Migrating birds and New York in the Jazz Age inspire a collection that conjures the spirit of the designer’s Beirut hometown
The pink of jacaranda trees blooming on the pathway, the powdery grey of ancient stones, the deep blue sky framing Beirut’s turquoise mosque domes and the white, whipped water down south at Tyre… Wherever I looked in Elie Saab’s studios, I could see the colours of his country.
The designer’s poetic vision recalled stories of the “Cedars of Lebanon” and the “Paris of the Orient” of Beirut’s Sixties heyday, when the international beau monde would frolic in the bay, before the city was reduced to rubble and stone — first by war and then by urban re-development.
Yet I knew that for Elie Saab, Beirut is where his heart is — and where his seamstresses are - which is why I had come to the Lebanon for a richer vision of his work.
A gown from Saab’s A/W 2016-17 couture show featuring embroidery of birds, and right, a detail of the embroidery in progress at his atelier
“Beirut is the source of my inspiration and I am proud that I myself am an image of success and progress for my country — that is what motivates me,” said Elie Saab, 52, as I watched him work on his Paris Autumn/Winter 2016 Haute Couture collection and on dresses for private clients. He has indeed become a symbol of hope, with a large and successful fashion business that has sprung from his native Middle East and journeyed to the wider world.
The first thing I noticed was a single bird, flitting across a dress, with the designer re-positioning the application on the lace bodice. By the time the show took place in Paris, there were flocks of birds created in sequins that glittered on the chiffon and silken dresses, and even on the “kiddie couture” — children’s dress-up clothes, shown for the first time in mother-and-daughter displays on the Paris runway.
Lebanon is renowned for its hand-embroidery. Here Saab’s "petites mains" work on fabric that later wowed the audience in Paris (centre)
Birds in flight? Elie Saab, deliberately or unconsciously, had hit on the subject that is defining this new millennium: migration. Not least in the current influx to the Lebanon from war-torn Syria.
The haute couture collection was devoted to birds, but also to America — not the uptown area where the first Elie Saab store in the United States will open in October, but rather 1930s New York, when immigrants and émigrés put on a brave face and joined a downtown scene where jazz was played — as it was at the couture show on a piano on stage. That era in America was defined by the iconic Chrysler building, whose geometric Art Deco pattern appeared as a design motif in Saab’s collection.
Suzy Menkes goes to Beirut and finds the true story behind Elie Saab’s moving collection with a focus on birds and migration
Not until I had driven by the village of his birth, its small houses and lush gardens utterly flattened by the war when Elie was just 10 years old, did I realise the significance for the designer of the flying bird as a symbol of freedom and escape. His Christian family moved to Beirut’s northern hills and he and his wife of 25 years, Claudine, have now become citizens of the world with glamorous homes across Europe.
At the Autumn/Winter 2015-16 couture show held last summer, the story had been “Beirut: Chasing a Dream”, with a nostalgic vision of the city. That had been the first time I had felt the designer’s emotion breaking through his dressy clothes. The following show had taken a big step into India and its culture, so the American Dream might seem a logical progression.
Elie Saab Junior, 25, the eldest of the designer’s three sons, took me to the company headquarters in the part of the city that has been redeveloped. There he talked strategy: how his father will head up an Arabic version of the American television show “Project Runway”, burnishing his star status throughout the Middle East.
Then there is the effort the family company has made to give something back to the city, by linking the Lebanese American University with the London College of Fashion Although Elie Saab himself was self-taught, he has offered internships in his ateliers to promising Lebanese designers accepted for the LAU/LCF fashion design programme.
The moodboard that inspired this collection - Art Deco motifs from the Chrysler Building in New York featured in many looks
“Today, cultures are blending together — there are no more borders. That is what the world is going to be like — and that is what we want to express: the two worlds colliding,” Elie Jr. said. “And on top are the Orient and the Occident, so the Elie Saab world is really a clash of three.”
We walked into the store, with its colourful, predictably smart clothes and accessories; and then upstairs to see a line-up of ready-to-wear bridal dresses. These will soon move to the building next door, as the Saab influence spreads across the Beirut Central District that houses international luxury brands from Dolce & Gabbana, Roberto Cavalli, Fendi and Louis Vuitton to Tod’s. Elie Jr. explained that this was the part of the city that had been re-built by Solidere, the reconstruction and development company founded by Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, who was later assassinated in 2005.
Elie Saab in his Beirut atelier, at work on two evening gowns for Paris Couture Week
At the Saab headquarters, we went upstairs to the bright, white and welcoming reception area and then into the first studio, filled with seamstresses, which this Francophile country calls “petites mains” or “little hands”. The workers were immersed in decoration — taking a translucent piece of tulle and scattering it with gilded paillettes or stitching on decorative flowers and birds.
In one corner sat an elderly woman, noble with experience, stitching sparkles on a snow-white wedding dress with the skirt spreading like a shimmering lake across the floor.
Inside Saab’s Beirut atelier, with tailor’s dummies of his clients
“Mostly they like BIG skirts,” said Elie Saab of the brides who are such an important part of his made-to-order business.
Ah those clients! Like any couturier, discretion is de rigeur. But their bodies, in dummy form, were all around on shelves in each studio. They come small and thin, shapely, voluptuous, stout — always with a name at the neckline, from Middle Eastern princesses to European socialites. I counted 81, but I knew that there were at least twice that number when I saw the studio hands who turn bridal dreams into drawings. They had a stack of illustrations to present to Saab, who examined each one, explaining to me that after 30 years in business, he was beginning to get mother and daughter clients.
