Designer Elie Saab on a tough rise to the top
Written by Malek

Designer Elie Saab on a tough rise to the top


A fashion juggernaut rolled into Muscat for Condé Nast’s third annual International Luxury Conference, with renowned designers including Elie Saab, from Lebanon, as part of it. Founded and hosted by Vogue’s international editor, Suzy Menkes, the event brought the leading lights of the luxury industry together for a gathering featuring presentations from chief executives, designers and bloggers. Alber Elbaz (formerly of fashion house Lanvin), Indian fashion designer Manish Arora and blogger Hudda Kattan (recently named the third-most influential beauty blogger in the world by Forbes) were among them, along with the bosses at Jimmy Choo.

Saab took time out to talk about his rise to haute couture fame. "Breaking into Paris was very hard for me, it took a long time," he says. "I started as a designer alone and didn’t know much about the industry. I had to learn it all." He opened his atelier in Beirut in 1982, with the Lebanese civil war raging around him. Inspired by the style and elegance of his city in its heyday, the 18-year-old Saab launched his label, drawing on the experience of those around him. "When I started there were no fashion designers in the region, but ... in Beirut there were high- quality dressmakers and tailors," he says. "I went to them with a clear vision of what I wanted."

His elaborate designs soon gained attention and international acclaim slowly followed. In 1997, he was the only non-Italian invited to join the National Chamber of Italian Fashion (Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana) in Italy and went on to launch his first ready-to-wear collection in 1998. Saab’s true passion lay in haute couture, so it was with pride that he accepted an invitation in 2000 to join the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture in Paris. "We have our prêt-à-porter [ready-to-wear] studio in Paris, but our base for haute couture is in Beirut," he says."Some of my team members have been with me since the beginning and we have come up together. It is beautiful."

When it comes to remaining true to his roots, he says: "I am happy I set the example. I have opened the door for lots of other fashion designers from the whole of this region, [giving them access to] the international stage. I have a social responsibility now."

He is fiercely proud of his Arab heritage and in 2013 helped launch the region’s first fashion degree course at the Lebanese American University in Beirut. Four years later, the first batch of graduates are about to emerge.

"We would like to do this all over the region. I can help with exposure, because the level of design intelligence is already here," he adds. He also feels proud to have been involved with the hugely popular Project Runway reality-TV series on MBC.

"I wanted to get involved with this, to help all the young people sitting at home," he says. "If a girl from a small city can still make good work, what can she achieve if we open the door for her?"

He stresses, however, success does not come easy.

"The fashion industry is very hard, very competitive ... I have really suffered to get here," he says. "For everything we do in this life, there is struggle ... I don’t want my struggle to have been for nothing."

Despite having global appeal and being stocked in more than 170 outlets worldwide, Saab has relatively few stand-alone stores compared with his competitors.

He is due to open another store in a few months in Geneva, which will add to outlets in Beirut, London, Paris, Dubai and New York.

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