A Conversation With… Elie Saab

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Official Portrait Elie Saab
Photo: Courtesy of ELIE SAAB

He’s the most in-demand name in the fashion industry and an icon in the Middle East who expanded his empire into the world of beauty. We talk to Elie Saab exclusively to discover his first ever scent and to learn how he’s planning to grow his massively successful business.

“I had a dream, since the beginning of my career, to create my own perfume. Just as with my dresses, I want to bring beauty into women’s lives."

If you were to slice up the glamorous pie that is the luxury market, 28 percent would go to ready-to-wear, 22 percent to accessories, 21 percent to hard luxury goods, and 23 percent to perfume. Perfume is a multi-billion dollar annual industry. When a designer branches into perfume territory, they are essentially creating one of their most valuable brand assets. A single successful fragrance can make all of the difference in their annual net profit. While some designers treat this as a mere extension of their brand success and a stepping stone to a wider market (which can altogether prove risky as seven out of eight perfume launches fail per year), others take on the business of perfume for aesthetic reasons.

World-renowned fashion designer, Elie Saab, falls into the latter camp. For him, the creation of a signature scent was an exercise in brand actualization – the demarcating point between design and an encompassing Saab lifestyle brand. “I had a dream, since the beginning of my career, to create my own perfume”, shares Saab. “Just as with my dresses, I want to bring beauty into women’s lives. Thanks to my ready-to-wear and accessory lines, and the opening of new boutiques such as in Dubai, the Elie Saab brand was reaching an ever-broader audience. Launching a perfume was the natural next step, to share the Elie Saab brand’s femininity with more women in the world than ever.”

To fall in love with Saab designs carries with it a certain connotation of elegance and whimsy. Spritz yourself with the Saab fragrance and the picture is complete. Saab agrees with the sentiment, stating, “It is a new way to wear the Elie Saab brand. I hope Elie Saab Le Parfum will bring a touch of exceptional in the every day life of all women. I hope women will feel infinitely sure of themselves and of their beauty and femininity… like in a dream.”

I hope Elie Saab Le Parfum will bring a touch of exceptional in the every day life of all women. I hope women will feel infinitely sure of themselves and of their beauty and femininity… like in a dream.

Designers are a varied group of individuals that indulge in the most humanistic of pastimes: adorning and celebrating the human body. Some are bereft of natural talent when they start and climb the ranks slowly by attending design school, slogging through internships, and dragging their lovingly crafted collections to department stores and boutiques for a chance to end up on their shelves. Others are gifted from a young age and have an intense and unwavering vision of the future.

Those who have dreams, talent, and focus at a young age tend to possess a singular genius that sometimes proves a hindrance, but more often than not aids in launching their later careers into the stratosphere. Born in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1964, Saab’s environment might not seem creatively conducive, but he knew what he wanted from life even at a young age. At nine, Elie Saab was showing signs of fashion genius, deftly crafting clothing for his sister as he dreamed of a day where the women of the world would wear his clothes. It was not long before he was in demand, at first only in his immediate neighborhood, but later women from all over the region surrounding Beirut wanted a Saab dress. At the tender age of 18, Saab launched a couture house with two dozen seamstresses and began to build his reputation. He knew he was on the right path when he would receive orders for 60 dresses for a single wedding ceremony. Because of his hard-won reputation, he was able to self-finance a critically successful fashion show in Beirut when he was still a teenager.

This astonishing determination is what has brought him his myriad successes to date. After gaining a glowing region-wide reputation and establishing a loyal clientele base in the Middle East, he set his sights on the rest of the world. In 1997, his first show outside of Lebanon was in Rome, Italy. Later, in the year 2000, he was invited to show his first Paris collection. Showing in Paris is daunting for any emerging designer – it is the oldest, most reputable Fashion Week in the world, outshining New York, London, and Milan. To gain recognition in Paris is to gain recognition globally, and to fail is to fail spectacularly and very publicly. Fortunately, Saab’s first Paris Couture collection was a critical success. It was two years later, in 2002, that Halle Berry would appear at the Oscars in one of his dresses, turning “Elie Saab” into a household name. In 2005, Saab began showing ready-to-wear, and was able to expand into a different price bracket and therefore appeal to a wider audience. Since then, he has dressed countless celebrities and royalty, been elected an honorary member of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, and elevated Lebanon on the world’s stage.

