A symbol of hope in the Arab world, Elie Saab continues to cultivate his growing empire. Now his ambition lies in investing in younger generations to continue what he started. Features director Caterina Minthe explores the Lebanese designer’s next-levels plans for the future, speaking to the man himself in the May issue of Vogue Arabia.
This month, the Elie Saab PR machine team will descend upon the sun-drenched French Riviera. There, it will take up its usual swank suite at the Martinez Hotel for the occasion of the Cannes Film Festival. Bay windows overlooking the turquoise Mediterranean Sea will illuminate the space, decorated to reflect the light and glamour of the Elie Saab universe. It will sparkle with crystals, emit the fragrant smell of fresh-cut flowers and, at all corners, showcase dresses spun with golden thread, embroidered with beads, and dyed the colors of spring. Only the world’s most beautiful models and talented actresses will be granted the honor of being fitted in Elie Saab Couture dresses for the Cannes red carpet. Some of the dresses took months to create and are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Don’t look for Saab in Cannes, however – the Lebanese couturier has always preferred to eschew celebrity parties to host close friends, or surround himself with his teams at his Beirut or Paris offices. Never has he been one to court the spotlight that efficaciously seeks him out.
Today, on a cool spring afternoon, Elie Saab sits across from me at a low table the length of a catwalk at his Paris headquarters. The series of grandiose high-ceiling rooms with French parquet floors lies but a stone’s throw from the historic Arc de Triomphe. The casually dressed Saab – the Arab world’s most internationally established and adulated couturier – denotes an informal demeanor. For all the fast-paced nature of his around-the-world schedule, his gestures are languid and void of stress or agitation. His pepper-colored hair is cropped short like an athlete’s, and when he speaks, he squints for emphasis. Under the soft glow of chandeliers, I ask him, “Are you a patient man, Mr Saab?” He grins but his eyes flash like a sphinx. At this moment, I sense a different force spring from across the table. It is the fiery energy of a strategic thinker, a deliberate business magnate – one who considers and reconsiders every move before plunging his proverbial dagger with measured precision. “I am a very patient man,” he says, holding my gaze to his.
“Sixteen years ago, Halle Berry saw a dress from my couture collection and asked if we could hold it for her until she found an event to wear it to,” he says. “She was the first actor I had ever dressed for the red carpet, so I agreed. We held that dress for one whole year.” The dress in question? The flower embroidery net and crimson-colored dress Berry wore to the 2001 Academy Awards – where she won the Oscar for best actress; the first black woman to do so. The image of a statuesque Berry draped in Elie Saab went around the world. “No one could have imagined such a series of events,” he says, shaking his head. “But I always understood the power of the red carpet.”
Since Berry’s win, hundreds of celebrities have looked to the House of Elie Saab to dress them for their most exceptional personal and professional appearances. Queen Rania of Jordan wore a champagne-colored dress suit to her husband’s 1999 coronation; she wore it again a decade later to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of his crowning. Céline Dion donned a black satin Elie Saab gown with flowers strewn across the skirt for her 2015 American Music Awards tribute performance to the victims of the Paris terrorist attack; its colors evoked both mourning and hope. Countess Stéphanie de Lannoy wore a resplendent bridal gown – a symphony of tulle woven with silver leaves, thousands of crystals, and pearls – to her royal wedding to Prince Guillaume of Luxembourg. Sherihan, beloved Egyptian actor, arrived at the press conference announcing her return to the spotlight after a 14-year hiatus in a blush-colored dress that dripped with petals, as if she had been showered with floral adulation.
Meryl Streep, one of the most decorated actors in the world, chose a midnight blue pantsuit with skirt train and a Bardot cut that accentuated her long neck to the 2017 Oscars for the occasion of her 20th nomination. In a statement, Streep referred to Saab as an “illustrious designer.” We all knew that, of course.
“I’m not here to remake the wheel,” says Saab, motioning to the dressed mannequins behind him swathed in embellished and intricately embroidered fabrics in a soft pastel palette. “Women know what they want and they all want the same thing.” We want to accentuate our greatest assets to showcase the most beautiful version of ourselves. A relatively easy concept to understand, and yet one that so few designers manage to execute. Saab has always put women’s desires before his own. He understands that it is a woman’s body that determines a dress’s silhouette, not the couturier.
