There is no denying Ingie Chalhoub has come to be one of the most powerful women in the Arab world. Not only does she own her own fashion label; INGIE Paris, she also heads up the Etoile Group which she founded and now serves as President and Managing Director.
Born to Lebanese parents in Egypt, Chalhoub grew up with a great love for fashion and all things creative. After graduating from university she went into business with her mother opening the first Chanel boutique in Kuwait in 1983. Chanel is still one of the many brands under the Etoile Group’s portfolio that now also includes Valentino, Tod’s and Ralph Lauren amongst others.
Over the years, the group has focused on nurturing partnerships with international luxury brands to deliver the ultimate shopping experience to the Arab clientele. Today with over 500 employees and more than 80 luxury brands in its catalogue, the Etoile Group is one of the leading companies in the region. Chalhoub has been described as one of the most “powerful Arab women” in the region, a “creative visionary” and “leading entrepreneur”. There is no denying the power and influence she has in the fashion industry in the region and also across Europe.
Earlier this year, Ingie, along with her husband Patrick Chalhoub, owner of the Chalhoub group, were awarded the prestigious Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur – the highest civilian merit awarded in France. The award was to commemorate their commitment to promoting the French luxury industry in the Middle East. France is a country that is very close to Ingie’s heart as it is the home of her ready-to-wear brand INGIE Paris. Bringing together the two cultures of the Middle East and Europe, the label fills a unique gap in the market and allows Chalhoub to express that creative flair she has had since she was a child.
After waiting a long time for the right moment, INGIE Paris opened its first UAE store in the Dubai Mall Fashion Avenue extension earlier this year. In a rare moment of free time, Ingie talks to A&E on her legacy, the industry today and her plans for the future.
What can you tell us about the collections we see in store today?
Today you see the FW18 collection which is inspired by the leaves and colours of fall. Leaves were something that I wanted to replicate into different materials. The first outfit I was wearing today featured a leaf print that I created in a satin crepe and the whole idea was to link the theme of fall together in the materials, the prints and embroideries. You will see this throughout the collection.
What can you tell us about how INGIE Paris has evolved?
I like to challenge myself to find new ideas and become more feminine and appeal to international women. I want my pieces to become more couture looking with attention to the little details that make a difference.
You split your time between the UAE and Paris how does that impact your designs?
This is what makes my designs unique. I am living between two cultures and you can see this in the designs and also in my life. My atelier is in Paris where I have to go once a month. If I do not go my team comes here with the designs and we try everything here. I have to go as much as I can so that I can be involved in the process but it does become very hectic sometimes, especially when it’s close to fashion week. Sometimes I have to spend a lot of time in Paris to make sure everything is on track. Not only organising the show itself but ensuring that the whole story is replicated into the show. I have to make sure every single detail is right. The pieces go from one atelier to another so it is not easy.
How involved are you in the whole process?
I am involved from A to Z in every single aspect. It’s very hard for me not to get involved because this is my brand and my baby. It is representing the image that I would like to project.
Who is the INGIE Paris woman?
When the INGIE Paris woman walks into a room she wants to make a difference. She is an international woman who travels all over the world and wants something to wear from day to night that is multi-faceted. She is a businesswoman who is also creative and an artist. She is feminine and glamorous, modern and contemporary. She is a trendy person but she loves art. She is passionate and would like everything to look perfect and she cares about her signature.
Your pieces are very flattering on the body…
I have studied the body structure of a woman as well as skin tones and what looks good on the body – it is a real science. When you look at a woman you want to emphasise her beauty. I believe every woman has beauty inside and she just has to be confident. So it is my job to work out how to do that. The quality of the garments and production is also very important, things need to be done in the proper way.
How important is the retail environment in today’s industry?
I think retail is most important because it is an experience. It is where you can be taken care of and be pampered while at the same time you can touch the clothes. I’m a very sensual woman so I really like to touch. When I am selecting fabrics I touch everything. It is something that cannot be replicated by digital or social media. Of course you can cheat on colour or shape but you cannot cheat on how something feels.
What about runway shows, how important do you think they are in the industry today?
