Filep Motwary: Mr. Saab, you have been dressing women all your life, as a child, as a young man and as an adult you embrace the woman’s body with the finest designs and materials. This is a long and prosperous journey – Can you walk me through your personal development that came in parallel to your work development?
Elie Saab: My personal and professional developments are intimately linked. I started my career very young, so my personality and my vision of the profession have evolved together. My ambition has always been to magnify everyday life; I was always seeking beauty, and women were my main drive. Over the years, I have gained personal but also professional maturity. My vision sharpened and it shows in my creations. As I matured, I became tolerant, and more patient because I understood that business development takes time, effort, and perseverance. Nothing is easy and nothing is granted.
FM: How did one help the other and how do you see your achievements today?
ES: When I look back and see how far I have come, I am satisfied to have accomplished so much and above all to have survived so many ordeals. It has not always been an easy path, but a gap has been crossed and today ELIE SAAB is an established lifestyle brand. I still have a lot of dreams and plans in the pipeline, but I still want to achieve more. I have endless ambitions; many dreams and I hope I will live very old to fulfill all my wishes for the brand.
FM: How difficult was it for you to establish yourself at a time without social media, allow me to say- as someone who was determined to follow his destiny as a fashion designer? Those were times of bravery based on entirely different morals…
ES: Before the era of social networks, it was harder to expose our work to the world. It took me years to make a name in the industry when today everything can go very fast. I like this progress; I think it’s an extraordinary opportunity. Social networks can be a real springboard for upcoming designers, it accelerates their communication networking and awareness. If we use them correctly and with respect, they are very powerful communication tools.
FM: How have you experienced adapting to your own authority as a designer? Did it take some time for you to feel comfortable creating collections and saying this is the way to do it?
ES: When at the beginning of my career, I would ask myself a lot of questions even if I knew where I wanted to go, today my decisions are very sharp.
My style has always been very clear in my mind, the femininity and elegance I wanted to show in my collections are present since the first day. Also, being my own master and the feeling of not being accountable to anyone gives me leeway of creating, I was lucky to be able to follow my instincts.
FM: How challenging it is to dress Arab women compared to the women of the West.
ES: A woman is a woman, no matter where she comes from. I don’t make a difference; my goal is to sublimate her, to make sure that she feels beautiful and confident. My Arab clients have the same expectations as any other of my clients; they used to have more requirements but today, they are active and their profile is similar to the western woman.
FM: How important is the consideration of the male gaze in your creations for women?
ES: I don’t create for women to please others, but to embellish their own beauty. You can immediately see when a woman feels comfortable and shines in her clothes. If she receives compliments from her entourage, it is even more flattering for her but I don’t create for the gaze of others.
FM: Which is your most important responsibility these days and why?
ES: When I was younger, I thought that when the brand would be settled, my responsibilities would be smaller. In fact, I have always had a lot of responsibilities, and the bigger ELIE SAAB is, the greater the responsibilities are. The hardest is to maintain success, everything is important when you reach a certain level of success. Nothing is left to chance.
FM: Why was it important for you to move and showcase your work in Italy and then in France when you already had found success in Lebanon?
ES: It was important because I felt limited by the opportunities in the Middle East. My network was strong in the region, but I had bigger ambitions for the House. I wanted ELIE SAAB to become an international brand. I first chose Italy because I wanted the production of my RTW to be Italian. Then, I headed to Paris because it was the main fashion capital where I can show my Haute Couture collections and because I became a member of La Chambre Syndicate de la Haute Couture. It seemed very natural to me to present there. I have been showing my collections in Paris since 2000. After Beirut, Paris is my second home.
FM: What does it mean to dress a member of the Royal Family or hundreds of Hollywood stars for you?
ES: Red carpets have brought international visibility to the brand and the exposure driven by the celebrities is big. Back in 2002 when Halle Berry won her Oscar wearing ELIE SAAB, the exposure for the brand was huge; this moment put ELIE SAAB’s name on another level. It was the most important red-carpet moment of my career as she also was the first African American woman to win an Oscar. I am forever grateful for this red-carpet moment.
But in the end, my relationships with all the celebrities (including Royal) are very simple and respectful. For me, the important is not who wears ELIE SAAB but that celebrities reflect our DNA and feel beautiful when wearing the brand.
FM: You are one of the few designers that all women love. Why do you think so?
ES: That’s flattering, thank you! If so, that means I achieved my goals and I am following the right track.
FM: Is it necessary to take risks when making fashion? What was the biggest risk you ever took? What does freedom mean to you as a designer?
ES: I consider risks as a challenge that can only make you move forward. In the end, when you want to be an international brand, you have to take risks, they are a necessity to grow.
In every decision that I take, there is always a risk. I analyze every step to reduce faux pas. The first big risk I took was to present to Milan and enter a new battlefield when I had already a name in the Middle East. As I said earlier, freedom is linked to my success because I have always been my own master and I had the liberty to create under my own terms.
FM: Is it possible that you are ever in conflict with your own taste?
ES: “Conflicts” is too strong to say; I might be uncomfortable with some products or take bets on dresses that I like more than others but I am not in conflict with my own choices. Today, my decisions are very clear.
FM: The Beirut explosion in the summer of 2020, forced Lebanon to restart. Your company had great losses too. However, it didn’t stop you from being creative. Can you describe to me that day, the steps that followed, and how you managed to keep your head above water?
