photos. No videos. No biographies. Nothing. In that aspect, El Khoury’s choice to finally break his silence would’ve had to be strategic. Explaining himself as an attempt to redeem his reputation? Fear of being forgotten? A wild shot at boosting his black market sales? Apologize and ask for forgiveness maybe? I had no idea. “Why me?” I asked again. He responded with a silent, wistful smile at first, then reminded me of a specific night in Paris. We were in a club and he had gotten so drunk he could barely keep his balance, but that didn’t stop him from yelling obscenities at some guys at the table next to ours. Then a fight broke out. I instinctively rushed to protect him, made sure no one laid a hand on him, handled the bill, called a cab and threw him in, rode with him to his apartment and tucked him in. Before walking back to my hotel and passing out. “You acted like a true brother back then,” he said. “You barely knew me and you acted like a true brother. And I never had a chance to really pay you back.” Concluded with a wink. Because he knew. He knew this interview was worth gold and that it would definitely be my ticket out: from the bane of writing shitty articles about shitty things for shitty magazines to the rank of a writing superstar. And in all honesty, I knew it too. I sat across from him on a rainbow-like retro Versace sofa, took out my notebook, and we got down to business.
Q: Rabih, I’m going to go straight to the point here because we all know what this interview’s about. The whole world thinks you’re sick. And frankly, I do too. Why did you choose to use human skin to produce your leather pieces?
A: I guess it’s for the same reasons any good, respectable designer picks his material: because it’s great quality, and because there’s a demand for great quality.
Q: But you do realize that what you’re doing is illegal, to say the least…
A: Legality is a frail concept, my friend. Anything that’s illegal somewhere is always legal somewhere else, if you look carefully enough. Besides, am I really the only one in the fashion industry doing something illegal? Last time I checked, child labor was illegal too. And that never kept any brand from producing their pieces in foreign countries where child labor was tolerated.
Q: But you can’t just justify a criminal act by condemning another, that’s just as criminal. Besides, murdering and skinning humans is illegal everywhere.
A: Almost everywhere, you’re right, and well, that’s just my luck. And that’s why I’m hiding! In all seriousness, though, “illegal” doesn’t necessarily mean “bad”, don’t you agree?
Q: I actually don’t agree. Laws exist for a reason! What are you talking about?
A: Well, “legal” doesn’t necessarily mean “good” either. I mean, slavery was legal for centuries: did that make it a good thing? Of course not. So it’s easy for people to take the moral high ground in the name of legality; but really, if you think about it, it doesn’t really mean anything. I mean, look at it the other way: in Nazi Germany, you were legally forced to report your neighbor if he was Jewish – which means that hiding or protecting any Jewish person was illegal. Did that make protecting your neighbor a bad thing? I’m sure you get the point.
Q: Theoretically, I do, I really do. But this is not about legal texts here, this is about our values and our morals. And you can’t tell me you don’t see the difference: we are talking about human lives.
A: It’s just contextual, trust me. Contextual and hypocritical. I mean, governments legally kill hundreds of people every single day, so they really should give me a break.
Q: Rabih, you’re a fashion designer. You’re not a warlord!
A: And fashion designers kill and skin hundreds of thousands of living beings every single day as well.
Q: Animals, yes, but not humans… Are you seriously putting humans and animals on the same level?
A: Last time I checked, humans were animals.
Q: Thank you, we all know Darwin, buddy. But I’m not sure how strong he can be to your argument here. Yes, humans might be animals too, biologically, but it’s not about biology here either. Humans are the only animals who actually have a conscience, who can make choices, who can distinguish between right and wrong… but apparently you don’t!
A: And elephants are the only ones who have a trunk, whales are the largest mammals on the planet, cheetahs are the fastest animals in the world. How is “conscience” the red line for a killing license? This is all so arbitrary. Are you saying it would be okay to kill a human if he’s asleep or in an unconscious state? That’s ridiculous.
