When you reach Ingie Chalhoub’s rarefied status as one of the most powerful women in the Middle East, you can expect more than a little mythology and folklore to surround her. Her legacy is immense, spanning 36 years in the business of bringing the biggest fashion brands in the world to the region via her luxury retail company, Etoile Group, the crown jewel of which is her multibrand store with multiple locations across the Middle East, Etoile “La boutique”.
If it wasn’t for Chalhoub, the luxury sector in the Middle East wouldn’t exist as it does today, with every major brand vying for both a storefront and the attention of those with considerable buying power. She has built an empire, and she’s not even close to being done.
She has built an empire, and she’s not even close to being done.
She and her husband – the highly respected businessman Patrick Chalhoub – were given the highest civilian merit awarded in France, the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur, marking the first time a husband and wife had been given the honor together. Furthermore, Chalhoub has been named one of the top 100 most powerful women in the Arab world by both Forbes and CEO Middle East, won two Gulf Connoisseur Awards, been named the L’Officiel ‘Woman of the Year’, sat on the board of Dubai International Fashion Week, and acted as the Chief Creative Officer of Arab Fashion Council.
However intimidating her status might be on paper, Chalhoub herself is warm and open in person. And as she is driven by endless curiosity and a passion for expressing her talents for both business and creativity, her rich inner life becomes evident in conversation.
Now, with hundreds of luxury brands in her Etoile Group portfolio, a successful fashion brand of her very own INGIE Paris, and dozens of accolades and awards accrued for her entrepreneurship, leadership, and mentorship, Chalhoub is working on something new, something that managed to make our admiration of her grow exponentially. Read our exclusive interview to find out what that something is.
Let’s start by tackling the side of Ingie everyone knows about: the businesswoman. How big is Etoile Group now?
[laughs] Almost too big to count. We always have more ambitions and more challenges to overcome, which is great, but it’s about building up the future and sustainability of the group that keeps growing and growing. I keep taking on new challenges. The situation is not great for many brands right now, but we are positioned to grab new business for our portfolios.
We signed quite a few new contracts recently, and we are very happy. Etoile “La boutique” is my baby. That was an amazing challenge since the beginning because it was an elaborate undertaking. I am so proud of what we accomplished with Etoile. I pulled Chanel, Dior, and other big brands to the country through Etoile.
So Etoile “La boutique” predates you bringing Chanel to the region in 1983?
1983 was when I brought Chanel to Kuwait. When the war started in 1990, we were a multi-brand boutique. Within the multi-brand concept, I had a corner for Chanel, Kenzo, Lacroix, and many other brands. Then the war started in 1990 in Kuwait, so I came to Dubai. Then, I reopened another new Etoile in Dubai in 1993. I convinced Chanel to open a corner there, which is where they were before they franchised. I had Valentino, Ungaro, all of the top brands within Etoile. I did the opposite when I came to Dubai. I started with a multi-brand concept, while in Kuwait, I started with Chanel.
Within the multi-brand concept, I had the corner with the specifics of Chanel, the logo, etc. It was a way to test the market because there were no brands in 1991. Maybe Bvlgari and Cartier came first as jewelry brands, but there were no fashion brands. Now, Etoile is a laboratory for new brands and new talents. We opened many other Etoile boutiques. We have Etoile “La boutique” in Galeries Lafayette, and our main flagship store is in Mall of the Emirates. We have another one in Wafi, one in Abu Dhabi, one in Jeddah, one in Riyadh, one in Kuwait, and we just opened a new one in Qatar. We are still expanding the network of Etoile to make it regional, to promote new talent and our own special edit of major brands. We are always growing. We are confident we can even do better.
Over the past 36 years since you launched your journey, the luxury consumer has changed dramatically. How do you keep up with the evolution of the retail experience now that it’s dominated by digital?
I am amazed to see how innovation in retail has embraced the omnichannel experience. I am confident that we can overcome any challenges by embracing change. Change happens fast, so you have to be even faster to adapt. But it takes time to convince the brands that we have to work together to open up e-commerce in the Middle East. I am pushing those brands because I need their support and I cannot do it alone. We are looking to the future on their behalf, we just need the trust that we’re right about all the potential the future holds if they are willing to embrace change.
