The glossy posse's go-to couturier makes dreamy dress confections for real women, writes Francesca Fearon
ELIE SAAB LIVES between Paris, Beirut and Geneva, and his twinkling fairytale dresses know no borders and begown the globe's glitziest parties and red carpet events. The Lebanese designer has a way of whipping up yards of delicate Chantilly lace, chiffon and silk tulle embellished with thousands of beads and crystals into dreamy, light confections that make him the go-to designer for special events. If there is one person whose dresses guarantee you feel at your most feminine it's Saab.
"There is lightness and fragility within every woman," says self-taught 48-year-old Saab when we meet after his haute couture show in Paris. He likes to capture and convey that spirit in his designs. His sinuous, bias-cut silhouettes are simple but they showcase insets of lace and exquisite detailing that have been seducing princesses and Hollywood film stars for years. "Actresses are like real women to me. Unlike the catwalk where 17-year-old models are 182cm tall, the red carpet is like a podium for real life - it means so much more to me to see them in my dresses."
Angelina Jolie, Jessica Biel, Dakota Fanning and Fan Bingbing represent some of the elite he dresses. "I started wearing Elie Saab a few years ago when no one knew his brand in China, now his label really rocks in China," exclaims Fan, who wore his dresses at the Cannes Film Festival again this year. "It is always a pleasure to dress Bingbing, she looks so elegant and feminine in Elie Saab," says the designer. "I dressed her for the first time at Cannes in 2010, she comes to our shows in Paris and our collaboration continues." But while a couture gown on a film star might attract haute couture clients to the collection, Saab says it is not for the same dress. "If a client orders a dress for a special occasion she wants to look unique."
Nevertheless he is pleased when Asian actresses ask to wear his creations. "We have been dressing several Asian actresses on a regular basis like Maggie Cheung, Michelle Yeoh, Li Bingbing or Fan Bingbing. I think they are the best ambassadors to represent the brand locally and they certainly influence the demand. "
That's fortuitous given that Saab opened his first shop in the Landmark earlier this year and is now hoping to expand regionally. "There is a strong interest for the brand and we are looking into further developing our presence in the region in the near future," he says.
Though renowned for exquisite couture gowns and cocktail dresses, Saab's ready-to-wear emphasises daywear, echoing grey Parisian autumn skies rather than the sunset colours of his native Beirut. Like his couture, the silhouettes come in flattering hourglass shapes enhanced by the current trend for colour-blocking to slim the outline and peplums to narrow the waist. The focus is on skirt suits and dresses, but the draped liquid jersey, black lace and shimmering nude evening dresses are never far away.
The dresses are whisked together in his large atelier in Beirut. Saab has a mansion there but his family now spends most of their time in Geneva, following political instability a few years ago in Lebanon. His two younger sons, Selim and Michel, attend school in Switzerland, while his eldest son, Elie, a student at university, has contributed to the launch of the label's website and social media.
Saab calls Paris his spiritual home: "from the day I started designing, I dreamt of showing in Paris." He had previously presented collections in Beirut and Rome and made his Paris debut in 2000. Two years later his red carpet destiny was sealed when Halle Berry appeared in one of his dresses at the Oscars and walked off with the Best Actress prize.
The same year he opened his couture salon in the 8th arrondissement and in 2006 he was invited to become a Membre Correspondent of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, alongside Valentino Garavani and Giorgio Armani, the highest level recognition a non-French couturier can receive.
"I had a talent and a belief in myself," he says. "Fashion design did not exist in our country and my parents wanted me to become a doctor or an engineer. I fought a lot with them, but I proved myself and now it is okay." Looking at Saab's luminous collections in Paris it's clear a glossy posse of women think it's A-list okay.