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Thu 30 Nov 2017 09:49 AM

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Interview: Elie Saab, king of the red carpet

The Lebanese designer started making dresses aged nine, opened his first atelier at 17, in the midst of civil war, and from there went on to dress the world's most prominent women. Today, at 53 years old, he runs an international, multi-million dollar firm

Interview: Elie Saab, king of the red carpet

For a man who has dressed some of the most famous women in the world, Elie Saab seems surprisingly unsure about his own appearance.

“Do I look better with the jacket on or off?” he asks his assistant, as he sits behind a massive marble table in his softly-lit Parisian atelier, looking weary from many hours of adding the final touches to his imminent Spring 2018 ready-to-wear collection.

The unassuming black leather jacket comes off, then back on again, after a few reassuring words. Hard to believe that just 48 hours later, this is the same Elie Saab who will once again be taking his bows on the runway at Paris Fashion Week (wearing the same outfit, complete with plain black jeans and top).

“I’m a simple man,” he says, laughing at the suggestion that his own dress sense is far more modest than his creations. But while his attire maybe simple, the real Elie Saab is a complex and canny man, who has single-handedly created a multi-million dollar global fashion empire from scratch. 

He once made an embellished wedding dress with diamonds and emeralds that required so much labour it sold for an alleged $2.4m. His haute couture creations come with a hefty price tag believed to start at $12,000. His clientele? Queen Rania, Meryl Streep, Angelina Jolie, you name them – Elie Saab has dressed them.

It is no wonder the 53-year-old is nicknamed the ‘King of the Red Carpet,’ though he has had years of experience. Saab started making dresses for his sisters and relatives aged nine, before opening his first atelier at 17 in the midst of the Lebanese civil war – right after a stint in a Paris fashion school that he deemed “a waste of time”. “I already knew everything,” he says of the reason he dropped out.

53-year-old Saab started making dresses aged nine. Photo: Simon Yau.

And he was right. He did not need much schooling. In 2002, he became the first Lebanese designer to ever dress an Oscar winner. As luck would have it, it was Halle Barry, whose tearful acceptance speech for the best-actress award for Monster’s Ball was watched by millions across the world, putting Saab on centre stage. The green-mesh and deep-red embroidered gown gained so much exposure that it remains on Oscar’s best dressed lists to this day.

So what did Saab already know that allowed him to prosper in a notoriously fickle and competitive industry? Quite a lot, as the rest of our conversation attests.

Fear as a focus

Saab did not let the massive exposure generated by his ‘Oscars moment’ go to waste. A year later, he became the first Arab to be admitted to the fashion industry’s governing body, Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, before showcasing his first haute couture collection in Paris a few months later. He was finally in the spotlight, but it is a space Saab is not necessarily comfortable in. An introvert by nature, he spends no more than a few seconds waving to the crowds at the end of his shows before quickly disappearing out of sight. “Everybody knows I don’t like the spotlight. I don’t want to compete with my product,” he says.

Saab is a fixture at Paris Fashion Week

Despite having put on dozens of shows, however, Saab still gets nervous when releasing a collection, admitting, “Every time is like the first time. We always have a new item to present, a new style to reveal. It’s not easy, because I like to be perfect, always.”

While perfection is an impossible goal, Saab’s career to date is impressive by almost any standards. Today, his brand is sold in over 150 wholesale points worldwide in major cities such as London, Dubai and New York. He has plans to expand in the US with five more stores across the West Coast, and already has a three-storey shop in Geneva and a seasonal store in Courchevel in the pipeline.

His brand might have Middle Eastern roots, but Saab says his strongest market is Europe, where he just opened a second store in Paris and a 1,000 sq m flagship store in London. At the beginning of this year, he also launched an eyewear collection and his second perfume, Girl of Now, directed towards a younger audience who are some years of being away from affording his haute couture gowns. The scent alone is distributed in over 14,000 points of sale and is, he says, his attempt to allow every woman to be an Elie Saab woman for as little as $150.

