There are very few fashion houses in the world today that can still claim true legitimacy, standing true to their DNA and at the same time, remain an independent entity, let alone a brand whose roots belong in the Middle East, a region that has for so long been underrepresented in the global luxury industry. But Mr Elie Saab has been the one to break those barriers.
Mr Elie Saab. Photographer: Carl Halal
Born in Beirut, Lebanon, Mr Elie Saab grew up dreaming of making clothes and he began to teach himself how to sew from the age of ten, dressing his sister in clothes he would make from scraps of material found in his mother’s closet. In 1982 at the age of just 18, Mr Saab launched his own fashion label in Beirut. He had blended western style with his Middle Eastern influences to create bridal couture gowns which soon caught the attention of the high society women in the local community. Mr Saab’s designs focused on making exquisite pieces from the most luxurious of fabrics. He used lace, detailed embroidery, pearls, crystals, and silk threads to create by hand, gowns that would be fit for royalty. Saab continued to harbour a strong following in Lebanon, a country that remains at his heart, but he always dreamt of taking his brand further beyond the Middle East, something that had rarely been done by an Arab designer before.
While his Lebanese heritage and culture remain until today at the heart of everything he does, Saab made it his mission to position the brand at an international level. He set his sights on Italy where he became the first non-Italian designer to be a member of the National Chamber of Italian fashion, and in 1997, he showed his first collection outside Lebanon in Rome. In 1998 he started his ready-to-wear and accessories lines and hosted a fashion show in Monaco which saw Princess Stéphanie of Monaco in attendance. As word started to spread across Europe of Mr Saab’s exquisite designs, demand began to come in from a new consumer base who were mesmerised by his dazzling gowns.
In 2002, Mr Saab was invited to dress American actress Halle Berry for her red carpet appearance at the Academy Awards. Berry won the award for Best Actress that year and of course, all eyes were on what she was wearing to accept the award. This captured the attention of the world and as a result, the brand’s profile grew in The United States, the first Lebanese fashion house to do so at such a scale. In 2003 Saab was invited by The Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture to become a member, and he showed his first haute couture collection in Paris in July 2003. He subsequently presented his first Ready-to-Wear collection in the French capital for the Spring/Summer 2006 season.
With his fashion line firmly positioned and going from strength to strength, the brand signed a 10-year licensing agreement with Beauté Prestige International for fragrances and cosmetics in 2010 with the House’s first fragrance “Le Parfum” launching in 2011, beginning a new chapter that would see the brand add additional verticals aside of its haute couture universe. Over the next few years, Mr Saab would open stores across the globe, from New York to Paris, to London to Beirut as well as being stocked at over 150 retailers worldwide.
In 2019, the House diversified further with the launch of Elie Saab Maison, a line of home furnishings that brings the DNA of the fashion house into the lifestyle section as well as a development into real estate through a partnership with Emaar. But as a creative mastermind and expert couturier, Saab’s strength lies in designing and the creation process and that is the legacy he wants to preserve. In 2012, Elie Saab Junior joined the company as Brand Director and today, he oversees the company as Group CEO, with a focus on diversifying the house’s verticals and expanding with an approach that remains true to the heart of the brand.
The brand has seen great success across the years, showing Haute Couture collections each season in Paris, as well as developing a ready-to-wear line, fragrances, accessories and most recently, the addition of made-to-measure couture menswear. Not following trends as such, but ensuring his gowns are both timeless and relevant. Mr Elie Saab has become a true leader in the industry and an inspiration to all those that follow.
Ahead of presenting the Spring/Summer 2023 Haute Couture collection in Paris, we met exclusively with Mr Elie Saab and Elie Saab Junior for two heartful and insightful interviews that would allow the world to understand the balance between guarding the beautiful legacy of this brand while also setting up for future success and appeal to the new generations. We talk to Mr Saab to find out more about the collection and the couture industry, while Elie Junior offers an insight into the brand at a Group level and looks at how diversifying the company’s verticals will offer clients the opportunity to buy into the full Elie Saab lifestyle.
The last time we sat together was before the pandemic, and while that period was a slowdown period for many, how was it for Elie Saab? What can you tell us?
That period was indeed a very challenging time for everyone, however, we tried to be resilient and positive. The truth is that we never changed any of our forecasted plans. I believe that in that slowdown moment we gained time in that phase to focus, reflect, and move forward in the right direction. Hence, today everything has its proper base and foundation set. We are grateful that the industry is on its recovery and always looking forward to better days.
Looking at the industry today, how do you assess it and what challenges do you face as a brand?
The industry is surely a challenging one and obstacles may arise along the way, but this varies from one Maison to another as each has its own strategies, plans and expectations. For us as a brand, we have been very attentive to every step we make and will only do that after a calculated study and thorough research. We never venture into any random decision without being fully certain and aware of the output and results.
