How Elie Saab has made the red carpet his catwalk
If you want to make it big in fashion, one way is to get as many of your frocks as possible on to that 500ft stretch of walkway leading into the Kodak Theatre on Oscars night.
Forget Paris. The red carpet of Hollywood Boulevard is the most important, most famous catwalk of them all. And with just weeks to go before the Academy Awards ceremony on February 26, one designer in particular stands in pole position: Elie Saab.
The 47-year-old Lebanese couturier dressed two of the best dressed actresses at last Sunday's Golden Globes, and managed to showcase both his ready-to-wear and haute couture lines to the waiting world. The golden yellow embroidered lace gown worn by Emily Blunt was from his Spring/Summer 2012 collection. The twinkling fin de siècle number encrusted with pearls and quartz worn by Jessica Biel came from his Autumn/Winter 2011/2012 haute couture collection.
The choice of elegant bridal white, in light of the recent marriage proposal Biel received from Justin Timberlake, in particular guaranteed Saab front-page stories globally. What a great way to kick off the 2012 awards season.
If there were an Oscar for dressing the most celebrities in 2011, Saab could win it.
Not a month goes by without a leading lady from Hollywood, Bollywood or Chollywood - the lucrative Chinese film industry - stepping out in a breathtaking gown created by Saab. Earlier this month, the greige-pleated, halter-neck jumpsuit Angelina Jolie wore to the Palm Springs International Film Festival Awards Gala was by Saab.
Most recently, Saab has designed gowns for Robin Wright Penn, Gwyneth Paltrow, Zoe Saldana, Michelle Yeoh, Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Lopez, Kate Winslet, Rihanna, Blake Lively and Carey Mulligan.
In 2010, Saab dressed 102 international celebrities for key global events, up from 40 in 2009. The figure for 2011 is still being counted, but by March already stood at 88.
Since he first came to the attention of international red carpet style watchers in 1999, dressing Queen Rania of Jordan for the coronation of her husband, Saab's track record has proved faultless.
In 2002, he became a household name when Halle Berry, dressed in one of his creations, won the Best Actress Oscar, heralding a new era in modern glamour.
The lilac lace and chiffon haute couture gown Mila Kunis wore for last year's Oscars night was described as "perfection" by Catherine Kallon, founder of the website Red Carpet Fashion Awards (www.redcarpet-fashionawards.com), who is considered the most authoritative blogger on the awards frockocracy.
"No one does glamour with such attention to detail and finesse as Elie Saab," Kallon told me during a small party given by Saab and his wife, Claudine, at his Paris apartment. "Young actresses such as Emma Watson, Blake Lively and Carey Mulligan wear Elie Saab as if to say, 'I've arrived! I've made it!'"
At the party, Sahar Sanjar, owner of La Chambre, a fashion public relations agency in Los Angeles, talked me through the red carpet rules.
"Sometimes, a celebrity's stylist will go into our showroom in LA or Paris and make a selection from current and archive collections. Every stylist is on Twitter. They tweet photos from the catwalk and immediately request outfits."
Anyone familiar with Elie Saab's extraordinary story, of how he established an atelier against the backdrop of two decades of war in Lebanon, will not be entirely surprised by his success.
The self-trained designer, born into a Maronite Christian family in Damour, a village subsequently destroyed during the war, precociously set up his company in 1982 - the year Israel waded into the hostilies - when he was 18.
Fast-forward to 2012 and Elie Saab the luxury superbrand is one of three foreign designers (Valentino and Armani are the others) allowed to call themselves haute couturiers, showing in Paris on the invitation of the picky Chambre Syndicale.
His debut perfume became an overnight bestseller in 15 countries, including the UAE, following its launch last July, and this month has seen his fifth store open in Hong Kong (the others are in Paris, Dubai, Beirut and Harrods in London). More are planned for 2013.
"The first five years were the hardest," Saab said during an interview in his marble Paris flagship following his last ready-to-wear show.
He began with couture bridal. "A wedding dress is all about trust. It is the most important dress a woman will wear in her life." Perfect training for designing red-carpet gowns, which have the power to launch or sink the career of an actress.
"I design from the heart. I don't think about trends. I think about women. I don't like exaggerated things. I like elegance not extravagance. Maybe because of this I have my success?"
The public prefer to see actresses, he believes, adding: "But it's not about fame. Women obsess about celebrities because they are more normal women in terms of shape. When you see Kate Winslet you can imagine how a 'real' woman might look rather than a model who is two metres high and aged 18."
Not that he isn't popular with top models. At the show earlier, Anja Rubik, currently the highest paid model in the world, had told me, "You really want to put on Elie Saab dresses because you know they will make you look good. You can tell the clothes are designed by someone who understands not just a woman's body but how a woman wants to feel."
When I asked him if it was true that some designers paid celebrities to wear their clothes, he threw up his hands in mock horror. "We never pay anyone to wear Elie Saab. I would never push a woman to put on a dress. This is why every time an actress wears a dress, it is reaffirmation of my house.
"I've built my atelier slowly. I'm only just starting to do daywear clothes but I try and make sure even trousers capture that same spirit of femininity that's in my evening wear.
"A red carpet dress is relatively easy. Coming up with a pair of trousers that can look elegant, feminine and empowering? Now that's hard."
Updated: January 21, 2012 04:00 AM