The acclaimed designer Elie Saab's love affair with fashion is only rivalled by the passion he feels for his hometown.
Made in Beirut
On the second, third and fourth floors of the Elie Saab building in a glamorous corner of downtown Beirut, approximately 100 men and women lean close to their beading, sewing and embroidery. They work with great intensity constructing fabulous, frothy creations for the great ladies that patronise this most famous of Middle Eastern designers. Delicate sequins are applied at lightning speed to tulle stretched tight across frames and half-completed dresses are moulded to mannequins shaped, padded and pared to exactly replicate the bodies of the clients.
The mannequins, or forms, are compelling, fascinating. It feels strangely intimate to be gazing upon these utterly honest representations of the bodies of the women for whom a gown by Saab is a regular enough purchase that they have their own doppelgangers sitting on a shelf in his atelier. Some, like the mannequin labelled Queen Rania, are slender and elegant. Others are, shall we say, voluptuous, like great classical sculptures dug up from the Roman excavations a few streets away. But for Saab, every female form is beautiful and inspires him to create his famous frocks.
"Always, I am inspired by women, by clients. I have many muses," he says as we discuss his life and designs, sometimes in English, sometimes in Arabic through a translator. Saab usually designs by draping cloth (Italian heavy silks or gossamer-like French chiffons) directly onto the mannequin, in a time-honoured couture method. "The paper and the pen wouldn't give the woman her full dimensions," continues the translator, as Saab breaks into Arabic to better express himself, something he does regularly throughout the interview. "The dimensions that there are in the real woman come from the real woman only. That's why I get inspired more by a woman's shape in front of me and the touch of the real material, not just a two-dimensional piece of paper."
Oh, to be one of the many muses of Saab, whose pieces are regularly seen on the most fabulous red carpets, worn by the world's supremely gorgeous women, from Beyoncé and Angelina Jolie to Aishwarya Rai and, of course, Halle Berry, the woman who, for many fashion watchers, made the designer a household name when she wore an extravagant burgundy confection to collect her Oscar for Best Actress in 2002.
Not that Saab was exactly unknown before this landmark date. Indeed, back in the Middle East, he had made Queen Rania of Jordan's coronation gown in 1999. He had also been the secret weapon of Hollywood stylists since he showed his first international collection in Rome in 1996 and opened an office in Los Angeles the same year. He is quick to point this out when I suggest that the Academy Awards in 2002 were as big a moment for him as for Berry.
"No, honestly, my big moment was in 1996 - my first presentation in Europe. From 1996 I was working in Los Angeles with all the actresses. Halle Berry got me more exposure, but it was the result of six years of hard work, not just a platform that took me to the international scene." There is no doubt, though, that Saab is now one of the go-to designers for red-carpet va-va-voom, from Dubai to Los Angeles, and it's something he is justifiably proud of.
"When a celebrity chooses to wear a dress of mine, this means she's choosing my vision of a woman. If she didn't like the vision of Elie Saab she wouldn't come and choose a dress of his. The A-list have all the choices of all the designers in the world, so when they choose an Elie Saab dress this is because they are convinced of my vision for the woman he wants." Understandably so: it's a seductive, fairy-tale vision, one of curve-enhancing shapes, floating tulle, intricately embellished silks and head-turning colours. Wear a Saab dress to a ball or a party or a gala event and you will certainly be among the most exquisitely dressed in the room, whether it's a classic couture piece or something from his strongly graphic direction for autumn/winter's pret-a-porter collection. This is something his clients have appreciated from the very beginning of his career, as he gathered fans like his frocks gather beading.
