By Yara Bayoumy
BEIRUT (Reuters) - On the fourth floor of Elie Saab's polished ivory-colored fashion house in central Beirut a big screen television plays his latest Paris fashion shows. The models dressed in long, shimmering evening gowns are slim but curvy. Their faces a healthy glow, they look anything but skeletal.
Saab, who sealed his role as a major fashion designer when actress Halle Berry accepted her 2002 best actress Oscar in an Elie Saab burgundy tulle and taffeta gown, says he looks for a woman who has "all the features of one to adore." "There are some fashion houses that prefer very skinny women, without a shape. But as for Elie Saab, usually I'm looking for a model who has a shape, has curves, has a bust. A woman in every sense of the word," he told Reuters. "I have never liked or agreed to use a model as a hanger for my dress. Because first of all it's not an image I would want for a woman and a woman's beauty is in her femininity, in the form that God gave her," he said at his fashion house.
After the death of two anorexic Latin American models last year, some countries imposed bans on skinny models, sending the fashion industry in a heated debate over the need for bans. Saab would not specifically say whether or not he approved of bans, but said: "I mean I don't know where is the beauty of these models who are bones. It's not necessary that she be a bone walking on legs to be a model." "I can't decipher this issue except as a lack of respect for a woman. On the contrary, I like to see a woman in her best image...in the end she is our mother, our sister."
Changing into a crisp black shirt and exchanging a chunky gold watch for a sleek black one to prepare for the television interview, the soft-spoken Saab says he feels he sealed his "arrival" as an international fashion designer with the opening of his Paris fashion house on Monday. "No designer can ignore Paris in fashion. I say that wherever I open a fashion house, I have to be in Paris because it is the capital of fashion and elegance. "I feel that it's a big statement for me to have a center like the center I have in Paris."
Saab also said he plans to open fashion houses which include haute couture and ready-to-wear lines in London, New York and Beverly Hills next year. Saab, who had no formal training and used to draw sketches for his sisters using his mother's tablecloths and curtains, opened his first atelier in Lebanon at the age of 18 in 1982. His last haute couture show in Paris featured several delicately beaded and sequined pale-colored evening gowns. Saab said his inspiration for the line was a "goddess taking a walk during dawn under the dew." "I believe usually that a woman must stand out before the dress. I don't see that I should use colors that hurt the eyes just to make her visible," he said.
Since dressing Berry, Saab has appealed to many Hollywood stars including beyonce, Elizabeth Hurley and Teri Hatcher. Jordan's Queen Rania and Saudi princesses are also fans. Saab, who admires Valentino, said he would like to work again with actresses Charlize Theron and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Lebanon is known to have among the most fashion-conscious of Middle Eastern citizens and has produced many young local designers, but none have reached Saab's A-list stardom. Saab says he is proud of the emerging designers but warns they have to develop individuality in their designs to achieve similar success. "I'm proud that I created in many young Lebanese men the desire to be fashion designers. But what bothers me with the new designers is that they want to be like Elie Saab. "For me that means they're failing before they even start. It is imperative they develop their own sense of style. Today there's Elie Saab, but tomorrow there won't be. What will they do then? Close?"