Saturday 20 January 2018

All about the present for modest designer

For the post-show party of Elie Saab, Jessica Whyte tries to pick the perfect gift for this contemporary couturier

BEAUTIFUL IN BURGUNDY: Actress Halle Berry, wearing a dress designed by Elie Saab, at the
Academy Awards show in 2002, before receiving her Oscar. Photo: Laura Rauch
BEAUTIFUL IN BURGUNDY: Actress Halle Berry, wearing a dress designed by Elie Saab, at the Academy Awards show in 2002, before receiving her Oscar. Photo: Laura Rauch

Jessica Whyte

Shopping for a present to bring to a party can be stressful. And it becomes more stressful, still, if the host is Elie Saab, one of Hollywood's most celebrated and in-demand designers.

Browsing around Dublin's city centre, I found myself wondering what kind of trinket did Halle Berry send after winning her Oscar in 2002, wearing a Saab gown? Did Scarlett Johansson send flowers or candles -- or both -- after a triumphant sweeping of the best-dressed lists at this year's Golden Globes in her Saab creation?

Saab has undoubtedly received a great number of thank-you gifts in his time, for the simple fact that he has made a lot of women extremely happy. Rachel McAdams, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Angelina Jolie and Marion Cotillard are just a handful of women who have worn Saab gowns to some of the most prestigious media events in the world.

Saab's gowns are unlike any other eveningwear offerings. Those of us attending Saab's spring-summer haute couture show were treated to a fleet of ultra-feminine dresses and full-length gowns in a predominantly light-colour palette of nude, beige and pink. There were ruffled high necks and caped sleeves for the more demure women, delicately embroidered baby-doll dresses for the footloose and fancy free, not to mention seductive shimmering decollete evening gowns with thigh-high slits for the femme fatale.

Later, as I arrived at his post-show party in a draped black dress, I was thrilled when Saab dashed over to introduce himself. "You look so cute tonight," he exclaimed (a compliment that I will take to my grave).

With him, it was all about the guests. But such is the way of Saab, who has maintained a low profile in the media. Many high-power fashion houses are relentless in creating a buzz around their head designer, making the brand all about their ego and persona. But for Saab, it has always been about the woman. And if the woman takes central importance to his work, then his homeland of the Lebanon follows close behind.

Saab was born in Beirut in 1964 and began his dress-making career at age nine. "I was born with this passion of creating and making dresses," he says. "I was always surrounded by beautiful women, from sisters to neighbours, so the desire to dress them and make them look elegant and stylish was my constant inspiration."

In 1981, he left for Paris to study dress design but returned to Lebanon after a year and set up his first atelier, employing 15 staff. He was only 18. He explains: "I was never tempted to move permanently from Beirut. I love my country. I am inspired by the Middle Eastern culture and the richness it offers. In general, this is reflected through my choice in fabrics, rich materials, and use of warm colours like sand and other natural tones."

Today, Saab is single-handedly shining a light on Middle Eastern fashion. He has done this by channelling the spirit of the Middle Eastern woman and modernising it aesthetically for the West.

Femininity is, according to Saab, a key component to that spirit and, for him, defines glamour. "I associate glamour with femininity, as they complete each other," he says. "I try to develop the concept of glamour into my designs by working on the cut in order to embellish women's bodies."

Ever since that infamous Hollywood moment in 2002, when Berry poured her heart out to the world as she clasped her Oscar against a burgundy Saab gown, celebrities have clambered to get an arm or a leg into one of his designs.

I ask him how important are celebrities to his work. "I have always considered red carpets to be one of the best catwalks, as real women can picture themselves more easily in a dress worn by a celebrity, rather than a model. Every celebrity we dress is a great representative of the brand. We always make sure that the actresses correspond to the image of the brand and that at the same time the dress they choose fits their personality."

One key component to Saab's gowns is embellishment -- namely crystals and sequins, which he uses judiciously. "My priority is always to design a dress that highlights a woman's figure at its best," he says. "I try to create a dress that will make her sublime; the amount of sequins and embellishment used depends on her character. Above all, I design clothes to be worn."

Aside from his haute couture and bridalwear divisions, Saab has a highly successful ready-to-wear line, but unfortunately it's not stocked in Ireland. Yet. If the short, asymmetric, green wool dress that Cameron Diaz was wearing at the party is anything to go by, then I would be beating down the doors of Brown Thomas to get my hands on a piece.

Saab's story should be a great source of inspiration to Irish designers, and he had words of encouragement for those who, like him, face an uphill battle trying to achieve international recognition.

"I encourage everyone with talent to pursue a career in fashion design, as it can be a great one, but it requires a lot of hard work and perseverance, and, of course, a lot of patience. The challenge lies within oneself, not just in the industry one has chosen."

Leaving the party, I caught a glimpse of my present. In the end, I settled on a book, All Changed -- Fifty Years of Photographing Ireland by Colman Doyle and John Quinn. Because if Elie Saab has taught me one thing, it is that while beauty captures your attention, it is personality that captures your heart.

Sunday Indo Living

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