Complex Made Simple

Elie Saab

Two words are synonymous with red-carpet fashion these days: Elie Saab.
By Julia Robson / Telegraph Magazine / The Interview People

Rarely a week goes by without a beautiful celebrity wearing an exquisite, twinkling creation by the 47-year-old Lebanese designer at an awards ceremony or starry premiere. Remember the curvaceous, crimson-hued, cap-sleeved gown Kate Winslet wore to collect her Emmy last September? It was an Elie Saab (a copy now graces the waxwork Winslet at Madame Tussauds, London). And the emerald-sequined “mermaid” gowns Gwyneth Paltrow and Zoe Saldana wore in November to functions on either side of the Atlantic? Elie Saab.

In the past year, the roll-call of ladies who have chosen Saab’s chiffon or billowing satin to wear on the red carpet has trebled. Standout pieces included those adorning Mila Kunis (who wore Elie Saab at last year’s Oscars, as did Abbie Cornish and Céline Dion), Scarlett Johansson (Golden Globes), Sarah Jessica Parker (Cannes) and Keira Knightley (Toronto Film Festival).

I met Mr Saab – no one calls him Elie – after the ready-to-wear shows in Paris last October at a party in his apartment in the 16th arrondissement. It is a typically Parisian flat of wood-panelled interiors, chandeliers and vast gilt-edged mirrors that could have come from the Palace of Versailles. I found Saab looking far more relaxed than the man I had watched take a hesitant bow post-show, chatting to (mostly female) guests.

The next day I met Saab at his magnificent marbled Paris flagship at 1 Rond Point des Champs-Elysées, where the simplest day dress starts at approximately Dhs8,000. He is wearing black jeans, a grey cashmere crew-neck jumper, and a soft leather biker jacket.

It is 10 years since the name Elie Saab began to be whispered in celebrity fashion circles. Halle Berry wore a burgundy haute couture dress when she won an Oscar for Best Actress in 2002. The dress had been in her wardrobe for a year. “She wore it out of love, not because a stylist told her to wear it,” Saab tells me. “That is the force behind wearing my designs. Everything comes from the heart,” he says, pounding his own with his fist. “Celebrities are important, not because they are famous. It’s because they are normal women. When women see Kate Winslet in a dress they can imagine how it might look on them. She’s not an 18-year-old model who is two metres tall.”

Not that Saab isn’t popular with models. Anja Rubik, the “face” of the Elie Saab perfume, told me backstage, pre-show, “As a model you really want to put on an Elie Saab dress because you know it will make you look good.” After the show, models clung to him like a pop star, as did his many Lebanese clients. “How long have I been a fan?” one exclaimed. “Since the beginning.”

The “beginning” was long before Saab dressed Queen Rania of Jordan for her coronation in 1999, or when Halle Berry wore that frock to the Oscars.

Saab was born in 1964, the eldest son of five children of a prosperous wood merchant, a Maronite Christian, in Damour, south of Beirut. “When I was five I had a vision of what I wanted to do in life. I was a child, but not a child,” he says. “My two sisters were the first victims of my vision. I made them clothes and they encouraged me.”

For fabric, Saab used his mother’s old tablecloths and curtains, and newspapers came in handy for pattern cutting. “Up to the age of eight or nine, I can remember being very happy. Even as a child I was a critic regarding a woman. I was aware of her sense of style, and would think up ways she could look more beautiful and glamorous. My sisters played along  with it.”

In 1976, when Saab was 11, a year into the civil war in Lebanon, his hometown was ravaged in what became known as the Damour massacre. More than 500 men, women and children were killed.

“Damour was completely destroyed,” Saab said. “It was the first town to be hit by the war, and it came as a surprise. I felt much despair and regret seeing the town I grew up in destroyed.”

The family fled to the outskirts of Beirut. Many others from his village left Lebanon, never to return.

“I don’t want to tell you about the suffering. The fighting. I have friends from my school days and still we don’t talk about it. I want only to present good. The war brought much grief to my family and me, and it was naturally a huge obstacle to my dream of becoming a designer, but I used it to feed my resolve and accomplish what I had set out to achieve. The Lebanese appreciate good things. They may not be rich, but they have expectations. This same mentality has always been a driving force within me.”

A trip to Paris with his family when he was 14 cemented his ambition. “Everything fascinated me, not just the shops. It wasn’t a case of maybe; I knew I would return as a designer. When you believe in something you grow strong.”

His choice of career was not that of his parents. “We were a normal family. Lebanese people care about education and the progress of their children. My father wanted me to be a lawyer. It wasn’t that fashion in my country was not for a young man – fashion was non-existent.” But four years after his trip to Paris, in 1982, Saab declared he was going to have a fashion show, with models, in Beirut’s Casino du Liban. Friends and family thought he was joking. “I was 18. It was a war zone. There had never been such a presentation in Lebanon. Models didn’t exist. I found girls who worked in advertising, and students. I suspect most, like me, had never even been to a fashion show.

“Building a business and turning it into a success is difficult no matter what the situation politically. That said, doing it in the middle of a war zone, where there is no stability, and when you don’t know what is going to happen from one day to the next, definitely is a harder situation than most.

“But I believed – and still believe – in Beirut’s attitude of ‘for better and for worse’. Buildings were destroyed, but the beauty and rich culture of the city remains undamaged. Today Beirut is in its final stages of reconstruction. I always dreamt of this time when Beirut would be fully rebuilt.”

Saab began by making couture wedding dresses, which became the heart of his business. Arab wedding celebrations can last up to a week and require several outfit changes for the women. It is considered normal for the designer of the gown to make outfits for sisters and other members of the family, including the mother, aunts, grandmother.

“You can imagine with bridal gowns there has to be trust. Sometimes, in one Lebanese Arab family, you do 18 outfits.” As the brand developed, so did the clientele, who began to include actresses. They found in his contemporary gowns everything they needed to make an entrance. His reputation spread to Jeddah, Riyadh and Dubai.

In 1997 Saab was invited to show his couture collection in Rome as an official guest of the Italian fashion body. A year later he launched a ready-to-wear line during Milan Fashion Week. In 2000 the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture invited him to show his couture line in Paris, the ultimate accolade, which he has done every season since. In 2006 he was appointed as a Membre Correspondant, a feat achieved by only two other non-French citizens: Valentino and Giorgio Armani.

He puts much of his success down to his house style, a fusion of lavish Middle Eastern handiwork and classic and European trends. “I like feminine elegance, not extravagance. I try to give good taste. I still have some of my first dresses somewhere, and they aren’t so different from what I do now.”

Saab met his wife, Claudine, the daughter of one of his first clients, when he was 20. “When she walked into my office, I knew this woman was going to be in my life.” They married in 1990, when he was 25, and have three sons. The eldest, Elie Jr, is 21 and works with his father on social media and his website. Saab has homes in Paris, Beirut (where his atelier is) and Geneva, where the family lives for most of the year.

Saab recently opened his fifth global flagship, in Hong Kong’s Landmark Mall, to reinforce the brand’s presence in Asia. The others are in Dubai, Beirut, Paris and in Harrods. More are planned for 2013.

“I’ve built my house slowly,” Saab says. “I’m only now starting to develop daywear. A wedding dress is easier to do than a simple dress. To come up with a simple dress is a challenge. I’m so proud now that young people in my country can dream of working in fashion. All my generation knew was war.”