Elie Saab glides into his Paris showroom, steps away from Avenue Montaigne and the Champs- Elysees, two days after his spring-summer 2014 haute-couture show. The Lebanese designer, wearing a neat black jumper and with pencil in hand, sits and begins to sketch.
“Honestly, I tell you something, couture will be for life. Where there is women, there will be couture,” says the self-taught “king of the red carpet”, who will turn 50 in July.
A third of all couture clients are now based in the Middle East, according to Reuters. Luckily for Saab, the first major fashion designer hailing from the region, many are loyal to him. Queen Rania of Jordan, for example, chose to wear Elie Saab for her enthronement, in 1999. Behind closed doors, Arab royalty and Middle Eastern high society wear him at weddings and VIP parties, gatherings at which it’d be a faux pas to be seen in anything twice.
Royals elsewhere, such as Victoria, Crown Princess of Sweden, Stephanie of Luxembourg and Charlotte Casiraghi, of Monaco, are also fans.
You’ll most likely see his work on the red carpet; the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, Nicole Kidman, Zhang Ziyi and Fan Bingbing (who is “exquisite, so beautiful!” says Saab) having donned his gowns for the Cannes Film Festival, the Golden Globes and the Oscars.
Angelina Jolie stepped out in a shimmering, sequinned, floor-length gown of his for this year’s Academy Awards (and that Ellen DeGeneres selfie).
Despite the high-profile clientele and numerous accolades, Saab is not a typical headline-grabber. His fashion isn’t of the edgy, hipster ilk, or wrapped under layers of conceptual fashion-speak. Instead, Saab offers sensual glamour, feminine laces and intricately embellished gowns.
The way he designs, however, “is always the same”, says Saab. “All women have strength and a certain fragility, whether they are an actress, princess or everyday woman – I want to highlight that.
“I want to always respect the woman, her beauty, her femininity and her shape. My dresses are always flattering but should never outshine the person wearing it. I want the woman to wear the dress, not the dress to wear the woman.”
This formula has clearly served him well. Saab’s fashion clout is now being brought to bear on the lucrative Asian market, with his ready-to-wear and accessories lines becoming key collections.
The “Elie Saab Red Carpet” exhibition – 11 ready-to-wear gowns that were worn by celebrities such as Michelle Yeoh Choo Kheng, Li Bingbing, Zhang and Taylor Swift – is running until April 30 in Lee Gardens, Causeway Bay, near the brand’s second Hong Kong store, which opened in December.
“The recent opening of our second Hong Kong store, carrying ready-to-wear and accessories, is a direct result of a new strategy,” says Saab. “Ever since 2005, when I was invited by the Chambre Syndicale [the French haute-couture association] to present my ready-to-wear collections in Paris, I’ve wanted to reach a larger audience of women by offering pared-down daywear silhouettes that retain the elegance and refinement of the haute couture the brand’s reputation is built on.”
His ready-towear line is made for “an international woman”, he says, one who is seeking “femininity, elegance and glamour in her clothing” and who knows an exacting cut and meticulous details when she sees them.
“She might choose a pantsuit or a sober shift dress to wear to the office.
And, for evening, if it’s a dressy occasion, a cocktail dress or gown in lace or silk chiffon with embroideries or embellishments.”
Saab is also establishing an accessories signature that “is not about a single handbag, but an entire vocabulary of accessories”.
TAKING CENTRE STAGE IN the Paris salon, with its marbled walls, soft lighting and impeccable, clean design, is a vast soft-pink couture wedding gown. Featuring a full skirt and train (the kind that Princess Diana might have favoured) and painstakingly embroidered with thousands of glistening beads and crystals, the dress is made from hand-cut Chantilly lace.
Other gowns – feather-light draped chiffon in pastel hues, flattering skintight hourglass shapes with all-over embroidery, all from the latest couture collection – are on display.
“The main inspiration behind this [latest couture] collection is the Victorian painter Sir Lawrence Alma- Tadema,” says Saab. “The first time I saw [his paintings], I felt like he designs the woman in my way. I like always drape, always chiffon, something transparent, and even in his paintings there is always this sense, as well as the flowers and petals.”
