Interview: Elie Saab

Tuesday, 15 April 2008
This year, Lebanese designer Elie Saab presented his collections in Paris for the fifth consecutive year. The designer became a member of the French Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture in 2003. In the same year he presented his first haute couture collection in Paris and started collaborating with Spanish bridal company Pronovias. Saab's first ready-to-wear collection was introduced in the French capital in 2006.

Elie Saab was born in Beirut, Lebanon, on July 4th 1964. He was only six years old, when he first showed signs of his future flair, designing clothes while other children played. In 1982, after a trip to Paris, he set up his own workshop in Beirut. His atelier started right from the beginning to make evening gowns and wedding dresses. During the 1980's, his collections attracted many clients, including Princesses and his reputation built up. His signature style of making garments using rich fabrics, lace, detailed embroidery, pearls, crystals and silk threads, put Saab in a league of his own.

By 1986 orders were pouring in. During the 1990's, he took a bigger atelier and started serving customers in France and Switzerland. In 1997 Saab was the first non-Italian designer to become a member of the Italian Camera Nazionale della Moda, and showed his first collection outside Lebanon, in Rome. In 1998, he started ready-to-wear in Milan. He became particularly well known in early 2002, when Halle Berry wore his red gown to receive her Oscar Award.

Saab still has his headquarters in Beirut and offices in New York and Paris. His ready-to-wear line is made in Italy. He has 60 retail outlets all over the world, 18 of them in the United States.

FashionUnited: How would you define the style of Elie Saab?

Elie Saab: Elegant, feminine. I want women to feel feminine and sensual when they wear my clothes.

FU: Is it unusual to become a fashion designer when you are a man in a country like Lebanon? How did your friends and family react when you started in this industry at a young age?

ES: It wasn't easy, the road was long, and at that time this job did not exist. There were tailors of course but no designers. My parents wanted me to become either a lawyer or a doctor, the classical desirable career for a man, but then they realised I was determined. Today they are very pleased where I am. FU: Is Lebanon a big source of inspiration? How important is Lebanon and how important are your roots as a designer?

ES: It is a great source of inspiration and energy for me and because it is my hometown I feel there at my best. The culture is very rich, its geography and sites are amazing, the weather and the fashion sense of the people around. Everything is in place to keep my creative skills alive! FU: Let's talk about the present; what inspired this new collection you presented in Paris?

ES: The canvases of Mondriaan and the geometric compositions of De Stijl inspired me. Both, colour blocking and sculpted form are the two cornerstones of the collection. FU: What new features did you introduce?

ES: The striped fabric and geometric compositions are new in this collection. FU: Your style has evolved throughout the years. Instead of using oriental details as before, this season is more neutral. Does your style adapt to the market or vice versa?

ES: The style evolves with the period you live in of course, the season, the trends in the worldwide market. Hence of having clients from all around the world, the demands and needs of the clients are very important to me. All these factors combined contribute to a change in the direction of style, but my signature as a designer stays the same. FU: In what way have celebrities influenced the evolution of the brand?

ES: They help to expand the brand more than anything. An event such as the Oscars receives publicity and coverage worldwide and it makes the cover of the magazines, the news etc. It is a great publicity tool. The press loves fashion and covers it massively; red carpet events are becoming more like fashion events. FU: Fashion companies such as Inditex and H&M are very successful worldwide, but designers normally oppose to this kind of business. What are your thoughts on this phenomenon?

ES: On the contrary I find it very interesting to produce fashionable brands accessible to everyone. A lot of women shop at sores like Zara and they offer a wide clothing variety, which I am very much in favor of. FU: Are you planning any more collaborations or shop openings for this year?

ES: We are working on several projects at the moment, which we'll announce closer to the date.

Images: Elie Saab