Q: Rabih, as a species, the most natural thing for us is to prioritize the living beings of our own species, those who resemble us the most.
A: Are you serious? But that’s exactly everything that’s wrong with humanity!
Q: What do you mean?
A: Prioritizing what resembles us. When white people prioritize white people over other ethnicities, we call it racism and we condemn it. When men prioritize men over women, we call it sexism and we condemn it. When locals prioritize locals over immigrants, we call it xenophobia and we condemn it. When straight people prioritize straight people over homosexuals, we call it homophobia and we condemn it. How is it suddenly okay to kill weaker, innocent beings just because they don’t resemble us?
Q: It’s a fair point, but you’re confusing everything! We aren’t talking about subcategories here, we are talking about our own damn species!
A: That’s contextual, and arbitrary. For centuries, white people considered black people to be from another species. Gypsies were considered subhuman by the Nazis. Women were considered – and still are, in many countries – half citizens by men. It’s the same logic applied here. In fact, by choosing to kill what resembles me the most, I am making the biggest tolerance statement and the biggest moral sacrifice humanity has ever witnessed. I am Abraham killing his own son. Only that Abraham didn’t actually do it. It may be too soon for you to see it, but history will remember me as a moral visionary. Mark my words.
Q: Look, I understand that you are against animal abuse, cruelty, exploitation and all of that. And some of your arguments are theoretically fair. But why don’t you simply not use animal products in your pieces then? Period. Do you really have to insist on making leather by skinning human beings? Because all you’re doing is denouncing something as criminal while being an even bigger criminal yourself…
A: But, why not? I mean, why should my fellow designers be able to produce leather and not me? It’s up to our civilization to review its whole set of values and bring some consistency to the table, because as long as our societies are okay with wearing the skins and furs of dead animals, I don’t see a problem in my skinning human beings. They just happen to be my animal of choice. It may not be your choice, but it’s mine.
Q: Isn’t there a tiny part of you though that can acknowledge just how barbaric what you’re doing is?
A: Not at all, that’s also a very arbitrary statement. Where’s your sense of perspective? I mean, eating horse is barbaric in North America, but Europeans eat horse all the time. It’s barbaric to eat dog in Europe, but many Southern Asian countries do it all the time. It’s just perspective, smiyeh.
Q: Don’t you feel though that what you’re doing is not only a crime against humanity, but against nature itself? I mean, to ensure the survival of our species is our most innate, natural tendency; and here you are, going totally against it.
A: The very foundation of civilization is about going against our natural tendencies. Do you realize what would happen if we let people behave the way they would behave on their natural impulses? It would be total chaos! Besides, give me a break! Are you seriously calling me responsible for the potential extinction of humanity because I killed a few people?
Q: That’s not what I said. I’m just saying it’s not only a crime against humanity, it’s a crime against nature.
A: There is nothing about my enterprise that is against nature. If anything, I’m doing nature a favor here. If you think about it, human beings are responsible for the highest number of both human and animal deaths, the extinction of entire species, and for the destruction of the environment of the planet, the very body we live on. Human beings are a destructive force who are literally killing everything around them. Human beings are the cancer of planet Earth. And as long as we are not able to acknowledge this simple fact and deal with it, we are doomed, my friend.
A young man entered the room carrying a tray. “Lunch! Great, I was starving,” said El Khoury. “Aren’t you hungry?”
“I could eat,” I shrugged.
The young man unloaded the pots and plates on a low hardwood table between us, a spicy smell and steam hovering under his chin. “Red wine, sir?”
“Thank you,” I nodded. Then, looking back up at El Khoury: “Steaks? After all this PETA-like lecturing I thought you’d at least spare me the carnivorous lunch…” He smirked. I took a first bite. The meat was so tender it melted, almost evaporated under my palate. And I loved it.
“It’s good stuff, huh?” El Khoury said, still smirking. “I’m sure you’ve never tasted anything like this before.”