Why did you decide to launch your own eponymous fashion brand, INGIE Paris?
It is something I have wanted to do for a long time, but I was really waiting until my children were older. When they were younger, I wanted to devote all of the time I could to them, but as they got older and started living their own lives, I had more time to work on my passion. I knew I had the capacity to know and understand the business side, but I also had a strong creative side that I had not explored fully.
When I started in fashion, the most popular fashion houses in the world were not as big as they are today. We were very involved with them through Etoile. We were doing their merchandising and marketing and, at that time, there were no boundaries between us and the designers. Now they are all owned by big corporations that operate by different rules. Everything from the windows to the labels inside the clothes to the merchandise itself must look and feel the same way. I miss being involved with a fashion brand at that level, and I had my own vision that I wanted to transform into a reality.
It sounds like INGIE Paris allows you to flex that creative muscle.
Yes, exactly. I am very successful at what I do, but the most fulfilling part for me is to strive to be even better, to make a bigger impact on others, to make the world a better place. I always thought I would be good at both sides, business and creative, so I wanted to test it. To run a fashion brand, I had to foresee long enough in advance to know where my vision is heading and how to set a creative direction for my team. But before I started with that, I had to consult with many people. My consultant when I started my brand insisted that I call it ‘Ingie’ because it had to reflect my DNA.
Did you have another name in mind?
I was thinking of calling it Etoile. They said, “No, it’s not something that you’ll just oversee. It’s something that has to come from your guts. It has to be a part of you, that’s why it must be your name.” [The consultant] made me work on a mood board, and warned me that it was like going to a shrink because you must pull the images and desires out from your inner self.
I had to create my own mood board so that I could talk about the brand DNA in four words. I took three weeks during my summer holiday, forbade anyone to bother me, and worked on my mood board. It was an amazing time. It helped me discover my own self. It helped me tell my own story, of the two cultures I had grown up in – Middle Eastern and European – as well as the values I cherish. It all came out in the mood board. I came back to my consultant, Jean-Jacques [Picart], with a massive mood board. He said, “You did too much!” [laughs] But that’s where it started.
Describe your creative process.
My process is giving a direction to me team. That creative direction starts with my ideas and what I have been inspired by, and then gets technical, like selecting fabrics and embroideries, making sure the patterns are cut perfectly. My atelier is in Paris, and the people I work with are the best of the best. I only work with the best.
Growing up, the story of Cleopatra always touched me because she was such a strong woman.
I love the inspiration behind your recent collection.
Yes, my rock ‘n’ roll Cleopatra!
I read that your mother looked like Elizabeth Taylor. When I saw your Cleopatra-inspired collection, I wondered if it was inspired by the Elizabeth Taylor film.
[laughs] She did, my mother looked just like Elizabeth Taylor. Growing up, the story of Cleopatra always touched me because she was such a strong woman.
An uncompromising woman, a woman in a man’s world.
Absolutely. It’s something I am familiar with as well. Cleopatra was a real warrior, but at the same time, she was very sensual and feminine. She was the Queen of Egypt, but then she married Julius Caesar. That made her the queen of two worlds. That is exactly how I identify with her. I thought about how I would dress her in the 21st century. I would not dress her like she was in the movie, like she was stuck in time. I thought of her like a rock ‘n’ roll icon – that’s why I did all the leather pants and jewelry, and had some of the models in gold body paint. This isn’t a nostalgic vision, it’s contemporary.
Do you see more clients from Europe or the Middle East?
I opened my Dubai flagship a year ago, and it was an amazing step because it showed me that there was a high demand here in the region. Saudis are the number one customer here, but on Farfetch, Americans are number one. I am grabbing an international audience, and that is so exciting. This is where you say, “Now I’m ready to grow even more.”
From pioneering entrepreneur and business mogul to fashion designer, your journey is well-documented. But there is another side to you that is just now emerging in the public eye.