To anyone not immersed in the niche world of high fashion, it is admittedly difficult to recognize the epoch of an Elie Saab dress. Whether it stems from a 1997 or 2017 collection, it is a swooping cacophony of netting, embellishment, embroidery, and noble fabrics. Tulle, organza, satin, and chiffon drape and caress the body. The palette – always the first step to the design process of an Elie Saab collection – is inspired not by the jewels they come to resemble, but rather the colors used by great painters of bygone times: the violets and emerald greens of Matisse; the inky blacks of Soulages; the soft peach and rosy pinks of Botticelli. “Women with dresses from 20 years ago will pull them out and wear them today,” Saab shrugs. Like all great art, his couture is timeless.
Year after year, the Elie Saab company continues to grow its couture and ready-to-wear house with luxuries for women who love extravagance. The perfume launch in 2011 with nose Francis Kurkdjian is a commercial success. A ready-to-wear bridal line debuted in 2016, and made the dream of walking down the aisle in an Elie Saab gown accessible to more women than ever before. A luxe eyewear range will continue to roll out this spring with new lines; and a New York duplex store has just opened its doors on uptown Madison Avenue. It joins the London Bruton Street, Paris Georges V and rond-point des Champs Elysées M Dassault, and Beirut Central District flagships along with stores in Dubai, Doha, and Hong Kong. These offer clients access to the world of Elie Saab in the heart of their favorite international cities.
“I am someone who works all the time – since I was a boy,” says Saab.
In one carefully worded sentence, he reminds me that he is a wholly self-taught designer and businessman. Born in 1964 in the town of Damour, located some 30 minutes outside Beirut, the son of a timber merchant lived a tranquil childhood. However, the Lebanese civil war soon cut short his idyllic youth. When the young Saab was 10 years old, his town was reduced to rubble. The Saab family relocated to Beirut, and when his father could not find work, Saab (then 15), began combing the city to find materials to turn his surprising childhood hobby – making dresses for his sisters – into a source of revenue to help support his parents and four younger siblings. Three years later, he had managed to put aside enough savings to move into a 400m2 space along with more than a dozen seamstresses. Though Lebanon was besieged by war, Lebanese life would not be stifled. Women would not be repressed and hide behind the bullet-ridden walls of their homes. With the thundering of bombs in the background, they got on with daily life, finding joy where they could – a night out dancing, dinner with family, a wedding celebration, an Elie Saab dress. He continued to work, day in and day out, fulfilling orders for Lebanese women and his growing list of clients from the Gulf region. In particular, his wedding dresses flourished. Extravagant clouds of white tulle glistening with crystals represented a defiant symbol of hope in the face of extraordinary adversity brought on by war.
Saab sought to expand his House’s reach and he traveled West. First to Rome, where he showed his couture collections for three years and became the first international designer to join the Camera Nazionale Della Moda Italiana in 1997. Never one to rest on his laurels, he pressed on to Paris, the heart of the couture world, and was soon invited by the couture regulating commission, the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, to show in Paris. Six years later, in 2006, he became an official member. Four times a year, he debuts two couture and two ready-to-wear collections. To this day, the front rows of his packed shows are dotted with familiar faces from his homeland. “Women are loyal to me because I have been loyal to them,” he says.
Now, Saab seeks to nurture on an educational level. He is the head judge on the fashion design competition Project Runway Middle East, which is broadcast to millions throughout the Arab world. In 2013, he also launched a pioneering four-year fashion design program in Beirut at the Lebanese American University, with the London College of Fashion. Here, students are offered international standards in design without having to travel outside their country. Our conversation turns to the 50 students who will graduate this June with a bachelor’s degree in fashion design. “Everything I do, I do for tomorrow,” Saab tells me. “The most important investment we can make is in our youth.” Each year, when a new class of students pushes through the school doors, Saab is there to greet them. The first thing he does is remind undergraduates, “You did not come here to be me.” Certainly, many have tried.
Like the 18-year-old boy all those years ago, today, Saab continues to work for his family. His nucleus is his three sons, Elie Jr, Selim, and Michael, with his wife, Claudine. His children represent a potentially tangible link to his couture house’s legacy. “I never push my sons to become involved in the family business but it would make me very happy, of course,” he says. I glance over at Elie Jr, who has been listening quietly to our conversation. He imparts the same gentle manner as his father. However, his eyeglasses are tinted and I cannot make out if he has that same animal-like glint as the maestro in front of me. That spark of burning ambition that runs through Elie Saab’s veins and drives his heart like a beating fist. To see what the future holds, we must be patient, and look – to Lebanon.