Do you still see that the Couture industry revolves around dreams?
It is dreams and they’re translated for sure. And in my opinion, wherever there is a woman, there is Haute Couture. Every woman wants to be unique and stand out, and today Haute couture has its clientele around the world that appreciate this unique and exclusive craftsmanship. There are few fashion houses that managed to sustain this savoir-faire while others just kept it as an image.
For us as Elie Saab, we started with Haute Couture, and it is the core that gives strength to everything we do however we branch out. Haute Couture was and will always remain the soul and DNA of the brand.
Speaking of couture, tell us about the latest collection for this season.
In every collection, we take our clients on a journey to a new place and time. This time we visited Thailand and were inspired by its ceremonial occasions and opulent expressions, so we translated them into looks using many new cuts and forms, exquisite textures, draped embroideries, and braided and elaborate trimmings.
Titled “Golden Dawn” the collection is a celebration of the beauty and style of the country. Each majestic piece is intricate and ornate carefully put together recreating the scenes of natural beauty that can be found in the country. Shimmering rhinestones and crystals weave into the delicate metallic tresses of wispy capes and sumptuous large coats that make elegant statements as they dance to the floor. These regal golden looks create a sense of power and opulence.
We also saw last season the Elie Saab man on the podium, tell us more about that and what brought that to life?
To be honest, we have noticed that there has been an appetite and demand for this for quite a while from many of our existing customers. Last season when we revealed the collection, we received great echoes from the press and clients. It followed the same elegance and craftsmanship as the women’s collections, with luxurious embellishments and intricate embroideries, interpreting the DNA of the brand in a new way.
I remember when you told me years ago that you want women to identify an Elie Saab look without any logo or motif. If you were to describe your aesthetic and style in one word, how would you describe an Elie Saab look?
You were one of the first creative names to put the region on the global map when it comes to fashion. This is success at the core. How hard is it to maintain success?
To succeed is something, but to guard and sustain being successful is a task on its own. Our industry is not an easy one and it requires a philosophy and a vision, but it also requires the person to know how to feel the market, to be resilient and to know the client’s behaviour to be able to sustain that success.
Speaking of success, your journey is full of great achievements, what is it that you still aim to achieve that you haven’t done yet?
I still have loads to do! There are many ambitions that I have on mind that I still want to achieve.
Looking back on all that was done throughout your journey, are you satisfied?
Satisfied? It is a big word and comes with a big responsibility. What I can tell you is that whenever something revolves around assessing myself, I am very strict.
Is there anything that you would change in the way you did things?
Life taught me never to look back. Sometimes I recall previous executions and practices and it is only to learn how they can be reapproached. I’ve always been a patient person from the beginning and across the years life confirmed that patience is key and core.
What would you advise emerging talents who are aspiring to be designers?
I would tell them that our industry is a tough one and requires a lot of sacrifices, and to stand out they need to work hard, but most importantly they need to find their own signature. They need to listen, observe with fresh eyes, and live the experience.
Looking at the industry today, are there certain names you respect and like?
On a regional level, for sure there are a lot of young men and women designers that are doing a good job and I love their work and I believe that if they remain persistent and work hard and constantly develop themselves, they will achieve great things and take their brands to another level. And in today’s world the presence of social media, allows them to reach a wider audience and target globally.
On a global level, I have immense respect for names like Giorgio Armani, Christian Dior, and Valentino Garavani as those were legends that contributed a lot to this industry, and I believe that there aren’t many today as few are the designers that are designing for their own name. Most of them are working for different fashion houses and most are doing ready-to-wear and not couture.
What was your biggest sacrifice?
Time! If you think about it, we do eight collections a year so every 40 days we present a new collection, hence time becomes the biggest investment. It is very hard for a person like me who is very attentive and fully dedicated to his work not to put all his time in the smallest of details.
What does success mean to you?
Success is something fragile and therefore it requires constant dedication, attention, and maintenance to be able to guard it and sustain it. It is surely a big responsibility therefore we must never take it for granted. Personally, I am always careful in all that I do to guard that success.
The burden of having your brand carrying your name is heavy. How would you like to be remembered?
I am blessed with the respect and appreciation of many, and I strive to guard this legacy and responsibility.
Where is Lebanon in your life?
Lebanon is at the core of my heart, and it is my entire life! The more challenging the situation gets there the more persistent I am to stay. I believe in Lebanon, and I pray for better days. That’s my biggest hope.
What are your last words for your customers and fans in the region?
Today as a part of our Group’s expansion plans, we are closer to our customers in the Middle East, be it Dubai where we have our flagship boutique or the recently opened Abu Dhabi boutique in Galleria mall, as well as our store in Qatar in Doha’s Katara Cultural Village and soon to be in Saudi Arabia in VIA Riyadh.
I hope that we continue being trusted and appreciated by our customers as this is what drives us onwards and upwards.