The next step? Developing his own e-commerce platform, adding to his sizeable online presence in a number of regional and international websites including Harvey Nichols and Net-A-Porter.

Elie Saab dresses can retail for over $35,000

It is no secret the digital wave has hit even the biggest of brands and retailers. There is no guarantee Saab will not be one of them, especially given the rise of fast online fashion that imitates runway collections and gets them from concept to sale in as little as a week. The risks drive Saab, who says fear played a major role in his opening of the first shop in Beirut as a university dropout. “To be afraid in a positive way, this way, I am always afraid, because I want to be better. I don’t want to make mistakes.

“You can’t say, ‘I’m Elie Saab, I can do whatever I want.’ You can’t succeed with this mind,” he continues, switching to Arabic to say a phrase that roughly translates as, “Fear always comes with success, because success without fear is pointless”.

What also helped move him forward was the common thread that many successful and driven people share: the dichotomy of being afraid but also confident in his abilities. “At 17, I was sure I wanted to succeed. I had already decided to open my workshop and I had a lot of people working for me. If you want to do something, you must be sure of what you want to do. If you start out being afraid, it can be very difficult for the people working with you. I started because I found a way to do it and I found the right people to work with me. But [even] if I had started doing something else, I would have ended up here. It’s not important what you do, it’s important how you do it,” he says.

Brand director Elie Saab Junior. Photo: Simon Yau.

Giving back

It is this mentality that Saab bestows on students he mentors in Lebanon, a homeland he vows he has never left behind. Besides paving the way to Hollywood for other Arab designers such as Zuhair Murad, Georges Chakra and Rami Al Ali, Saab has collaborated on a number of educational projects to help develop fashion in the region. One of those ventures saw him launch a Bachelor’s Degree in Fashion Design course at the Lebanese American University (LAU) in 2011, which he claims is the first official degree of its kind in the Middle East. Its impact? It keeps the talent in Lebanon.

“[Beirut] and its young people need it. It’s enough for me if these students stay at home [in Lebanon] and don’t have to go abroad to study fashion. This makes me happy. I feel a responsibility towards these young guys and girls to give them education and to put them on the right path. I do it from the heart because I believe in our young people. I believe that my region has something to say about fashion. We have a lot of talent who can deliver and make it on the international scene,” he says.

When asked why there are so few Elie Saabs in the region, the designer shakes his head in disapproval at the notion. “I don’t want to see more Elie Saabs. Fashion designers need to have their own style and vision. To be like Elie Saab or anyone else, this is not a fashion designer.”

Saab is helping young talent find their own style, however, by appearing as a judge and mentor on the Middle Eastern version of American reality television show Project Runway, which debuted in 2016 and helps aspiring designers.  And while he believes the region is off to a good start when it comes to developing its industry, he argues it has many missing factors, including fashion schools and inspiration for young people. “We need more in order to compete with the fashion schools in Paris, London, Milan or the United States. I believe we have started, but we have a lot to do,” he says.

Designer is diving deeper into ready-to-wear

Ramzi Nakad, co-founder of Dubai-based designer platform Fashion Forward, agrees with Saab, and says the region needs more government support. “Elie Saab did it as an individual. If you look at cities like New York or Paris, fashion is part of the city’s makeup. It’s not an individual effort, it’s a collective effort. But you will see this in the region too, if we continue on this path.”

Why art needs business

As for why the Lebanese designer succeeded despite these missing elements? Saab says it is simple: he is a businessman as well as a designer. “From day one, I started out in fashion to make money. That is my mentality. I don’t like to do something for nothing, and if I’m here now, it’s because I have a business mind. If you don’t think this way, how will you make it?”

It is a refreshingly honest answer, in an industry where creatives often give the misleading impression that art and business never intersect. “You have to present your talent in a commercial way, because if the commerciality is not good, you won’t be able to continue doing what you like to do. This is important for every young person, not just those in fashion,” he says.

