The Lebanese designer is just as good as his western competitors, but can any of them keep pace with change?
At the end of my conversation with Elie Saab, the now legendary designer examined my metallic, rose-gold suit and pondered at the fabric. “It’s very nice. Is it Miu Miu?” he asked. Stunned at his assumption that my high street outfit could pass for an $800 designer piece, I confessed that, no, it was from Topshop.
Saab’s initial reaction tells us a lot about the state of the fashion industry today. While customers used to wait months for a luxury collection to hit the shelves after showcasing on the Milan runway, the rise of fast fashion brands such as Topshop, Zara and H&M has allowed them to grab cheaper lookalikes – and sometimes even before that label has released its own collection.
Cheaper labour, fast shipping and a rapid supply chain allows the affordable brands to generate quick turnover, leaving luxury houses struggling to keep up with the pace.
“You can now look like Gucci even sooner than Gucci does,” as Dina Yassin, founder of Dubai-based e-commerce fashion brand Efro & Co pointed out to us in an interview this week.
Several brands – including Tom Ford, Burberry and Ralph Lauren – have responded to the new reality by staging ‘see-now, buy-now’ runway shows, but it leaves them vulnerable to consumers’ reactions, having not tested the market first. Once the collection is out, their hands are tied.
Another approach luxury brands have taken is working alongside, rather than against, high street brands, with Versace and Louis Vuitton collaborating with the likes of H&M and Supreme.
But fast fashion has gotten even faster. Zara, once a pioneer in the field, is in danger of being pushed out of its turf by online brands such as Asos and Missguided, which are able to design, manufacture and sell a product in less than a week. Zara’s speedy five-week turnaround is being outpaced by Missguided’s faster, one week concept-to-sale strategy.
The region’s own e-commerce industry has started to pick up too, tightening luxury retailers’ market share, with online destinations such as UAE-based Namshi offering competitive prices and free next-day delivery across the country. Indeed, Patrick Chalhoub, co-chief executive of retail giant Chalhoub Group, told Arabian Business in August that everything retailers know is not necessarily relevant anymore. “We have a big wave of digital coming into the retail sector today… with a lot of disturbance,” he said.
It seems that luxury designers are determined to ride the wave, however, with Saab himself launching an e-commerce platform likely to feature his couture, bridal, ready-to-wear lines, as well as accessories and cosmetics.
Fashion’s digitisation has not stopped him from opening more brick and mortar stores, either, with a New York shop having opened in March this year, ahead of five more scheduled for cities such as Miami and Los Angeles in the near future. A store in Geneva and one in Courchevel are already in the pipeline.
While the designer continues to be private about financials, expansion plans suggest he is determined to keep his place in the $2.4 trillion fashion industry, as estimated by McKinsey Global Fashion Index. His son, Elie Jr., joined as brand director in 2012 to bring ‘a fresh breathe of air’ to the company and help it stay relevant.
But will Saab move fast enough in an ever-speeding industry? Since Halle Barry’s wildly circulated acceptance speech at the 2002 Oscars shot his name to fame, as she wore his celebrated green mesh and embroidered red dress, he’s managed to keep his position more than 15 years later.
It is a long time to be on top of his game, which he undoubtedly still is. And while the self-taught designer from the village of Damour, south of Beirut, has a lot of change to keep up with, his hard-headed business mindset and passion for creativity are time-honoured traits that make him an enduring and inspiring designer, whatever the medium of sale.
Let us not forget that he survived and thrived in the midst of a brutal battle, having opened his first shop aged 17 in the midst of the Lebanese civil war. Perhaps Saab thrives best under pressure, in which case, the fashion world’s current turbulence will push him to fight even harder.
After all, it was he who said that there is no success without fear.