In four short years, Elie Saab Jr has married, become a father of two, and is now group CEO of Elie Saab. For Vogue Arabia, the Saabs open the doors to their bustling household grounded in joie de vivre.
On the afternoon of August 4, 2020, Elie Saab Jr was in the downtown Beirut headquarters with his father and namesake founder of the family fashion brand. One of the tasks at hand was finalizing the upcoming haute couture collection for Paris to be shown in September. The son of Elie Saab had become Group CEO at the beginning of 2019, and was overseeing a major restructuring plan to ensure a legacy that could be maintained in the years ahead, and to have a solid platform for growth as it transforms into a global luxury lifestyle brand. The Covid pandemic had arrived in the spring of 2020, sending the industry into a tailspin as demand for eveningwear and wedding dresses plummeted. Saab spends much of his week traveling, and the lockdown afforded a rare chance of being in the same place for a substantial period of time with his father and the rest of the team. They decided to accelerate the restructuring, and had finalized the majority by June, including returning the company to being 100% family owned.
But then at 6.08pm on that August day, another major challenge quite literally knocked him down. A fire broke out and triggered a massive explosion in Beirut’s port, killing hundreds, injuring thousands, and leaving 300 000 homeless as it leveled a giant swath of the Lebanese capital. As the dust settled on shattered glass in the gravely damaged Elie Saab headquarters, Monsieur Saab found his son covered in blood, an unspeakably awful moment that turned to deep relief when it was discovered to be just cuts to the head and arms that would require only a handful of stitches.
As soon as it was known that loved ones and staff were safe, the reflex was to stand up and go on. “The resilience is built into our genes, our DNA,” Saab says. “As people, as a family, and almost by definition as a company.” His father founded Elie Saab in 1982 at the height of the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War. Within a few weeks of the port blast, work at the ateliers was back on track. “People returned to the office ready to go, we prepared and launched our collection, and life went on,” the 32-year-old says rather matter-of-factly. “There’s no time to dwell on things.”
Unable to present the collection in Paris due to Covid restrictions, they enlisted the young, award-winning Lebanese director Mounia Akl to stage a mirror set in the forested mountains northeast of Beirut. It was an ethereal and romantic collection, with soft palettes – pale blues, blush pinks, gentle greens, muted golds – rich textures, and a fairy-tale aesthetic that evoked a spirited world. It was a glamorous love letter to Beirut and a dreamy display of hope and optimism.
After spending a year in Paris studying fashion, Monsieur Saab returned to Beirut to launch his eponymous company when he was just 18. From the first atelier specializing in wedding dresses crafted using the finest fabrics, detailed embroidery, and exquisite embellishments like pearls and crystals, the company has grown in four decades into a global fashion house. In 1997, the gifted, mostly self-taught designer was the first non-Italian to become a member of the National Chamber for Italian Fashion, and in 2003 he was invited to join the French Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. Launching his namesake brand onto an even larger stage was Halle Berry, who wore an Elie Saab semi-sheer mesh bodice with floral appliqués and deep red taffeta skirt to accept her 2002 Academy Award for best actress.
Today, the couture house is the favorite of A-listers – every star from Taylor Swift and Beyoncé to Meryl Streep has worn his chic, sometimes daring ensembles on the red carpet – as well as royalty. Queen Rania of Jordan wore Elie Saab for her enthronement, and recently to the wedding of her son, HRH Crown Prince Al Hussein bin Abdullah, to HRH Princess Rajwa Al Hussein.
Growing up, Saab Jr cannot ever remember not wanting to be a part of the fashion house. It was his dream. “From a young age, Elie has been by my side at the office, observing and learning from me,” remembers his father. As a child, Saab Jr witnessed the continual obstacles and pressure his father faced as he built on his own successes. Of his three sons, only Saab Jr – the eldest – works for the company. “I have never pushed for it, but today it is my biggest joy having him on my side,” remarks the founder. Saab Jr joined as brand director in 2012, bringing a younger vision and team on board, a breath of fresh air, says Monsieur Saab, with new ideas for the brand. Being the namesake wouldn’t be enough for him to succeed. “I know what it takes to build something. I had the biggest example with my father. I learned that it doesn’t happen overnight,” he comments. “It’s overcoming challenge after challenge after challenge.”