The group is expanding with the opening of new stores in the US and Europe

The importance of mindset

While Saab has succeeded in building a business revolving around what he likes to do, he claims his talent is not the secret to his success. “If someone has the mindset to succeed, they can do anything,” he says quietly but with firm resolve. “I hope you understand me well. My secret to success is not that I am a fashion designer. It is that I am a fashion designer who was able to achieve, to bring my talent to this level.

“If I didn’t go into fashion when I was younger, if I had ended up doing something else, I would have been in the same place. Because I can do so many things that you ask of me. For you to reach your talent and manage it is more important than the talent itself. I could have been an architect, and I would still have had the same success.”

Hard work pays

There is a final element that is crucial to Saab’s success, though it does not seem as well-managed as his talent.

“I’m a workaholic; an over-workaholic,” he says, laughing. “Honestly, I enjoy what I do, and it’s my passion. But I work a lot. Too much. I should take more holidays.”

Halle Barry’s Oscar moment in Elie Saab

When asked what he does for fun, or whether he has any hobbies, he gives the same answer each time, “work,” complemented with a burst of laughter. Yet Saab’s dedication to the job is certainly no joke. “I don’t [fool around]. I wouldn’t have been where I am now if I did. I’m very committed. In the beginning, when I started, I didn’t know I would have this huge responsibility. I wanted to be [successful], but I thought it would be easier.

“It’s very heavy to hold it all. Every day I tell myself, ‘Elie, toughen up. Isn’t this what you want? Don’t you want success?’ But this is it. Everything has a price.” His views on the need for hard work to succeed in fashion are similar to those of the need for business acumen. “Everyone who looks at the fashion world from the outside thinks it’s all fun and games, but it’s one of the toughest industries that you could ever work in, because there is no day and there is no night. It’s competitive and almost every month there is a collection.”

Staying in the game

Fortunately for Saab, the eldest of his three sons, Elie Saab Junior, joined the company in 2012 as brand director. His main task? To bring a ‘fresh breath of air’ to the company. Speaking to Arabian Business at the Parisian atelier, Junior, 25, is sharp and focused. Sporting a sleek black suit, he is more corporate than hip, though he softens at the mention of his father. “It was never a surprise to anyone that I joined my father. Since I was a little boy, that was what I wanted to do, and I grew up with this company.”

Saab has dressed royals like Jordan’s Queen Rania

He says that the pair don’t have a typical father-son relationship. “Growing up with him in a certain way... I’m very privileged to have had this opportunity and I really recognise it. There are a lot of traits that, not only me, but anyone would admire in him. There’s the professional aspect, the persistence that he had, the amount of strength he had to build what he has built. For me, my father is my father, my mentor and also my friend.”

Despite Elie senior’s claims that the firm is not a typical ‘family business’, he openly reveals he wants to build a brand that “remains for many generations”. “I don’t like to work for short-term goals. I like my brand to be built on a strong platform to allow it to stay for many generations,” he says.

While an Initial Public Offering (IPO) is not off the table, the designer says he would consider equity injection to fuel the group’s ongoing expansion plans, adding that the firm is still laying down the proper framework for a successful, public transition. For now, however, Saab has “many plans” for his multi-million-dollar empire, but none of them include retirement anytime soon.

Meryl Streep is a fan of the Lebanese designer’s creations

“I feel that I have just started. My God, I have a lot of ambition and I don’t see my proudest moment yet; I’m waiting for it,” he says, quietly focused as ever.

Picking up his jacket again, this time so he can leave to attend to the final touches of yet another show; where he will once again put his craft, and, in such a ruthless industry, his business credentials on the line, he pauses, as if suddenly struck by a thought.

“Do you know this song, Je veux mourir sur scene?” he asks. “ It’s by French singer Dalida. It means, ‘I want to die on stage’.”

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