True, there are aspects of me that you all know, but there is an aspect of me that I have never really shared with anyone before, and that is the philanthropist. This is close to my heart. It is a part of me and a part of who I am. It has never been promoted until now. When you become part of ‘The Leadership Circle’ with UNICEF, you must work hard to promote it because the work is so important. Unfortunately, there is a lot of need. Seeing it with the eyes of a mother, the eyes of a woman, you see the challenges of people living in such terrible conditions, but they still have so much love and tenderness.
I see these beautiful children living in real despair, there is no future for them. They aren’t able to leave the camp, they cannot work when they grow up, they cannot go to university. There is a lot of resilience, but also a lot of drop-off because while people can get a diploma, they are still stuck after they do because they can’t leave. Now UNICEF is helping, start-ups are coming in to help, they work hard on it, they get the attention of shareholders. We come as mentors, we come as promoting some of their ideas and talents. This is amazing work that has been done, but it must continue. We must ensure that every one of us takes care of each other. One hand can’t clap alone.
What is the mission of The Leadership Circle?
We want to raise awareness on long-term solutions. We are influencers in our own way and, while I do not consider myself an influencer, I am influential. And we use this influence to create awareness about the actions that are required to meet the needs of the less fortunate.
How did you get involved with UNICEF?
I was at the United Nations in September with my husband, who is a member of the UN Global Compact. He was selected at the international level to be part of the 13-member body. There were lots of functions around UNICEF at the event, and my interest in UNICEF was very high. I was invited to attend a big conference during that time at the United Nations and, afterwards, they contacted me and asked me to be a part of The Leadership Circle.
They are currently creating it, it’s new – we are eight members so far. A new member just joined us, in fact, and we are going to have one more new member for a total of ten, I think. Each one of us is strong in his or her own field. We all have different backgrounds and strengths. Each one has a different circle of influence.
Think about all you have been given, and then think about what you can do to give back.
There is a lot of ignorance everywhere about the plight of refugees. What will The Leadership Circle do to change that?
People ask me, “Why would you go there?” They don’t realize that they are talking about innocent people and innocent children who are victims of conflict, war, and violence in their home countries. The world is clueless about what these refugees go through. It’s so sad. One of the things that is most important to me is changing people’s minds about this issue, about making people aware.
The people in these camps are the most beautiful, loving people. Yet, they have nothing. You wouldn’t believe how they are living – it’s like they live in ancient times. In Dubai, you can feel disconnected from reality. This is their reality, and it’s not good because there is no place for them to go. They can’t leave, they can’t work, they can’t do anything. They are trapped. So through UNICEF, we are giving them resources, an education, and – most importantly – hope.
You said that there is Ingie the businesswoman, Ingie the designer, and a third Ingie emerging with this project. Can you tell me the message you’re trying to get across with this effort.
I’ve always been a philanthropist, but I’ve never promoted it. There is a time when you are so busy working, doing, and creating, but then there is a time when you must give back to your own community. This is why I am doing it. It’s also very fulfilling. People might think of me as unreachable, but I am just a human, and I want to give back. I might be Ingie, but I am as comfortable with helping refugee children as I am in a boardroom with CEOs.
Originally, I wanted to keep a low profile because my philanthropy doesn’t belong to anyone but me. I didn’t want to brag, I just wanted to do. But this isn’t about bragging, it’s about using my influence in order to make a change. For me, UNICEF is about making a broader impact – not only financially, but also for raising awareness and having more people help with its projects. We need everyone’s attention on this issue. The message I am trying to get across is: we are really privileged. Think about all you have been given, and then think about what you can do to give back. We all have to make this effort together.
You’ve been a bridge builder between cultures, between Paris and the Middle East. Now you can be a bridge builder between the privileged and underprivileged. For the underprivileged, you can show that there is a way out, that they can get help and, with the privileged, you can show them how other people live.
Exactly. For me, it is not a short-term thing. Whatever resources are given, even more is needed – it’s never-ending. Our focus is making our actions sustainable. [UNICEF is] working on programs that are very clever, that make sure the resources are regenerated for people in the long term. I am proud to be a part of what they do.