In the past four years since taking the top leadership role, Saab has faced plenty of trials, but he’s had help at home weathering them. By his side, his wife seems to cocoon her husband in her warmth and radiant energy. In her presence, Saab is beaming. In 2019, Saab married Christina Mourad in the wedding of the summer, with friends and family from around the globe converging in the Lebanese mountains for the three-day – and four-bridal-outfit – event. With her soon-to-be father-in-law as arguably the preeminent designer of bridalwear, there was deep curiosity to see her dress. Saab Jr didn’t even peek. “I promised her,” he says with a laugh. “I knew she was in good hands.”
Mourad felt the same. “When I had my first fitting with Mr Saab, I asked him to create the dress he thought would be the best for me. I trusted his vision.” Inspired by the designer’s FW19/20 haute couture collection, the wedding dress, in gold and beige, with a rose-shaped corset gown, voluminous skirt, and lengthy train, was embellished with 650 000 gold sequins and 150 000 Swarovski pieces.
For all the thousands of bridal dresses he had seen, the sight of his wife in this gown left Saab speechless. Recalling the first time he saw her in it, a massive grin spreads across his face. “It was a very emotional moment,” he says quietly, “a very special one.”
There was an added layer of uniqueness for the bride. “I’ve known Elie’s brother Celio since I was 15,” Christina says. “Once when I was at his house, I met his father and told him very innocently that one day he would create my wedding gown.”
The couple now have two small children, three-year-old Sophia and son Elie, who turns one this month. “As a father, I taught him how important family is,” says Saab. “Without their strength and support, I couldn’t be where I am today.” Nor could Saab Jr. “I am very lucky to have a wife that is so supportive,” he says, noting that he has returned to traveling up to four times a week. “He’s a very good father,” says Mourad. “He’s a hard worker but he always finds time for his family and kids.”
While Saab Jr admits it isn’t easy to be away from his kids – missing, he acknowledges with regret, many important moments and memories as they grow – knowing that they are in good hands makes it easier for him to do so. It helps that he also strongly believes in the sacrifice he is making to maintain the legacy of the family company. “I might have less pressure if it was a startup, because I would have less to lose.”
Overall, growth is brisk, up 70% from 2020 to 2021, and 60% to 2022, according to Saab. Diversifying away from eveningwear has brought newfound accessibility, a key part of the vision that father and son share. There are new stores, new markets, new products, and more depth in established ones. Bridal, which reportedly represents 15% of revenue, is on the rise as one of the sector’s leading brands. Accessories – bags, shoes, belts, eyewear – are growing. Elie Saab Maison has been doubling in size year to year. Then there’s cosmetics. Kids. Kitchens. A third perfume line just launched with Elixir, which has a more sensual feel to it.
And the retail footprint increases. Along with a network of some 300 wholesalers, the 16th company store opened in August, a flagship boutique in Monaco. The plan is to have 25 stores by 2025. In the meantime, another collection is always on the horizon. Elie Saab makes eight a year, or one collection every six weeks.
Despite the innumerable possibilities that seem attractive (deeper expansion in Asia, for example), Saab Jr isn’t feeling hurried. “It’s like a marathon, not a sprint,” he says. “The biggest thing I learned from my father is how to be patient.” That comes through watching carefully. “My father is not a person to come and tell you stories and give you advice all day long,” he says with a laugh. “That isn’t the case. Either you understand what he’s doing and learn from it, or you don’t.”
Originally published in the September 2023 issue of Vogue Arabia
Hair: Wassim Morkos
Makeup: Bassam Fattouh