A master creator of wedding dresses and glamorous gowns worn on the red carpets of Hollywood by celebrities such as Angelina Jolie and Halle Berry and by royals like Queen Rania of Jordan, Lebanese designer Elie Saab has become one of the biggest global figures in contemporary fashion. The man whose name has become synonymous with elegance takes time out from his busy schedule to give journalist and TV host Elsa Yazbek Charabati a rare interview
“King of the Red Carpet,” “Designer to the Stars,” “World Conqueror” are just a few nicknames you’ve been given. Which is your favorite?
The Lebanese designer, Elie Saab.
Over the years, Elie Saab has evolved from a name to a brand. What’s the secret to your success?
Work. I work 10 hours a day at least. There is no coincidence; I study every step I make. Since I started, I’ve had a vision. To step from a name to a brand is not only a matter of talent, it also needs a strategy and good structure.
You have a very ambiguous relationship with light. You light up the gowns you design; women sparkle in your creations and attract all the attention, but you yourself don’t like to be in the spotlight. Are you afraid of the limelight?
No, but I believe that every artist who has a collection speaking on his behalf doesn’t need to be in competition with his creations. My designs speak for me. When I’m on the streets of Beirut, I’m blessed with the kindness of people, they stop to tell me how proud they are of me. This is my best prize. It gives me fresh impulse to go further. I also feel more responsible not to deceive the people who trust me. I’m so proud to give a good image of Lebanon.
From Casino du Liban to Paris Fashion Week, your career has been filled with fashion shows. Which one had the biggest impact for you?
Every show is a new challenge and has its own impact. But the one I’ll never forget is my first fashion show
at Casino du Liban. It was one unforgettable night in 1982. The next day, articles [about my show] flooded the newspapers, amidst horrible pictures of the Lebanese war. It was something.
…with the iconic picture of a model draped in the Lebanese flag… you were only 18!
We Lebanese are survivors, we are used to working against all odds. Yes, I was challenging the war,
myself, my parents… all the people who didn’t understand me then. Another milestone in my career remains to be my fashion show in Rome. I was the first non-Italian to participate in Rome Fashion Week.
For a Lebanese designer, that is truly an achievement.
It’s not about being Lebanese or not. For me, the world has no borders. Whatever your nationality, the most important is to offer your best.
After years of hard work you were awarded fashion’s highest honor; induction into the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. Alongside Valentino, Versace and Armani, you are the only non-French corresponding member to enter this golden circle. How difficult was it for you to reach this level of international recognition?
It wasn’t easy at all, but I did it and I reached this status thanks to my creations that were highly appreciated by international clients, market and media. I think I opened the path for other Arab and Lebanese designers. As such, Lebanon is now on the world fashion map. The overall vision has changed.
What are your habits before every fashion show? Do you have a lucky charm?
I don’t believe in luck; I believe in hard work. I defied luck to reach my goal. My path is similar to no other. I had lots of obstacles to overcome, but I’m proud of all the steps of my life. And there’s one thing I love doing before every show, being surrounded by my family [his wife, Claudine, and three sons].
You embarked on your career at a very young age. Were your parents pleased with your choice or did they want you to become a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer?
Maybe they did, especially that, back then, fashion design was not a recognized profession. But thank God, since I’ve proven myself, they are so proud of me now.
You’ve never quit Lebanon. Even during the war, you launched your own war, a war of color, design, embroidery… How did you do it in such difficult circumstances?
Even during the war, I was sending dresses to Arab countries. My only concern was to deliver them on time, even with the airport being closed. If I prepare my prêt-à-porter collection in Milan, I have always created my haute couture in Lebanon. I believe we shouldn’t leave our country. We are the fuel and resource of the Lebanese economy.
Is Beirut an inspiration for you? What do you prefer here: The light, the weather, the architecture?
Of course, it is. And the most inspiring element here, more important than the light of Beirut, is the people.
The name of your hometown Damour is derived from the Phoenician god Damoros who symbolized immortality. Is celebrity a way to reach immortality?
Thank God, success is here. But being eternal needs much more. It means you have to be successful until the last day. And maintaining success is a very hard thing.
From wedding dresses to haute couture, from prêt-à-porter to fragrances, from a person to an empire that you have built up year by year, you now have boutiques in Lebanon, Paris, Dubai, Qatar, London, Hong Kong, Mexico and 130 points of sales worldwide. How do you manage all of this?
A good structure with a good team is essential at this stage. It’s a huge responsibility but I was born with a vision. I never look for tomorrow or a year ahead; I look wider, always further and far beyond.
Always on the go, with new ideas and concepts, you have just launched your fabulous Autumn-Winter 2016-2017 haute couture collection with a twist; matching mother-daughter gowns for the pleasure of little fashionistas. What do you do after every fashion show?
Start working on the next one [laughs].
01 981982, eliesaab.com, Elie Saab Salon De Couture,
Elie Saab Building, Beirut Central District