Elie Saab, the Lebanese trailblazer of haute couture who broke into Hollywood and has put Lebanon on the global fashion map, sat down with Executive for an exclusive one-on-one. He spoke about the history and future of Beiruti style, the world of luxury and the balance between the business and creativity of being a designer.
What does the role of designer mean to the everyday workings of the Elie Saab brand?
My daily tasks as a fashion designer changed a long time ago. We started elaborating on the company brand as well as developing “Elie Saab” as a business. My daily routine transformed; it now includes a lot of travelling, developmental projects, as well as design matters. My daily life transcends that of a fashion designer.
Do you see yourself first and foremost as a businessman or as a fashion designer?
From the start I was a fashion designer and a businessman at once. The two were never separate. The marketing side of the fashion designer in me was always present. From the beginning, I always focused on the business side and on how to improve it.
How does Beirut figure into your designs?
All the work that I did in the last 20 years was to show Beirut’s fashion side. Beirut dresses the whole region and it has been known for that since forever. Beirut’s tailors are known to be the best. Even the prêt-a-porter [ready to wear] produced in Beirut before the civil war was famous for being the best quality. What’s more, the Lebanese buyer is known for buying the best products from Europe. What I’ve added to this already rich scene is the contribution of a Lebanese fashion designer. I take pride in being one of the first designers to have encouraged the emergence of a serious fashion design platform in Beirut.
What is it that makes an Elie Saab piece a “luxury” item?
Everything we produce is luxury. The recipe of my success was to always produce what my clients want. I also produce pieces that make them feel beautiful. This is the trading part of my business. I never thought of doing pieces that no one did, or to show people that I am a better designer than others, like a few designers that have this obsession. From the start my target was to produce something a woman will love and will definitely wear. My motivation comes from seeing her happy wearing it.
According to Forbes the top five selling luxury brands worldwide are Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Gucci, Chanel and Hennessy. In your opinion why and how have they have achieved their success?
It wasn’t by chance of course. They have worked for it. First, there is the historical importance of those brands; then there is the story behind the brand itself. For example, Maison Chanel, which is one of the oldest fashion houses, is striking partly because of the story behind Coco Chanel. Different aspects are behind the success of such businesses.
How do you promote luxury pieces? What is your marketing strategy?
We generally don’t work on marketing our pieces. It is not our way of dealing with our collections. For me, it is enough to produce beautiful quality pieces that attract clients. Our pieces promote themselves. Our reputation has spread by word of mouth. Till now we have never had to become aggressively present in publications and so on. We did not need to.
How important is social media in marketing luxury brands?
Social media is very important. Especially through our website and Facebook, this creates contact between Elie Saab and the fans or clients. We started working on this aspect of Elie Saab six months ago, because we felt we weren’t doing enough for young people who are trying to interact or talk to us. I find it very important to communicate with the new generation of fans and students that appreciate my work. And I believe it is for the long-term very beneficial for us as well as inspirational for them.
Which markets do you cater most to today?
We have gained international recognition and therefore we cater to everyone. The United States is an important market as well as Russia. But today people are starting to look more towards the Far East in general and China in particular, which is a new emerging market. The Middle East constitutes 30 percent of our worldwide sales, in couture as well as in prêt-a-porter. My clientele are those who love what I do. Those who have the purchasing power of course buy the most, however, we are working on becoming closer to the average buyer by developing daywear and accessories. You do not have to have to be a millionaire in order to buy from our store.
What has been your most successful design?
As I said before, I am a perfectionist and I am very meticulous when it comes to preparing my collections. We provide our clients with beautiful dresses that they are not able to find elsewhere, which creates excessive demand that is sometimes hard to handle. We face this every day but of course, we only sell one design by country.
Following the global financial crisis, and the revolutions in the Arab world, are there indications to show the industry is recovering? What are your expectations for fashion in summer 2011?
We noticed a little bit of difficulty in the first two months of the global financial crisis in the United States. But we weren’t at all affected and if you look at our figures you will see no difference whatsoever. It didn’t really hit us. When you really put high standards in luxury you won’t be seriously affected. We have a lot going on today. This year was pretty hectic. We have a perfume to be launched in July and we are always working hard no matter how tired we are.
Can you tell us more about the perfume?
It’s been a while that I’ve been thinking of having my own perfume. But I am a perfectionist and I kept working on it until it was perfectly done. Two years ago we signed an agreement with BPI [Perfume], and in the beginning of July you will see the result of two years of hard work. ELIE SAAB Le Parfum, written without flamboyance but in capital letters, reflects the fashion house’s codes. This perfume also announces the arrival of a new method of wearing the ELIE SAAB signature.
What does it take for a dress to be worn by local or Hollywood celebrities?
Through our offices in Los Angeles, as well as in New York and Paris, we established a relationship with the celebrities. Along with their stylists, celebrities select their favorite dress to wear for their special events.
In the last decade, what would you say the demand focus has been?
We provide all kinds of designs and we have a high demand for everything that we do. And of course today there is a new demand for prêt-a-porter and accessories. Naturally, wedding gowns remain very important and they are a main product.