The runway shows are the image that you project. When you see a dress on the runway it is styled in a different way than in the store. You can go crazy and really have something completely different and aspirational. For my latest show I wanted the flowers that are on my dresses and in my embroideries to be replicated on the walls of the show. It was magnificent. Throughout the whole space you could smell the flowers. So the point I’m making is that the show is about the smell, the touch, seeing the fabrics move, you won’t get all this with social media. You won’t feel the emotions through a phone. At the end of the show we were all in tears because we were so happy. Living that moment through social media will never be the same as living it by really being there. This is why I would like more people to spend time living the moment.
What are your feelings on social media?
It is a very important tool if it is used properly. I believe there are a lot of advantages to it but there are a lot of disadvantages too. The limitation of social media, as I was saying before is that you don’t get to experience the touch and feel the emotion in the same way as you do in real life. Of course the big advantage is being able to access a huge quantity of people and to become known very quickly, but at the same time you have to target your audience and know how to be careful about it. You can tease them but if you give away too much then what more do they have to discover when they come to the store? I want to leave an element of surprise.
Why was it important for you to open this store in The Dubai Mall Fashion Avenue Extension?
The new extension of Dubai Mall was such an exciting project. I was waiting for the proper location before opening a store in Dubai and as you know I have waited for a long time. That was really because I wanted to make sure that I got the right location. The Avenue is so stunning it’s such a good feeling to be here.
What does the UAE mean to you?
One of my sons was born here so it really is a second home for me. I love the positive vibe, the people and their warmth. I love the climate – I hate the cold!
Who or what inspires you?
Honestly everything inspires me. A simple leaf or sunset. Wherever I go I feel like I’m inspired by so many things. I love watching people and how they dress up. Even the way they wear my own designs. Recently I was at a birthday party and I saw someone I didn’t know wearing one of my designs. I told her I was the designer of her dress and she was amazed. I loved how she was wearing it and this is something I love to see because often they wear it in a different way to how I would have imagined. This can be in the way they accessorise it or their style. This lady was so beautiful and the metallic dress she was wearing was so amazing on her. I love to see real people in my designs and that is inspiring.
How has your mother influenced your career and life?
My mother was an amazing woman. She was beautiful and she had an aura around her. She looked very much like Elizabeth Taylor who she loved. She was always elegant, always wearing top couture lines from morning to evening. Everything was perfect – her make-up, her hair, her styling, her jewellery. I was always looking at my mother’s style and she was very happy to have curves.
She gave me a lot of freedom and she taught me a lot of artistic ways. She encouraged me because she knew that I had an artistic flair. When I was eight years old I was stuck at home with an illness and I started spending time with my Barbies and making them clothes.
When I started to grow up she taught me a lot of techniques including how to sew and stitch. I also used to do pottery and painting. I was inspired by Leonardo Da Vinci when I went to Italy. So I have always been very artistic.
Everything related to arts I would do with my mother – visiting museums, galleries etc. When I graduated all I wanted was to work in fashion and we opened our first store together. My mother introduced me to fashion when I was a student. She would take me to exhibitions and would tell me; “try it, because on you it’s not the same as on the model. You have to feel it.” What she told me was very true – if you see something on a model and don’t try it yourself you’ll never understand how something fits.
What would be your advice to aspiring entrepreneurs?
People think that it’s easy and they tend to underestimate the work and time that is spent on it. Once you launch something you have to be ready to sacrifice a lot of things and put in a lot of time and effort. Of course it’s a long process. People tend to think that because of social media things will come quicker and more easily – yes they may, but they may not. So what I would really recommend is to be persistent and to make sure that even if you have challenges or difficulties in the beginning, don’t give up. Be ready for the fight.
How do you think the role of successful women in today’s society is changing especially in this region?
The change is tremendous. I’m very proud to see how many women are changing. His Highness is really pushing women forward and it is amazing. I am very proud of it and very happy because it is going where it should go. Doors are being opened for a lot of women and the country is embracing change and modernity. Dubai is setting an example to the rest of the region and to the whole world.
What is the motto you live your life by?
My motto is to get the beauty of women from the inside out. Making sure they have self-confidence and an aura around them that makes people turn their heads when they walk into a room.
What in your opinion are the secrets to success?
I think to achieve success, first of all you have to have a vision. Set your goal and persevere. Hard work is a necessity. You have to really know the amount of work and sacrifice behind it and be ready for the challenges and setbacks. Use those setbacks to bounce back.
What is one thing at INGIE Paris that you still want to achieve?
My dream is to have INGIE Paris go to the next level of becoming an internationally known brand sitting next to the top fashion houses in the world and keeping its unique heritage. That is my real goal.