Couture designer to the stars Elie Saab explains why Beirut is his timeless inspiration
Elie celebrated Lebanon’s capital for all the creativity and elegance it has instilled in him. (Image: THE UNDERGRAD MIND)
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The city of Beirut has long inspired Elie Saab’s creations and with his latest collection, the prominent Lebanese couturier wished to celebrate Lebanon’s capital for all the creativity and elegance it has instilled in him.
In an exclusive for The Daily Star, Saab shared the intimate story behind his Spring-Summer 2015 Couture collection, unveiled at Paris Fashion Week, which he dubbed: “Beirut, chasing a dream.”
A beautiful memory of Beirut often visits me in a dream. A loving, giving and tolerant Beirut. A glamorous one too. A beautiful memory that never ceased to inspire me – that inspired this collection. This is a tribute to the city that I love. My Beirut.Looking back at the eventful history of Lebanon, through its flourishing periods and its downfalls, I feel hopeful, I feel grateful. Vivid images overtake me: the golden age of the ’60s. The typical elegance of the Beirut woman. Distressing times quickly forgotten. The glorious reconstruction of the ’90s. Ups and downs. A dream that gets lost, sometimes, before emerging again, always stronger. And immortal. When these images overtake me I know for certain that the Beirut of my dreams will forever be alive, magnetic, festive and charming. I know for certain that I want to contribute to its glory. And when I close my eyes and think of Beirut, I know for certain that this dream is mine.
When I sit back and reflect on my journey, I’m always transported to the city where I was born, somewhere between the Mediterranean Sea and the mountains. Back then, Beirut seemed to be constantly adorned for a party that would never end. I was instantly enthralled by beauty and wanted to ensure it remained untainted. To this day, I’m still enchanted by a clear vision: my mother in an evening gown. Curved at the waist. Flared like a corolla. Tulips printed on silk. A vision that fueled my flare as a designer. And with every new collection I conceived, the striking image of my mother in this tulip print silk dress reappeared endlessly.
These memories and Beirut were the steppingstone of my passion for design. It was these things, along with the courage, the grace and the elegance of the women of my city, that influenced the person I am today. And if there were to be a message behind my couture collection, it would be: Thank you.
A Riviera in the Levant
As a child in the ’60s, I pranced around medlar and laurel trees, playing beneath the purple billows of the jacarandas. The oak and olive trees sprawled around this runway are vivid resurgences of the gardens of my past. Under the sun, jasmine and oranges dotted the streets, as a humid gust rose from the sea.
These memories still inspire my colors and my scents. The ethereal fabric of this collection embodies my childhood’s summer breeze. Just like the soft green of my blooming springs, the pale blue of the misty horizon, the yellow of the mimosas, the brown of the damp soil. Flash-forward to the ’70s, women in ankle length dresses, trapeze dresses, high waist skirts, embroidered and sheer tops wading through downtown. And as the sun shimmered on the pavement and as the days went by, I simply stood there and stared, fascinated by their demeanour, struck by their style.A lifestyleSegueing images on television and in magazines delighted me, carrying me through the daily life of my country. Its warm oriental traditions, its Swiss mountains, its French Riviera beaches, its Parisian culture, its Las Vegas shows and some of the most stunning festivals in the world.
At lunchtime, distinguished guests wallowed in the Saint George hotel’s restaurant by the beach, echoing some of the most prestigious French establishments. Further down the shore, an American type of luxury flourished at the aquarium bar of the Phoenicia hotel. At sunset, the twilight beckoned the charming ladies to their preferred hair stylists, arraying their silhouettes with their legendary chignons for the night. And throughout the day, gleeful young men and women swarmed over the countless cafe terraces of the city.
International stars promoting a movie or a show were often spotted wandering around the Corniche of the avenue des Français, shopping on Hamra Street, or cloaked behind the gold curtains of a jewellery designer at the souk. Strolling by the opening of an avant-garde art gallery, Jean Lurçat tapestries graced the walls, and Alexandre Calder created one of his trademark mobiles, on the spot, in front of a dazzled crowd.
Images like these often glister through my memories. A typical day in my Beirut. A typical day that I wish to revive in this collection.