Now, he is at the helm of a globally recognized brand that is carried in boutiques and major retail outlets around the world. Saab has actualized the vision of his youth, but hasn’t stopped expanding his empire. He extended his vision for a signature scent to BPI and expert perfumer Francis Kurkdijan, telling us, “I chose to work with BPI because of our common values; it is a partnership based on respect and BPI’s commitment to translate the Elie Saab values and codes into perfumes.”

Anja Rubik for Elie Saab parfum campaign
Photo: Courtesy of ELIE SAAB

This ability to translate a brand’s “values and codes” into a smell that someone would want to wear is the heart of the process. Imagine a moody brand like Ann Demeulemeester coming out with a sugary, floral fragrance. It doesn’t work. An expert perfumer must know the brand, its aesthetics, and its clients inside and out. We asked Saab to share with us what that process looks like: “What matters to me is the emotion and the pleasure it brings to women who wear it, the magic it puts into their lives. I wanted a fragrance that refers to the light of my country; a very elegant scent, composed of very fine materials. What I did not want was an overwhelming perfume, which is the caricature of an oriental perfume. Francis Kurkdjian’s sensitivity to my world enabled him to masterfully recreate my imagination. The result is a floral, solar, woody perfume created around orange blossom, jasmine, patchouli, rose honey, and cedar wood.”

Saab intentionally crafted a light fragrance, stating that his own preference was for smells that did not overwhelm the senses. “I am very sensitive to scents and I don’t like an overwhelming perfume. Since my childhood, I’ve always loved smells”, he says. “I think it comes from the fact that I grew up in a city on the Mediterranean, where I was surrounded by many scents of flowers and trees.” So in love he was with Kurkdjian’s creation that he also launched, as enhancements to ELIE SAAB Le Parfum, a Perfumed Body Cream, Perfumed Body Lotion, Perfumed Body Wash, and Perfumed Deodorant to prolong the wearability of the scent.

Never one to bypass even the tiniest details, Saab also had a clear idea of what he wanted for the bottle design, the home that his perfume would live in. “I love architecture and I had a very clear idea of what I wanted for the bottle. I wanted something simple: straight lines, the rigor of a cube, and the sensation of an object made to be held in the hand. A beautiful object, with density and light. For me, light is eternal strength. The proposal of the designer Sylvie de France was selected among many others as she interpreted very well my idea of the design”, he says. The result is a short, crystal bottle – the clear structure has the dual purpose of capturing light and also revealing the honey-hued nectar that is the fragrance within.

The process of creating the perfume translated Saab’s design ethos into a scent that helped define the Saab patron. If you’ve ever seen his collections, you’ll understand. They are graceful, feminine, and ethereal. When we asked him who the Elie Saab Woman is, the woman that he keeps in his mind as he designs his accessories, dresses, and scents, he says “she is every woman who intends to blossom in today’s society by finding a balance between professional constraints and personal priorities. She is aware of her paradoxical aspirations but is unwilling to give anything up, and especially not her wildest dreams. She wants to live an exceptional moment, where she feels absolutely feminine, almost like a modern-day princess.”

As such, he weaves an aura of fantasy and magic into the tapestry of the garments. Most notably, they are often covered in a scattering of coruscated gems and crystals that twinkle in the light of the runway, and for Saab, this element is key. His main goal was to transmute the “light of the Middle East and the modernity of the West” into a fragrance as well as into his collections. Using a heart of jasmine, his floral, woodsy scent wears lightly and gracefully. The natural ingredients in ELIE SAAB Le Parfum make sense. It is the sun that causes these things to grow. A jasmine flower opens its petals when the sun touches it, while orange blossoms and cedar wood thrive in Mediterranean climes. Though there is no cause for such a brilliant man to be humble, Saab understates the power of this scent. Housed in an architecturally crafted, fragile glass bottle, what is contained within is the secret to a charmed life.

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