ES: This day started like any other day; I was in the office with my team, working on the next collection. Our headquarters is located not far from Beirut’s port so when the explosion took place, the blast blew all the windows of our building and everything inside. It was so violent that I was thrown against the opposite wall of the room. At first, no one understood what was happening, the impact was so strong that I thought an attack had taken place on the ground floor of our building. I didn’t realize until a few minutes later when my family and friends started calling me, that it was general.
It was a terrible shock for everyone, but we had to move on, rebuild the country and help each other. I never imagined stopping creating because, on the one hand, the Lebanese are resilient by nature, never lament and always recover from the worst. In addition, I have a responsibility toward my country, my employees, and my customers. I have commitments with all these people, I cannot stop my activity without consequences.
It is for all these reasons that two weeks after the blast, we reopened our offices and resumed the activity.
FM: Over the years I found myself backstage writing and photographing your shows. I always observe how calm you are and always with a good word to say. Where does this serenity come from?
ES: As a matter of fact, I am still very nervous on the day of my shows; each one is just like the first one. I am stressed because the bet and responsibility are big. I control my emotions to avoid communicating this stress to the team but it’s also part of my character, I take a lot on myself and never exaggerate my emotions. My serenity comes after the show, everything before is a lot of pressure.
FM: How does the term luxury resonate with the present?
ES: I always say that luxury is not material. Today, luxury is the time I spend with my family. I have grown up with 3 boys and I recently became a grandfather; family is my priority and as my schedule is very busy, the little free time I can share with them is my luxury.
FM: Could you please tell me about the starting point of the FW22 collection? What story did you want to tell? What was your mood board about?
ES: After the pandemic, I wanted to create a strong collection that shows the return to life. This collection is designed for women who need to express their wild confidence and wear their fearless grace proudly, for everyone to see. I wanted the collection to be extravagant and to bring opulence and minimalism together. I used striking tones, lavish textures, and strong mono-block colors. The cuts are elaborated and sharp to give an attitude to the silhouettes. There is also a hint of rebellion and grunge in the collection but still very feminine and elegant.
FM: Has the pandemic compelled you to change the ways you work, think, and how your company functions? In what ways?
ES: The first two months of the pandemic were very disturbing, our daily lives were turned upside down, and we all had to learn to live and work differently. We had to adjust to this new situation while respecting our schedules. From a professional aspect, it was challenging at the beginning but working remotely worked well. From a personal perspective, I enjoyed the serenity and the calm of these few months; I used this time as a personal reflection. I consider that this break has had some positive consequences. I had never had the time or the opportunity to put my ideas in order, to view things from another angle and in a more serene way. This confinement was an important period of reflection and contemplation.
FM: Do you think fashion critique still matters to designers? Are you curious to hear how do others observe what you create? The reasons these observations might interest you?
ES: Yes, some criticism matter as it can be constructive. It is important how the collections are received. These feedbacks help me to push some styles more than others. Sometimes, I am surprised to see that some looks are extremely well received more than excepted. I also listen to trusted people from the industry who have a sharp vision that can help me to improve.
FM: Are you committed to sustainability as a modern company? In what ways? Should upcycling become the norm in buying clothing in the future?
ES: When I see my clients passing their dresses to their daughters or granddaughters, it is sustainability. My designs don’t follow trends, they are timeless and last more than a season. Even some celebrities, such as Jane Fonda, have worn my dresses several times on the red carpet.
FM: Speaking of which, is isolation an impossibility for a designer?
ES: Speaking for myself, I won’t be able to be creative if I would be totally isolated. I take inspiration from women but also from the world around me. Anything could be a source of inspiration so being cute from the world would be difficult.
FM: Did you always have a perception of the body and the art of dressing it or not? What is your perception of the body after all and how connected are you to it?
ES: I have always respected women and their bodies. I like to reveal without showing too much and I always emphasize the waist to mark the silhouette. I always create thinking of the general allure and paying attention to all details. To be elegant and feminine, the most important is to respect the body when creating.
FM: Do you think as a designer you need to have an awareness of fashion history? Can everybody become a fashion designer? Are you ever misunderstood as a designer?
ES: To become a fashion designer, you should surely be talented, have your own signature, and create your own identity. Having an awareness of fashion is also important because fashion follows history. No, I have never been misunderstood by my peers but at the very beginning of my journey, it was difficult for my parents and family to understand what I wanted to do. At that time, the job of “fashion designer” did not exist in Lebanon. We had a lot of seamstresses but no fashion designers. So, it was a little bit confusing for them to understand and they are worried for my future.
FM: For a long time, people would think of fashion as a place of exclusivity. Should fashion have followership limitations? Who puts these limitations at the end?
ES: Fashion is a small world that’s maybe why people thought it was a place of exclusivity.
Everything is changing, even Haute Couture. For a long time, Haute Couture was worn by the same profile of customers when today the clients are younger and the occasions to wear HC have diversified.
FM: Mr. Saab, what is perhaps the most important quality a fashion designer can
ES: Patience, you don’t have to rush and skip the steps. It’s a long-term job, patience is part of the journey of a creator.
The interview was published in the December 2022 issue of Vogue Greece.
Elie Saab is a Lebanese fashion designer. His main workshop is in Lebanon, with additional workshops in Milan and Paris. He started his business in the early 1980s and specialized in bridal couture. He is the first Arab to be admitted to the fashion industry’s governing body, Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture.