There is nothing fanciful, feminine or flashy about Elie Saab’s office at his flagship store on the
Champs-Élysées in Paris, yet he’s the man behind some of the most memorable – and enviable – red-carpet fashions.
The Beirut-born designer creates gowns that can land a starlet on a best-dressed list or, in the case of Halle Berry, on countless Oscar highlight fashion reels.
The famous peekaboo embroidered dress she wore to the 2002 Academy Awards immortalized her trademark curves and launched Saab’s career as the reigning red-carpet king.
Before I was ushered into his austere, minimalist mirror-lined office, I was invited to look at (fawn over?) the Spring/Summer 2013 collection a few days before its official Paris Fashion Week outing.
As the season had so far been a predominantly black-and-white fashion story, the rack of royal-blue, turquoise and hot pink garments was as visually refreshing as a glass of perfectly sweetened lemonade on a hot summer day.
"The collection is called ‘Modern Heiress,’" explained Emilie Legendre, Saab’s group communication manager and, unofficially, his "right brain."
"Elie’s woman this season is monied but engaged in the world. She’s entrepreneurial, philanthropic and stylish. She’s not necessarily his couture customer; she doesn’t need to be the centre of attention."
Sure – good luck with that. These aren’t exactly fly-under-the-radar looks, with their bold colours and feminine silhouettes. His woman may be gainfully employed – and even all buttoned up at the collar – but she’s never going to be a wallflower.
We then went into Saab’s sombre inner chamber, leaving behind the bustle of last-minute fittings, model casting and styling quandaries. I was seated across from Saab at a shiny black table. He was dressed in a cappuccino-coloured cashmere sweater and black pants, and his demeanour was graciously restrained.
"Do you need this kind of quiet, masculine and meditative space to create that?" I asked as I gestured to the room that housed his spring collection. "In my mind, I’m a cube," he replied. "I like simple things. When I design, I’m like an architect.
I study a woman’s curves and design a dress that is elegant because that is how I see her." This keen aesthetic has been developing since Saab was a child in Lebanon-even when it clashed with his family’s more practical mien.
Keep reading to learn more about fashion designer Elie Saab’s life and work…
"Everyone around me didn’t care about style when I was growing up," he recalled. "We were at war, but for me that wasn’t an excuse. I was a fashion policeman! I wondered why they didn’t care! I was always directing my mother and sisters about what they should wear. I sold my first gown to a neighbour when I was 14. I hear she still has that dress."
Saab, not surprisingly, was the designer behind the dramatic fashion shift that took place at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) last fall. The city’s red-carpet scene, which is cocktail chic on its best day, was suddenly fashionable when a bevy of A-listers upped the style quotient in their Elie Saab gowns.
"Yes, I think one magazine described it as the ‘Elie Saab Festival,’" he said with a laugh, clearly amused and proud of this moniker. "The stars started requesting gowns earlier in the summer," he explained.
"We never know until they step out onto the red carpet. I guess they all decided that Toronto was the town to dress up in. It’s nice to break rules. Toronto is now more than a serious festival; it’s a seriously glamorous festival."
So what happens when a star wants a little Saab sartorial magic but her brand clashes with his own vision of the Saab woman?
"We need to be very careful. Women who buy my gowns want to be able to dream and be inspired by the brand. If we dress someone, we want it to induce envy in the customer. If we don’t want to loan a stylist clothes for a client, we just say they’re not available. But, of course, if an actress buys them herself, we have no control over that."
The Academy Awards were more than five months away when we spoke, but Saab said that his team was already in negotiations with stylists and starlets looking to recreate that Halle Berry moment.
"They will wait for the haute-couture collection in January, but even before that they can put a six-month hold on a dress that they may already be thinking about," he said.
Two stars who wore Elie Saab gowns at TIFF are also leading actress Oscar nominees (Naomi Watts for The Impossible and Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook). Perhaps they’ll duke it out on the red carpet first in duelling designs from Saab. But at this point, that fashion showdown is months away and Saab has to focus on his Paris show the following day.
He told me that he was feeling uncharacteristically content. “Normally when I come to Paris, I’m stressed about the collection, but this time I’m happy,” he said. “I don’t know why; I feel light.” He went so far as to describe his state of mind as a rare emotional splurge in a life that is carefully planned and rigorously examined.
I asked him if that meant he would be able to sleep the night before the show. “Oh, no,” he said, laughing. “Never! Well, actually, my quality of sleep is always terrible. When I head to bed, my head takes off. For me the night is for thinking, not sleeping.”