Elie Saab: The Phoenician Couturier
Few designers mean more to their country and their culture than Elie Saab.
To call Elie Saab a rock star in his native Lebanon would be an understatement; he is more like a cultural institution, the designer who put Phoenician fantasy on the international map.
Saab's name is plastered all over billboards in Beirut, and rarely out of the multiple national dailies in Lebanon's trilingual culture of Arabic, French and English.
And, his designs are a reflection of the unique melting pot that is Lebanon: a 7,000-year-old bouillabaisse of Levantine, Assyrian, Roman, Crusader, Ottoman, Venetian and French influences.
Just like his thoroughly elegant headquarters, a curved Rationalist-style building in travertine, that looks like it was transported from 1930's Rome. And his office, where a perfectly formed Phoenician marble statue sits beside two Napoleon III vases perched on a sleek Modernist desk.
Saab – and his always elegant wife Claudine -- have three sons; two already in the business. And they live a quiet life between homes in Beirut, the Lebanese mountains, Switzerland and France.
His central Beirut residence is an Ottoman building with giant Venetian-style chandeliers and a tranquil garden whose loudest sound is the ancient central fountain.
However, lunch with Saab can be busy: clients at seven tables rose to greet him as he exited the swish Franco-Lebanese restaurant Balthus in downtown Beirut.
Once a by-word for urban destruction, the downtown now features soaring residences by Norman Foster and Herzog and de Meuron, with works by Zaha Hadid and Renzo Piano in the pipeline.
One day after Saab staged a brilliant salon couture show inside the magnificent Ottoman-style French ambassador's Résidence des Pins, we caught up with the 54-year-old designer for a free-wheeling conversation on becoming a couturier; dominating the red carpet; building a fashion empire and, above all, on what makes this unique fashion autodidact tick.
FashionNetwork.com: People often refer to you as a great Middle Eastern designer. Do you feel that pigeonholes you?
Elie Saab: Listen, I have never considered myself as Oriental. To be raised in Lebanon means you are a cosmopolitan, not Arab, not European, but a unique mélange of so many things. That’s what makes our charm and our spirit.
FNW: What were your first steps to being a designer?
ES: Since I was 9 years old, I wanted to explode by doing something with my talent and imagination. I discovered cutting fabrics was very easy for me, as was doing designs. During the civil war (1975-1990) our family had to flee our own home, and my father was not in good health. We lost a lot financially. That's when I realised that I would have to create a resource for my family and bring up my brothers and sisters. I began by dressing my sisters, cousins and neighbours, and the word of mouth was very striking. I have to say I was successful from the beginning.
But by age 18 I realised I had to be more serious and I opened my first atelier in 1982, right in the hardest year of the war. I staged my first show in the Casino du Liban, November 22, 1982. I opened with a folkloric Lebanese dress with an enormous cape with Lebanese flag, the first of about 40 looks. And, the next day, that image was everywhere. If it wasn't on the front page it was on the back page of every daily in Lebanon.
FNW: So you became famous very young?
ES: I brought a new glamour and pride to Lebanon at a very difficult moment, exactly when Israel was bombarding the country. However, after a while, I realised that I remained in [a bubble] and that I needed a bigger dimension. After our first show, I reached a new clientele on another level, even if, back then, even to make phone call was hard. But within ten days, every big boutique in Beirut wanted my creations, and due to the city's influence, all the stores in the region began coming to see me: grandes robes de soie; marriage gowns; looks for big events; embroidery and fantasy.
FNW: When did you decide to come to Europe?
ES: At the end of the '90s, I realised I had saturated my home region. So, I moved my show to Rome in 1995 and I stayed for six collections. But, the international press does not come to Rome, so I had to go to Paris. I'll admit, I was afraid of Paris. I even discussed going there before Rome, but the French were not so welcoming. But after the limits of Rome, I had to try Paris. So, I started showing couture there in January 1999. So far, so good, but you know it yourself, the French always have something to say. Nonetheless, the reaction was better than I expected.
In a sense, I did not really need Paris. Indeed, I brought many of my clients with me to Paris. I was not taking over anyone else's place. But the move definitely worked. And in 2006, I officially launched my ready-to-wear there too.
FNW: To what do you contribute your success?
ES: My life was built on being a workaholic. I have lots of energy, but also a pretty good idea of where I wanted to arrive.
FNW: In a sense you exploded into global fame when Halle Berry wore Elie Saab to receive her Oscar in 2002 for Monster's Ball, right?
ES: Looking back, I was not at all prepared. Halle was a rising star, not a superstar, back in the 1996 when we opened a bureau in LA. But she had a coup de foudre [love at first sight] for that dress and said she really, really wanted to wear that look. It was her first really big event, and our office in LA said she could. And she wore it.
Everyone was delighted. Though, of course, the French felt it was an insult, to be considered a red carpet designer. But I am very proud of that. The French don't quite understand the game sometimes. It's true that Dior and Chanel did dress [stars] for the Oscars. But since we dressed Halle, everyone has an office in LA. It's a trend we started.
FNW: So, red carpet is very important for you?
ES: Dare I say, it's like dressing a normal woman. If a great actress walks up the carpet, she is not the same as a runway creature with endless legs. I realised that actresses cannot always wear the clothes ideally, and you cannot always manage that.
FNW: How important is ready-to-wear to your business?
ES: RTW is three times as important as couture, though you must consider that haute couture remains very important for our house.
FNW: Pierre Bergé and many others have long predicted the end of couture. Your thoughts?
ES: There will always be women who want couture, a certain woman who insists on the unique and they will always love couture. It's another sensation. And, it’s not just mums who want couture. We have young women clients who are Russian, Chinese and American, and offices in London, Paris and Beirut that serve them, and we are always busy. I have a large team working for me, with over 50 people just in my atelier two flights below.
FNW: What are your plans for the future; for creating a menswear collection, Monsieur Elie Saab?
ES: Next year we will announce lots of things. We are close to agreeing a new partnership. We will work on lots of projects, above all men. Today, we sell in about 200 sales points worldwide. But in ten years, God willing, we would like to be a minimum of ten times bigger. I believe that will happen.
FNW: After your family moved during the war, you studied in central Beirut in a Jesuit school. How did that influence you?
ES: I went to Sacré Coeur. It was a classic school and that vision was not an easy one. I suffered from day one, not a beautiful period. For me, the most important thing was always my family. I based my life all around that. I had two brothers and two sisters. Now I have three sons and I'm very happy. My kids think the same way.
FNW: Three years ago, you published a magazine of historic Beirut as your show program in Paris. Why did you do that?
ES: The war certainly did not create a good image for our country. But I am proud of my roots and love to return to my country. So, doing the magazine was important as it captured the happiest days of Beirut from 1968 to 1973, when everyone came here. Here, in Lebanon, we love beautiful things, that’s why we became so cool in those days. We'd like that to happen again.
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