Saab’s setting was exceptional: staging a variation on his latest couture collection, inside the historic Résidence des Pins, the French ambassador´s home in Beirut.
A total of 23 models marched around the catwalk in the space, a magnificent Ottoman style palace in the classic Lebanese honey-colored sandstone originally built as a casino by Alfred Moussa Sursock, a member of one of the Lebanon’s most noted families.
Saab mixed up looks from two seasons, notably his Homage to Catalonia Fall/Winter collection, as a brilliant local pianist and composer Michel Fadel played with great panache on a grand piano, and an announcer read out each passage.
“A l´Ancienne; just like back in the old days,” smiled Saab, sitting beside the current French ambassador Bruno Foucher in the front row.
A great show, featuring curvilinear Gothic shapes, echoing Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia, seen in flowing gowns; boleros with exaggerated stand-up collars and a truly stupendous metallic Art Deco column opener.
Back in 1918, the Résidence des Pins was home to François George-Picot when he became Commissar of the French Mandate overseeing Lebanon. A lapidary at its front steps recalls that Greater Lebanon was declared here in 1920, and the building has been the residence of the French ambassador ever since, except during the Civil War of 1975-1990, when the Résidence des Pins – located on the notorious Green Line separating the warring factions – had to close a number of times over the course of several years. In 1981, the then French ambassador Louis Delamare was assassinated.
Tonight, however, the palace was a symbol of Lebanon´s slow but steady renaissance, notably in its once devastated Downtown. Scores of international brands from Chanel, Hermès and Vuitton to Tommy Hilfiger, Isabel Marant and Zadig & Voltaire now all have sizeable boutiques; while Aïshti, the local Harrods, is opening up a magisterial five-story department store in undulating concrete designed by Zaha Hadid.
And, in the culinary capital of the Middle East, her nephew, Hussein Hadid has opened three restaurants in the newly rebuilt Beirut Souk, notably Ummi – Lebanese home cooking in a honey-colored copper setting.
“I know my aunt would have been so proud of this building; especially as it’s located in the heart of the Beirut revival,” said Hussein, who speaks English flawlessly, the fruit of studying at the British Royal family´s preferred boarding school Gordonstoun.
Close by, Elie Saab has his own stylish headquarters: a swish boutique and studio located inside an elegant six-floor Rationalist building made in tufa. One night before, Saab feted friends at a vertical tasting of Dom Perignon, notably the P2 1998 vintage.
“It’s great to welcome friends to Lebanon, and to celebrate with great wine. I’m honored by anything I can do for my country,” said Saab.
Albeit quintessentially Lebanese, Saab is a resident of Switzerland, though he has staged his haute couture and ready-to-wear shows for over a decade in Paris. He first hurtled to fame back in 2002 when Halle Berry famously wore a gorgeous Saab gown when she received her Oscar.
Saab was 11 when Lebanon’s Civil War broke out, and his family left for Beirut when their home town of Damour was destroyed. He later dropped out of college aged just 18 to start his atelier, and went on to become the first Arab couturier to be elected into both the Camera della Moda and the Chambre Syndicale, the governing bodies of Italian and Frenh fashion.
Over one million Lebanese fled the country during the conflict: indeed, an estimated 15 million people of Lebanese origin live abroad. On Thursday, top local French-language daily, the L´Orient-Le Jour, proudly pointed out that six politicians of Lebanese descent were elected in the mid-term elections in America, from Donna Shalala, a congresswoman in Florida, to Christopher Sununu, voted in as governor of New Hampshire.
Back in Beirut, Saab is vey much a hero, as his stylish wedding dresses and red carpet spectaculars have won a huge following with their blend of Western sensibility and Middle Eastern flair.
“Quite simply, he is a brilliant ambassador for Lebanon. Few people have done more to help his country,” said ambassador Foucher.
Post show, some 150 guests dined on veal tortelli with white truffles and 36-hour braised goat prepared by Simone Zanoni, Chef at Le George in Paris.
Saab has always been a generous spirit. He´s highly active in LAU, the Lebanese American University, where he is the Honorary Chairman of the fashion design school. Founded in 1924, LAU has some 8,500 students at faculties including the institution’s schools of medicine, engineering, architecture, science and design, where Elie created a bachelor´s degree in fashion design.
His activism even extends to road safety. On Sunday, November 18th, as part of the 25th International Day of Road Safety, Saab will join a group of artists, architects, sculptors, jewelers and taggers, in an auction of Harley-Davidson crash helmets that will be held in Beirut Yacht Club to raise money and consciousness for victims of road accidents. Elie, however, is generously customizing an entire motor-bike.
Call it putting something back in – continually.
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