In loving memory: Beirut
In the sixties, Elie Saab's home town was the place to be
For this past decade Paris couture week has hosted a small band of couturiers from the Lebanon, most of whom clearly never wanted to be called Middle Eastern or Levantine designers. All of them were very proud of their homeland, but they just wanted to be recognised as couturiers that showed in Paris pure and simple.
That all changed dramatically during January’s season as guests took their seats at Elie Saab’s show in the Théâtre de Chaillot. Saab gave each guest a beautiful photo catalogue of the city, replete with a touching introduction by the couturier. Like the fantastic archival photos in Elie’s book and its images of Brigitte Bardot or Dalida, the collection evoked that unique moment of jet set effervescence that was Beirut before its descent into civil war in 1975.
It was also a Middle European meeting a Middle East moment, as many of the photos were by the legendary German photographer F.C. Gundlach. He revolutionised fashion photography in the early sixties, taking models out of the confines of photo studios and liberating them. Like the fantastic black and white image of Deborah Dixon standing above the huge engine of a massive Pan Am jet liner, twirling around a tent coat magnificently.
From glorious images of a tragic ballet in the looming restored ruins of the Roman Heliopolis of Baalback or Margot Fonteyn and Omar Sharif at play to the vibrant reconstruction of the nineties to Rostropovich, Peter Brook and Miles Davis performing in the Temple of Jupiter. Splendidly edited by the eldest of Elie’s three sons, Elie junior, on suitably high gramme paper, it became an instant collector’s item.
As the book states so well, Beirut was all the following: “Its Swiss mountains, its French Riviera beaches, its Parisian culture, its Las Vegas shows and some of the most stunning festivals in the world.” Long may it be all of the above again.
Saab has always been a couturier with a difference. Born in Beirut, he lives half the year in Geneva, the other half commuting between his global headquarters in the 16th arrondissement of Paris to his mammoth atelier in Lebanon. His couture house is so substantial he needs 300 full-time seamstresses and embroiderers to supply demand for wedding dresses, flawless suits and fabulous trousseaus. That makes his couture business com- parable to even major names like – Chanel, Christian Dior or Valentino.
Yet, his DNA is a sultry sensuality, a gift for diaphanous grandeur and a frequently brilliant use of colour – all very much a product of his upbringing in the boom days of Beirut in the sixties. No wonder his January show was a loving ode to his city and culture, trumpeted in a refined and evocative show. “It’s about how much I love Beirut. I think it is important to recall its great beauty, especially right now. No?,” explained Saab.
Elie revamped the Théâtre de Chaillot as a Lebanese garden, whose catwalk twisted around substantial oak and olive trees. He delighted with floating dresses made of massive tulip prints. A boyhood image of his mother Nadia in a tulip dress, “curved at the waist, flared like a corolla,” inspires Elie to this day.
Few ateliers anywhere match Saab’s atelier whose petites mains dexterously embroidered tiny pearls and crystals into ivory and rose lace cocktails, or embellished Va-va-vroom columns with the finest feathers. The mood was classy but not uptight – a Hollywood femme fatale like Jean Harlow would have loved this show.
True, the lack of daywear in a collection almost devoid of jackets and containing one pair of pants was disappointing. Saab has now grown into an established global brand, and needs to remember that he has to be much more than just a great dressmaker.
However, talk about a final Marianne, a pink and gold princess in a robe so exotic and grand, it demanded that her groom be, at the very least, an emir. Beirut at its most brilliant and, for this couturier, a public coming out. A very definite statement that said loud and clear that Elie is immensely proud to live out his Levanti- ne fashion dream in public. Call him the King of the Corniche.