The self-taught are an affront to the whole ethos of institutionalised teaching. Yet they are as popular with the rest of the world as they are envied by regularly trained colleagues. The passion for success that motivates the self-taught found fertile ground in Lebanese fashion designer Elie Saab in his early youth. Anyone who as a child prefers to spend his time sewing inevitably finds normal training no real challenge.
Born in 1964, Elie Saab went to Paris in the early 1980s to study fashion. Within a year he was back in Beirut, founding his own label and workshop. He was just eighteen at the time. Yet by then the Beirut of his early childhood, the Mediterranean metropolis whose elegance and sophistication had earned it the reputation of being the “Paris of the East,” was so severely battered by the unending civil war, with no prospect of peace, that Saab’s decision to develop his fashion empire from there seemed more than quixotic.
But Beirut, a trading centre between East and West going back millennia, was also home to a population that, despite the perpetual fear of bombs, refused to allow anyone to deprive it of a normal life. Elie Saab’s commitment to things ceremonial – the opulent, exuberant evening gowns and wedding dresses that always occupy an essential part of his collections – should perhaps be seen against that background. Anyone who for years has witnessed only war and destruction will celebrate the glamorous facets of life much more keenly.
His studio had been in business only a year when Saab showed his first collection at the Casino du Liban in 1982, prompting the local press to rave about the “precocious genius.” Soon, the Middle Eastern princesses who mattered were beating a path to his door to have exclusive clothes made for special occasions. Word got around, even beyond the national frontiers, about Elie Saab’s distinctive sense of Eastern romanticism paired with European-inspired chic and uncompromising craft.
In 1997 he presented his first collection in Rome and was immediately admitted to the Camera Nazionale della Moda, the first non-Italian to be so honoured. The land of Versace and Gucci has a highly developed sense for the almost decadent, Late Roman celebration of femininity that is a mark of Elie Saab. His great fashion moment was the Academy Awards in 2002, when Halle Berry accepted an Oscar for Best Actress in a burgundy Elie Saab gown. Christina Aguilera, Charlize Theron, Liz Hurley and Queen Rania of Jordan are among those who love his sumptuously draped, artistically embroidered evening wardrobe, so rich in fabrics and colours. Within a year of the Oscars, he was a by-invitation member of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture in Paris, where he has also shown his ready-to-wear collection since 2006. Meantime he has opened stores in Paris and Beirut.
In an interview, he commented that the woman he dresses will be “feminine, elegant and crazy about glamour.” He added that his wish was “to turn every woman into a butterfly, to make her every movement appear buoyed by a passing breeze, as if at any moment she could fly away.”
Official website: http://www.eliesaab.com/