The first rule before interviewing Elie Saab is not to get jealous. And this is no easy feat: he is super rich and super famous. Every supermodel wants to wear his clothes, every Hollywood A-lister wants to be his best pal, and the global fashion industry hangs on his every word. Wherever Saab goes, governments, multi-nationals and millions of women are all desperate to be part of the Elie Saab brand. Not bad for a kid who got bored of school and by the age eighteen was already making clothes for his pals on the back streets on Beirut.
“I am not only a fashion designer, I have the vision of an entrepreneur, a businessman,” says Saab.
He can say that again. Today, the 46-year-old runs a truly global empire, with boutiques in Paris, London and Dubai. His clothes are on sale in 22 countries, and he has moved into bags, shoes and jewellery. But that is just the start: in recent years, Saab has expanded into designing the interior for the BMW X Series, worked with MAC Cosmetics and signed a deal to design three mega yachts. Throw in TV commercials and even a reality show, few would argue that Saab has single-handedly created a brand worth $500m.
Little wonder he was ranked 28th in the recent Arabian Business Power List, and fifth on the global Arab Fame List.
“I don’t like the term 'power' per se. Power for me is the respect you have for yourself and for others and the esteem you get from people about your work. This satisfaction will give you all the power you need to grow and move ahead,” he says.
The Elie Saab story is as original as many of his designs. Born in Beirut to a wood merchant and housewife, his interest in dress making started when he was just nine years old. He says he spent much of his free time cutting patterns and drawing sketches for his sisters, using his mother’s tablecloths and curtains. The neighbours soon got wind of what he was up to, and by the time he was a teenager he already had a small network of loyal clients. Looking back, he says: “I was born with this passion of creating and making dresses and was always surrounded by beautiful women, from sisters to neighbours, so the desire to dress them and make them look elegant was my constant inspiration.”
Despite initially studying fashion, he soon became bored, confident he was already a master in the art of dress making. In 1982, aged just eighteen, he opened his first couture atelier in Beirut with an incredible fifteen staff on the payroll.
Pretty quickly, Saab became the talk of the town, and just months after opening his business, made his first public presentation of his collection. So positive was the response, the Saab name had spread way beyond Beirut.
“I believe that creating your own identity is the first and most important thing to do. Perseverance, hard work and ambition are also very important to be able to overcome obstacles and succeed in the fashion field…I am passionate about my career. Of course a certain amount of talent was required, but even more of work, years of hard labour during which I had to teach myself most of the business,” he says.
But it wasn’t until 1997 that his big global break came, when he was invited to take part in the prestigious Camera Nazionale della Moda as the only non-Italian designer among an anthology of Italian designers. He showed off his couture collection in Rome for three consecutive years before he was invited in 2000 by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute to show his collection in Paris.
That, admits Saab, was the turning point. “My first international move, from Beirut to Rome, Italy; it was my first fashion show attended by the international press, clients and VIPs.”
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Everyone who came clearly loved what they saw, and in 2002 Saab managed to open a couture house in Paris — putting his stamp on the global fashion stage.
But while the business grew, there is little doubt that it is the endorsement of celebrities that has turned Saab into a global star. In 2002, actress Halle Berry, chose to wear one of Saab’s dresses for the Oscars, where she was nominated for Best Actress for he role in ‘Monster Ball’. Berry won the Oscar, and within hours her picture — and Saab’s dress — was on the front page of almost every fashion magazine and newspaper in the world. Saab had well and truly arrived.
“Actually that was not the first time that Halle Berry, amongst other Hollywood stars, had worn one of my designs, but it was certainly a huge exposure for the brand and created a lot of publicity for Elie Saab. Clients, stylists and celebrities from all over the world wanted to find out more about us and have access to one of our red carpet gowns,” he says.
Since that moment, no major red carpet event has been complete without a superstar showing off one of Saab’s dresses. His clients have included Angelina Jolie, Beyonce, Nelly Furtado, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sarah Jessica Parker and Sophie Marceau.
So what’s next for Saab? Despite the global recession, there appears no shortage of consumers for Saab’s products. The Gulf clothing market alone is estimated to be worth $12bn, according to a recent study by French Fashion University Esmod Dubai, the leading fashion institution in the region. The same study forecast that the Middle East industry grew by fifteen percent last year, thanks largely to the growing ‘Mall culture’ in the region. But it’s not just the UAE — another report ‘The Global Fashion Industry — Growth in Emerging Markets’, cites South Africa, Singapore, India, Russia and Brazil as future fashion hot spots.
Saab — whose designs are on sale in South Africa, Singapore and Russia, is not hanging around when it comes to expansion. “We are in constant development. Within the coming couple of years, we plan to open stores in Asia (Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai), in the States (Beverly Hills and New York) and in Moscow,” he says.
But today Elie Saab is about far more than clothes. His move into accessories has proved a huge success, spurring him to take the brand wherever he sees an opportunity. In 2006 he sponsored the Reality Television show “Mission Fashion”, and two years ago signed with Beaute Prestige International, the core fragrance subsidiary of the Shiseido Group, for a ten year fragrance and cosmetics license contract. And just last year, he teamed up with Weyves International to design three mega-yachts, the first of which went on show at the recent Abu Dhabi Boat Show.
He explains: “I have already worked on many projects that involve my creations and personal style in fields other than fashion and I am always ready to explore new fields that can bring in my vision. When I receive a proposal for collaboration, I study well all the aspects to decide if it suits my image. The accessories have been further developed this season to include shoes, bags and clutches and the first fragrance will be launched in July with BPI.”
Saab adds: “ I am an ambitious person; my growth is a natural progress in my career. I learnt from every minute and the learning process is ongoing. I don’t regret anything I have done and I believe there are still a lot of things to do… My strategy is to expand the range of product offerings by developing new lines that will allow us to reach a larger audience of women and to continue our expansion into new markets in the coming years.”
There is, he admits, even the possibility of a stock market flotation in the future, saying: “This could be a natural evolution of the business.”
Were he to do that, and given Saab’s track record, the stock is sure to be the darling of any stock market. But for Saab himself, there is no danger in the near future of putting his feet up and resting. Constantly working, and constantly striving for perfection, he shows absolutely no sign of slowing down.
“The challenge lies within oneself, not just in a chosen industry. I am very hard on myself and always feel the need to do more and better, and of course I feel the pressure to maintain a high level of success in a very competitive industry.”