I met her in her home where the floor is covered with kilims, a whole wall with old blue ceramic tiles, the couch draped with a Suzani tapestry, the windows with lace and embroideries, antique mother of pearl commodes here and there, all immersed in the rich vivid colors of the orient. Still, Nadia Kemp elegant in her shirt and pants did not look oriental, rather Lebanese sprouting from a Hellenic-Levantine culture compost in which the Phoenician style of art amalgamated with the Stoic character in a compact composition, a new identity. An identity she worked hard to convey to the Lebanese woman urging her to find the style that flatters her and to liberate herself from the dictates of a fashion she may find irresistible but may not suit her personality. Forward thinking, she certainly was, as shown by the dress she designed in 1984, a similar concept being part of the 2021 Miu Miu Fall collection (photo below). Her designs came about from her love of pure, non-synthetic fabrics: silk, velvet, cotton, satin, kham, taffetas, moiret, dawlas, to name a few, which in her imagination and because of something she has heard or seen would combine with lace, crochet and embroideries transmuting into jackets, coats and dresses reminiscent of the caftan, the long loose dress or belted tunic traditionally worn in the Levant, or table cloths or draperies. Sometimes she would let a design mature for a month or two in her head for she knew intuitively that just as wine in a vintage year needs to mature, so do ideas.
Though there is no method to her creativity, there is a method to her entrepreneurial success that the women and men who have decided to stay in Lebanon can adopt as their own. Nadia Kemp designed, produced and exported her beautiful creations while the country was at war often encountering insurmountable odds. Outsourcing the handmade lace – to women who worked from their homes across diverse regions literally crossing all war frontiers, shedding all prejudices. Consigning her products to L’Artisan du Liban – which advertised her work liberating her from the latter’s cost. Delegating the execution of her designs – to tailors in charge of cutting, sewing and embroidery. Decentralizing sales, all the while being Lebanon’s ambassador. The cabin crew of MEA airlines wore her designs from 1974 to 1979. The National Council of Tourism was specially decorated by Jean-Louis Minguy and Serge Brontz to present the handicraft exposition she imagined and executed in collaboration with May Joumblattt in 1979. Touras exhibited her creations one year later. In 1984 Montreal and Toronto were carried away by her fashion shows which were part of the UCLM exposition Lebanon-Land and People. Cyprus as well in 2002.
Her sense of esthetics and entrepreneurial spirit propelled Nadia Kemp to the top, but it was her character that has kept her there. Never one to wait to be told “it is okay for a woman to be ambitious,” she stopped importing the European ready-to-wear the Lebanese woman is fond of and started creating her own. No more a follower, she was on her way to become a leader, living her life as if on a mission all the while profoundly touching the people who met her. She was barely 55 when she survived the infamous 1984 war events in Beirut that took her husband’s life. She leaned in. Supported by her two sons, though from a distance both being in Europe, she lifted her head above the grindstones of daily life and made her mind to continue with determination and perseverance.
In the words of the American poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou, Nadia Kemp did not merely survive. She thrived with passion, compassion [with kith and kin], humor and well, with style. Asked once how she managed to balance her work and her life, she said: “They are never separate. I never stop thinking about my work even in the evening when I am dining out with friends… when the enterprise got bigger and I needed to keep creating, stomach cramps were there every morning.” Still, her only concern was and is not being able to continue dreaming.
Perhaps because she likes Meryl Streep or because her husband was British the image of Meryl in the movie Out of Africa being welcomed at the British exclusive men’s club of Nairobi by each male member present raising his glass to her, came to my mind. Only it was not Meryl, it was Nadia Kemp.