Saab is the stylist’s go-to choice for many glittering weddings, Royal gowns and red-carpet events. Left, Kendall Jenner wears a feathery Elie Saab Spring 2015 Couture dress (left) and Milla Jovovich (right, with Saab) in a silvered pre-Fall 2016 gown
“But not yet grandmothers!” he said. Although that cannot be far away, since the designer started work at age 18 in 1982, in the thick of the ferocious 15-year civil war, slowly building an international following as he showed first in Rome, then in Paris in 2003. The fact that Queen Rania of Jordan wore his dress for the coronation in 1999 cemented his reputation in the Middle East.
Views of the Mediterranean from the Lebanese coastline
Yet at the time of his early shows during the French Haute Couture season, I had felt that the Elie Saab clothes were not drawn enough from his past — too generic as glamorous gowns expressing lifestyles of the rich and famous. A dress chosen by Halle Berry for the Academy Awards in 2002 put Elie Saab on the way to celebrity success and now it is difficult to find an event, from the Cannes film festival to any upscale party, when his dresses are not on show.
Touring Beirut, Saab’s passion for his hometown and nostalgia for its past can be understood. A handful of notable villas from the Ottoman Period remain, such as this near the newly restored Sursock Museum
But with the heartfelt Beirut-inspired couture collection shown in July 2015, he dug deep into the memories of a peaceful and then painful past.
During my visit, a model came into the airy space where the wide windows frame the governmental buildings on the hill behind. The minimalist architecture throughout the interior seemed in contrast to the hyper-decorated clothes.
Frangipani flowers on a traditional Levantine mother-of-pearl and marquetry table in Beirut
The couturier was evaluating every single outfit that would be shown to clients and press: a cluster of colourful lace flowers needed to be smaller; a wing of tulle had to curve more to the hipline; there needed to be drape in the pleats that came in the burning, golden colour of the sun sinking into the sea along Beirut’s coast line.
The Saab’s hosted a traditional Lebanese feast at sunset
I would like to have seen more reflections of the city: perhaps the fretted grilles of a rare grand mansion, opposite the Sursock Palace, left behind from the days of Ottoman grandeur; or the abundant greenery of his own townhouse in the Gemmayzeh district; or the house high in the mountains at Faqra, where Elie and Claudine find peace from their peripatetic life between Paris and Geneva, where their younger sons are studying.
The Elie Saab headquarters in Central Beirut
But Saab was fixated on the theme of his show, inspired by a photograph he had found proclaiming: “New York, just arrived, new world, new hope”. I looked at the mood boards filled with images of that era of mass immigration, when women aimed to look like Rita Hayworth — all big hair, broad shoulders and shapely hips swathed in clinging dresses.
Elie Saab is the only Middle Eastern designer who has become genuinely international. As well as the store openings in Paris, London’s Bruton Street and New York, he dreams of creating a new epicentre on Beirut land reclaimed from the sea in a strategic position opposite the building-in-progress by the late architect Zaha Hadid. It is one of the rare constructions not peppered with bullet holes.
Elie Saab (second from left), with his wife Claudine and children Elie Jr. (left), Celio (in white) and Michel
The Saabs - neither father nor son — did not want to discuss finance, yet the family must surely be looking for a strategic investor to help push the company to a further level? Elie Jr. said that his father is passing some decisions over to an internal group in the couture house. But I saw him working at full tilt, with only a stop for a capacious lunch of classic Lebanese dishes, some favourites offered daily by his mother. There was another brief break at early evening, when Elie left the studio to meet me on the roof terrace of my hotel, with a thin, new moon breaking over the water beyond, where the designer was greeted by every other hotel guest.
I asked Elie Saab about the future and he said that when he was starting out, he felt that he was almost the only contestant to enter the ring of high-end fashion, but that “now it is saturated”. Would he think in the future of passing the baton to his sons, keeping the business in the family, Italian style?
“Yes — I think yes,” Saab said. “I have not pushed it for a second, but it is they who want it.”
When we meet again 10 days later at the Paris show, with images of the Chrysler Building all around and hundreds of clients sitting in blocks, Elie Jr. tells me that I will find things very different since my Beirut visit. And so I did.
Saab gave Suzy a tour of Southern Lebanon, including a visit to the ancient Roman city of Tyre, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site
First there was the mother-and-daughter element, mostly charming, although with a few split skirts for Mama that looked more red carpet than family focused. There was a feeling of a bold and brash step-out into New York City, with tailored suits, the flesh exposed in these outfits by a plunging cleavage, the neck wrapped in golden chains; or a graphic dress worked with black and gold into the Chrysler pattern.
As the evening outfits appeared, I strained to capture the bodices I had seen in the petites main’s fingers: birds made from gilded paillettes or black and white feathers; flowers glinting like yellow and pink diamonds on a gauzy skirt; sequins creating a bodice that looked like a wing in flight. But I could envisage the bold spirit and bravery of these émigrés, dressing in tune with Hollywood’s golden age, trying to keep up with a racy New World.
The Elie Saab headquarters in Central Beirut
I would like to have felt more of the optimistic, even bravado, spirit I sensed through the Lebanon, from the hopeful fishermen on the rocks at Tyre to the opening of a classy emporium with a display of high fashion and contemporary art. But throughout the show, the birds were in flight, reminding me that for all its brash grandeur, hope was the message hand-stitched into this collection by Elie Saab.
Suzy with Elie Saab in his Beirut atelier, before the A/W 2016-17 Couture show in Paris