Originally printed in the March 2017 issue of Vogue Arabia.
Ingie Chalhoub is sitting at a table in the middle of a packed terrace at Hotel Costes. It’s snowing in Paris and she’s fittingly dressed in a cozy, Mondrian-inspired turtleneck from her own ready-to-wear line, Ingie Paris. Wire-rimmed Chloé eyeglasses peek out from under a vintage hat. She comes across as casually incognito; a blonde-haired Carmen Sandiego. After all, Chalhoub is alone and that is a rare sight. At the head of eight companies and the creative director of her fashion brand, her days and nights are strung together with back-to-back appointments. And yet she could be just another tourist, watching the sun slip away over tea at one of the city’s more fashionable haunts.
“This morning, Le Figaro was quoting Zola,” she comments, tickled that the French daily had dug up the philosopher’s 1867 text about an otherwise forgotten winter’s day. She scrolls through photos of her own zen garden in Paris and points out a Lebanese cedar and olive trees cloaked in snow. History, philosophy, and art de vivre are just a few of Chalhoub’s varied interests. But it’s her love of fashion that rules the roost. In the Arab world, she is the industry’s most powerful woman. It’s a fact that matters a great deal to the West, particularly France. So much so that a week ago, its minister for Europe and foreign affairs, Jean-Yves Le Drian, decorated Chalhoub with the Legion of Honor. “Madame le chevalier,” she says, hazel eyes twinkling. “There is no female word for it. Imagine!” The Legion of Honor – an elite league established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802 – is the highest French order of merit awarding military and civil accomplishments.
Her husband, Patrick Chalhoub, co-CEO of the Chalhoub Group, was decorated, too. “His knighthood was announced before mine, but he waited so that we could do it together,” she smiles. Decorations usually occur in clusters. The Chalhoubs received theirs at a ceremony organized for them alone. Some 80 close friends and family, including her two sisters, flew to Paris for the occasion. Member of the European parliament Rachida Dati attended, as did Sidney Toledano, CEO of LVMH Fashion Group, and Bruno Pavlovsky, president of Chanel Fashion, among others. The minister heralded Chalhoub “an ambassador of France, who has built a bridge between two worlds, two civilizations.” She thanked her late parents. “They gave me this French culture, and the desire to encourage French savoir faire and promote excellence in everything that I do.”
Chalhoub was born in Cairo to a Lebanese family, leaders in the import business of European textiles. They left Egypt during the six-day war in 1967. Of her mother, she recalls, “She was very elegant. She taught me how to sew and embroider. I am very agile with my hands.” Mother and daughter opened the first Chanel boutique in Kuwait in 1983, the same year Karl Lagerfeld started as its creative director. Today, Chanel is just one luxury brand within the Etoile Group, which Chalhoub founded and serves as president and managing director. She oversees 500 employees who operate 80 high-end boutiques across the region, including Valentino, Ralph Lauren, Tod’s, Etoile “La boutique,” Aquazzura, and her line, Ingie Paris.
Behind the glossy exterior is a journey marked by resilience. “I have survived three wars,” she says. From Egypt, her family escaped to Lebanon only to leave again when the country was devastated by civil war. She recalls that when a car bomb went off on their street, they fled at three in the morning with nothing but their passports. Soon afterwards, they relocated to Kuwait. It was there that Chalhoub met her husband-to-be. “Patrick and I have a parallel journey,” she says, noting that she graduated from La Sorbonne in Paris while her husband also studied in France. Engaged six months after meeting, they married in the City of Light the following year. “It was love at first sight, and a Cinderella wedding,” she says. “They were already calling me ‘Madame Chanel,’ but I did my dress at Dior, with Marc Bohan.” The fairy tale would soon be interrupted. In 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, instigating the Gulf war. “My business stopped. Everything stopped. Merchandise couldn’t get past customs. Banks closed. I had to start from zero.”
“Money comes and goes,” she says. “I’ve learned this by getting things done the hard way. But you have to have faith. Find the force within you. Go and get it.” Chalhoub rebuilt her empire, this time establishing it in Dubai, and spread her creative net wide. In 2009, she launched her ready-to-wear label. In 2016, Ingie Paris was invited by the Chambre Syndicale to be included on the Paris fashion week official calendar. “Ingie” means “pearl” and, to a degree, her brand embodies the rarity of the jewel beloved in the Middle East. Feminine and artisanal to the core, its designs bridge Arabian landscapes with French savoir faire. Her ambition? “To be Valentino. Now, more than ever,” she answers. “Not to become the man, but to aspire to the excellence of the brand. That is my vision.”
She is on the cusp of cutting the ribbon on the Ingie Paris flagship boutique. It’s a significant step in building the brand’s foundation. Scheduled to open this month, it is located in the new extension of The Dubai Mall and will be flanked by the likes of Tod’s and Aquazzura. Abstract references to her namesake are reflected in its design that includes areas for shoes, bags, ready-to-wear, and special-edition pieces. Nuanced mashrabiyas and light gray panels all made by hand will serve as an elegant backdrop to the cheerful colors and prints that Chalhoub favors. Reflecting on this significant stride, she says, “It’s a macho world. When I started, it was worse. Making myself known in a society where people didn’t understand why I worked so hard hasn’t been easy. ‘Why do you travel? Why do you leave your children?’ they asked. But my satisfaction comes from the work. Perhaps now, people understand me a little better. I think that today, I am accepted for who I am.”