Alma-Tadema’s The Roses of Heliogabalus features pastel petals scattered over a fantastical scene in ancient Rome. In the same vein, hundreds of delicate floral appliques dance over Saab’s couture gowns.
“I started becoming interested in fashion when I was eight or nine,” says Saab. “I would cut out dresses from newspapers and, eventually, try to dress my sisters.
“Even amongst the fighting and shelling” – in 1975, Lebanon became embroiled in a civil war that would last for 15 years – “all I ever wanted to do was design when I was a child.”
In 1976, his hometown, Damour, was caught in the crossfire between Christians and the Muslim Palestinians.
Their house was shelled and the family fled to Beirut and sheltered with relatives. Elie was still only 11 years old.
“When I was a teenager, I started creating dresses for women around me in the community,” says Saab. “They would talk and my name spread by word of mouth.”
Although his family wanted him “to be a doctor or engineer”, Saab persevered down his chosen path, supplementing the family’s income. A following grew and, by the age of 18, Saab had officially founded his own label, with an atelier of a dozen employees.
Saab’s eponymously titled book, released this year, recounts what happened in those early years, and how a teenage designer planned an audacious couture show at Beirut’s Casino du Liban in the midst of the civil war.
His finale dress was a Lebanese flag draped over a model’s body, a move that tugged at heartstrings and drew national press coverage, creating a brief moment of fashion poignancy in a country ravaged by conflict.
“I was the first to launch as a fashion designer in all of the Middle East,” says Saab. “All these people that you know about, they are coming after me. And I am so proud to have done that.”
His main atelier, now an 80-person operation, remains in Beirut, staffed by “many of the seamstresses that have been working for me for decades”. Having paved the way for Middle Eastern designers such as Reem Acra, Rabih Kayrouz and Zuhair Murad, Saab is opening a campus in his name at the American University of Beirut, to train students in fashion design and marketing.
“I am so proud of having created something which didn’t exist in my country,” he says. “I want to help and encourage talented young generations to pursue a career in fashion design.
This is part of the reason why I created a fashion degree with the Lebanese American University and the London College of Fashion. This bachelor of arts in fashion design is the result of our joint efforts to bring world-class fashion design to Lebanon.”
In 1997, Saab became the first non-Italian designer to be invited into the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana (the National Chamber for Italian Fashion). A few years later, he was a regular on the Paris catwalk circuit. But his real international watershed moment came when Halle Berry picked up her 2002 best actress Oscar (for Monster’s Ball) in one of his gowns (featuring a sheer top with strategically placed floral embroidery). The international press hailed him as a sensation.
Now, his company, still 100 per cent owned by Saab, has a network of stores ranging from Hong Kong to Dubai, Geneva and Mexico City, and there are plans for further expansion.
As if to point out the direction that expansion is likely to take, incredibly well-groomed, wealthy-looking women from, seemingly, the Arab states and former Soviet bloc countries have been slipping quietly in and out of Saab’s private salon all afternoon. Couture clients, or would-be clients, presumably, eyeing creations that generally start in the several tens of thousands of euros price range.
The globetrotting designer splits his time between Lebanon, his Paris headquarters and Geneva, where his wife, Claudine, and children, Selim, Michel and Elie Jnr, live. (“Yes, it’s true,” Saab quips, “I met my wife when she visited me to be dressed for her sister’s wedding.”) “My daily routine revolves around my work,” he says. “Most of it is spent designing. When I find the time, I visit art galleries and exhibitions that might be a source of inspiration for a future collection.”
For his autumn-winter 2014/15 ready-to-wear line, which was shown at Paris Fashion Week, the work of painter Mark Rothko was a key starting point. Clean, elegant silhouettes and “a rich palette of merlot and emerald highlighted with pale rose” have been manipulated by Saab to create an “optical illusion on the female form”, on velvet, crepe, chiffon, cashmere and mink.
His accessories came strong, contemporary and structured in “rectilinear shapes, suspended from chain and leather straps that resemble modernist jewellery”.
Practicality has become increasingly important as fashion has democratised – and that has been the case even for couturiers.
“I want to see women beautiful in everything, but I want my clothes to be wearable. They are not just for show.”