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Lebanese Couturier Elie Saab on His Home Country, Inspiration, and His Work’s Meaning

In an issue dedicated to excellence and craftsmanship, Vogue Arabia meets with the couturier who put Arab fashion on the international map.

Photographed by Anthony Arquier for Vogue Arabia

Walking up the grand entrance of Elie Saab’s headquarters in Downtown Beirut, one could never imagine that the vast explosion of last summer had practically decimated the building, or that amid all the chaos and turbulence of the various crises affecting Lebanon would live one of the fashion world’s leading lights. Lebanon’s current circumstances are challenging, but Saab’s outlook is unrelentingly positive. Here he sits, at the head of a marble table, manifesting dreams with needle, thread, and impeccable craftsmanship.

Elie Saab. Photo: Supplied

Saab smiles when I remark on the pleasure at finding his house in such good shape after the blast. “Let me tell you about now,” he starts. “I hate the way people look at us with pity. I hate how they look at us feeling sorry for Lebanon. Lebanon is stronger than this pity. The strength is in its people. Wherever a Lebanese is around the world, they stand out. They shine. It is the people that make our country. What we are experiencing is due to corruption and politicians; they are not giving the people a chance to breathe. We should persevere and continue, stand up, and move on. We have to be positive, always.”

Photographed by Anthony Arquier for Vogue Arabia

Duly, Saab released a homage collection, inspired by his city, Beirut: The Sacred Source. It is replete with Saab’s signature touches, pastels, and sequins; it exudes a refined sense of calm. His pieces are airy and light; they borrow earthy tones and soft shades, speak of inner peace and a sense of confidence. In delicate blues and soft pinks, all is feminine and refined. Like rays filtering through the leaves of a canopy, Saab’s gentle use of color and tone creates a sense of warming tranquility, like sunlight on the face. Following the explosion, the great name of haute couture knew he needed to take a new track to change people’s attention. “I wanted to create a platform for the media, to have an impact on what they say about Lebanon,” Saab shares. “She is a queen and always will be. We need to shine the light on this, rather than sit in the darkness. It’s our responsibility to shed the light on its amazing people and what is positive.”

The designer at three years old. Photo: Supplied

Hailing from Damour, a small town in southern Lebanon, Saab recalls how as a boy, he dreamed of becoming a dressmaker. “At the age of two, I knew I wanted to make people look better. I suffered when I saw a woman wearing something that didn’t suit her, or her hair was a mess, or her makeup was too much or didn’t reflect her,” he recalls. Starting as a dressmaker, his skill with the needle and famed attention to detail led to him opening his atelier in 1982, right in the middle of the civil war. “When I wanted to become a designer, my parents said, ‘You want to be a seamstress?’ I said yes. Today, I have parents approach me with the hope that their kids follow in my footsteps. I have a lot to share,” he affirms. “When I first started, I used to say that I was a Lebanese designer. People would look at me and say, ‘So what?’ but today when you say you’re a Lebanese designer, people look at you differently,” he says, the pride evident in his voice. After dressing countless royals and stars from Queen Rania to Angelina Jolie, it’s no surprise people admire him.

Halle Berry wearing Elie Saab at the 2002 Oscars. Photo: Getty

Saab opened his atelier with five petites mains in 1982, and the haute couture workshop today employs around 250 seamstresses and tailors, 50 petites mains, and 20 embroiderers, some of which have been working with the house for 30 years, with the ratio being 55% women and 45% men. Inspired by the power of dreams, together they brought to life Saab’s new SS21 couture collection. Silvers and blacks flow together to create oversized shapes, while headpieces and earrings evoke thoughts of shooting stars. Constellations abound through lace masks amid exaggerated shapes and textures that transport to another dimension. Embroidered suns and crystalline structures appear otherworldly as dazzling pieces give way to soft taffetas that almost, but not quite, hide the woman. Plunging necklines, trains, and voluminous shoulders daringly mix with sparkling forms, hinting at what might just be beyond the stars.

Photographed by Anthony Arquier for Vogue Arabia

Saab’s inspiration is simple: women. “I believe that every woman has her own character and that should be highlighted in the dress she wears. I never look at what a woman is wearing in general; I always look at her as a whole. She either stands out or doesn’t, depending on her character and what she wears. I believe every woman is beautiful and it all depends on what she wears to bring that out or make it disappear. You can see a woman in a T-shirt and jeans who looks stunning. It’s about bringing out her best.” The couturier’s work is defined by craftsmanship. “Every dress in the haute couture collection is a piece of art, a piece of jewelry handed down from one generation to another. It carries emotional and traditional value. It creates stories in every home,” he says. “I never exaggerate in my designs. I don’t follow fashion.”

Photographed by Anthony Arquier for Vogue Arabia

Saab’s pieces are multi-generational investments, with each detail created with precision and intent. “Haute couture is an investment,” he agrees. “It’s a message the dress gives. It’s credibility that the house has developed and goes from one design to another and from one generation to another.” Each dress can take at least three months to craft, a time where every detail is studied, worked, and tweaked to perfection using expertise gained over decades. “The DNA of the house has been built with more than 40 years of experience and knowledge. The know-how and craftsmanship remains, but maybe changes have been made in new lines or sequins. No matter what technology comes along, at the end of the day, there’s a human hand behind the work,” he states. “The machine cannot design without the person behind it. There are people and talent behind everything we do, their brains, experience, and know-how. The hand is always there. Man, mind, and hand.” The last three words are punctuated by deliberate gestures, the intensity and focus clear.

Photographed by Anthony Arquier for Vogue Arabia

The couturier admits that the challenge today is maintaining the legacy. “One small mistake will ruin the whole name, destroy it all,” he says, pausing. “So, I always work harder. If something is perfect, I don’t stop there, I push harder, and I do it with confidence,” he looks up, nodding. “Sometimes, I look at a dress that a client is wearing, and she’s happy with it, but I’ll ask her to remove it, or ask to change a small detail they don’t see. This is what makes the difference. The worry among people I work with is not about pleasing the customer, but rather pleasing Elie Saab.”

Read Next: Celebrating Enduring Couture That Continues to Thrive in an Era Rocked By a Pandemic

Originally published in the May 2021 issue of Vogue Arabia

Style: Amine Jreissati
Makeup: Anabelle Petit at Wise & Talented
Production: Aurea Production
Photography assistant: Richard Chax
Style assistant: Elise Testot
Model: Oulimata Gallet at Women360
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