Mythical placesLeaving the beach and moving toward the center, brasseries, bars and nightclubs were strewn all over Phoenicia Street. The Stereo Club, the Epi Club, the Grenier instantly lured people in. On the other side of the street, the lauded voice of Arab pop diva Sabah soared from the Blow-up, charming passersby from all around the city. Nearing the Excelsior hotel, Arab, American and French tourists gathered at Prosper Gaya-Para’s Caves du Roy, mingling with Beirut’s beau monde and dancing until dawn, as an Italian singer crooned stories of passionate love.
Driving up north to watch the Hello! musical at Casino du Liban, gleaming cars trailed along one of the most breathtaking natural bays in the world. Between shows produced by the exceptional Charley Henchis and concerts headlined by Barbara or Charles Dumont, a myriad of extraordinary artists shared the spotlight of the casino. The spectators left the shows beaming, their faces covered with golden glitter, tuxedos struggling to stay sober, evening gowns trailing behind, and none of it mattered: summer was drawing closer and a change of wardrobe was imminent.
And my collection tells it all: the people waltzing at the Petis Lits Blancs, as Umm Koulthoum mesmerized her audience with never-ending love songs at the Piscine. The magical nights, the transcendent lights, the divine melodies. Forever scarred in my memory. Forever alive in my dreams.
With the support of President Camille Chamoun and his ravishing wife Zalfa, a group of remarkable women and music enthusiasts – including Aimée Kettaneh, Salwa Said and May Arida – revived the ruins of the Roman Heliopolis with the Baalbek Festival, launched in 1955, giving the country a historical upswing in culture. The Rahbani brothers’ musicals pervaded the colossal columns of the Jupiter temple, as the legendary Feyrouz took the stage, mesmerizing the audience with her heavenly voice and her mournful eyes.
Elegant, refined and cosmopolitan, the polyglot women behind the Baalbek Festival traveled the world – the Middle East, Europe, Russia, the U.S. – inviting back home the most illustrious artists of their time. Karajan. Richter. Rostropovich. Serj Noureev. Miles Davis. Ellen Stewart. Peter Brook. Jeanne Moreau. Jean Cocteau. Renaud and Barrault. And a memorable Elizabeth Shwarzkopf, respectfully interrupting her set, leaving room for the evening prayer calls of the mosque.
When I close my eyes and think of this collection, I see myself in captivating Baalbek, surrounded by caryatids, feathered like doves, ushering guests into their millennial temple.
Beirut never gave up because the dream was unbreakable. Not when a war broke out in 1975. Not when that war lasted 15 years.
More than anything, these painful times taught the Lebanese people resilience. Through it all they remained dignified and elegant as they are known to be. Juggling between helping each other and preserving a seemingly normal life, preciously holding on to their love for culture. Shopping quarters were destroyed and fashionable items became rare, allowing a new generation of local designers to emerge. In a way, perhaps my earliest hunch was true: As long as women in my country had the desire to remain graceful and determined, there was still hope.
The Lebanese people dispersed through all continents. Conquering new lives. Driven to succeed. Making their mark on the world. Achieving international fame. It was peace that brought them back home. As Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was determined to bring the Beirut dream back to life, construction cranes droned endlessly all around the city. A new era unfolded. Iconic diva Fairouz emerged after many years of silence, taming the city with an exclusive concert in a downtown Beirut still under construction, signalling the advent of peace. The newly renovated Sports City opened its doors to Pavarotti, whose voice surged into the Milky Way, rivaling sumptuous fireworks. Cocktail parties bloomed, restaurants were swarmed, nightclubs blared louder, and art galleries vaunted their pieces. The Baalbek Festival flaunted Johnny Halliday, while Placido Domingo, Kiri Te Kanawa and Monserrat Caballé paraded on the stage of Beiteddine. Years of torment were buried behind, a new decade was celebrated. The resurrection of a glorious nation. The resurrection of Beirut, as beautiful, as elegant, as mesmerising as ever.
People from all over the world came to witness history. Tourism flourished. And Beirut women, once again, radiated, lead by two iconic figures of the new millennium: Nazek Hariri and Mona Hraoui – the respective wives of the [late former] Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and the [late former] President Mona Hraoui.
I want to pay homage to the people of this city who never stopped dreaming, who never stopped believing. With this collection, I too have wished to celebrate Beirut. I hope it brings you its loving spirit, its elegance, its douceur de vivre. As couture is inseparable from beauty, beauty is inseparable from eternity.
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