That career began early - at around nine years old, he says, when, growing up in a troubled Lebanon, he felt compelled to make dresses for his two sisters. He can shed no light on what made him want to do this. His family was not particularly stylish. Simply, he says: "I didn't have another choice in life. It was something that was meant in life." Saab appears not to be a man given to questioning his actions too closely. A calm presence, with a bashful smile occasionally lighting up his face, beneath close-cropped steel-coloured hair, his manner is understated, even if he cannot fail to be aware of his importance to the fashion world in Lebanon and the Middle East. As we begin to talk, he frets a little at the sight of the photographer, and adjusts the cuffs and collar of his crisp, slim-fitting shirt, tucked into fresh-looking dark indigo jeans. "I forgot to bring a blazer," he explains, not liking to be photographed in shirtsleeves. He borrows someone else's jacket. "It's better with or without?" he asks. We decide that the shirt alone is better, though in the end he will be photographed in his own jacket. His instinct is right, it seems, and not for the first time.
"I never felt that I would like somebody to impose on me what to do; I would like to feel myself free to do whatever I want," he explains through his translator, this time talking about his influences early in his career. "That's why I found that my sisters, the people around me, the people who really believed in me initially were the best start for me." That - and his tendency to follow his gut, however crazy the resulting actions might seem - would explain his decision to leave the fashion capital, Paris, at 18 with his fashion course unfinished, and return to Beirut to open an atelier in 1982 - the year that Israel invaded Lebanon.
"In Paris, I felt maybe I was in the wrong place and time," he says. "I felt as if I was losing time. I felt there was something big waiting for me and I would be delayed from my achievements if I spent my time studying. I wanted to get straight to the target, for that thing I felt was waiting for me." What was waiting for him was an already established and devoted clientele, who had discerned an 18-year-old's exceptional talent for making women look beautiful in a way that combined the technique of western fashion with the high-octane glamour beloved of Middle Eastern women.
"When I opened my place, it was in the period of Valentino. Valentino is what I liked because from the beginning I liked to give femininity to the woman. At this time Valentino was the best designer of this kind. I personally have a lot of esteem for women and for femininity. I think that it has to be valued, it has to be honoured, and honouring it is by giving it beauty. Women have a big role in my personal life and in society - as a wife, as a mother, as a sister - so that's why she deserves the best. And the best is beautiful."
Saab's eyes are on the sketch he is doodling: an opulent suit with a knee-length tulip skirt covered in swirling embellishments. Perhaps he is uncomfortable with the attention of being interviewed and photographed, or maybe it is merely that this workaholic designer has to be doing several things at once. (He is currently producing two couture collections and two pret-a-porter collections each year, as well as working on various projects such as the boutique hotel he is designing for the Tiger Woods Dubai complex.) He is certainly a man driven by the conviction of his personal aesthetic and even the invasion of his country and subsequent decades of war are not enough to stop him.
"It was a more difficult time, but when we commit we deliver. This is a golden rule for me and for the house. We never delay any delivery for any reason. Perfection and accuracy." When some designers find it hard to deliver their orders in a climate of peace, it is hard to believe how much Saab has achieved over the last 27 years. Perhaps his most important legacy is to Lebanon itself, almost single-handedly proving not only that the country has serious design potential but also that it is possible for the sons and daughters of a war-torn country to take their talents to the rest of the world. The successful designers of Beirut are almost too numerous to name, though names such as Zuhair Murad and Georges Chakra are among the most famous. Saab is once again bashful about his achievement here, but acknowledges his affection and hopes for the Beirut fashion scene.
"I'm really very proud of the quantity of people that got in the field and are trying to fix their position, and I'm even more proud that most of them worked in this house and left to do their own lines. Most of the big names of Lebanese fashion were working here. I prefer not to name them - it's too many - but almost everybody worked here or passed by for an internship." His dreams of a Beirut Fashion Week may not yet have come to fruition, but he still holds out hopes for when the country has proved its stability. "It's a very important issue to have a fashion week in Beirut, but it's not a very easy thing to do. I tried a lot and made a lot of effort but still it didn't work. I feel that I paid back Beirut a little - when they mention that I am Lebanese next to my name it's a small payback. Maybe the big payback is to do a Beirut Fashion Week, but this will be for the coming years. It's up to circumstances."
Modesty aside, with Saab's track record for achieving great things under impossible conditions, this is a promise to hold on to.