Elie Saab on confinement as an opportunity to organize thought; reduce anger and tame egos
Few countries are going through as much a crisis as Lebanon right now, even if the country has been relatively unscathed by the Covid-19 in comparison to Western Europe.
FashionNetwork.com caught up with the country’s most famous designer, the Phoenician couturier Elie Saab, to discuss the impact of the pandemic. And how his couture house is handling the enormous disruption caused by Covid-19.
Though he always shows haute couture and ready-to-wear in Paris, Saab’s hometown is Beirut, which has been the center of enormous political activity this spring. This week, Lebanon’s lawmakers donned face masks to meet inside a cavernous Beirut theatre – in order to observe social distancing – the place sprayed with disinfectant as they entered. Outside, anti-government protestors paraded around in hundreds of cars - again, to maintain social distancing.
Remarkably, throughout Lebanon’s long years of civil war and often chaotic conflict, Saab and his three sons have managed to build one of fashion’s most distinctive houses, develop a unique aesthetic and dress an Oscar winner. So, we caught up with Saab for his particular take on the current crisis, and what we can all potentially learn from this dark moment in world history. As well as how he sees the before and after Covid-19, both very different to him. And why, to Saab, this period can be one of personal fulfillment; and an opportunity to organize one’s thoughts; reduce anger and tame ego.
FashionNetwork.com: Where are you now? With your family?
Elie Saab: I'm in Lebanon with my wife Claudine. We spend our time between the house in Beirut and our house in the mountains in Faqra. Elie Jr and Celio are also in Lebanon but Michel is still in Switzerland.
FN: How is the situation in the Lebanon?
ES: Unfortunately, the situation in Lebanon is not very favorable. For a while now, we have been living in a fairly fragile and agitated economic and social context and this virus has made the situation even worse.
FN: How are all your team?
ES: Everyone is fine. We had taken the necessary measures to ensure the safety of our teams.
However, we are starting to set our goals by looking to the future, considering that this pandemic has become more contained and controlled.
The teams are working on a suitable tactic and a more suitable strategy for the long term that will be applied immediately.
FN: How has all this pandemic affected your creative ideas?
ES: Honestly, I consider that this pause has generated certain positive consequences. I had never had the time or the opportune occasion to put my ideas in order, to reflect amply, to see things from another angle and in a more serene way. This confinement is an important period of reflection and contemplation. I continue to feed my creativity on a daily basis, I let myself be inspired by everything around me.
FN: When was the moment when you first realized how serious this all was?
ES: We were living in an express world where everyone was caught up with their agenda between incessant travel and consecutive events. Now, suddenly, the whole planet is in confinement, the world economy is affected, so we understand that the situation is out of the ordinary. Nature, whether one likes it or not, is stronger than we humans. What we have just experienced will not be able to reproduce easily. It may be tens of generations more before we face a similar test that will change our perception, be it personal or professional. I hope that everyone will take advantage of this situation to build a better, healthier, more balanced, simpler, and above all more humane future.
FN: Has anyone you know personally been affected?
ES: This virus has unfortunately affected a large number of people around the world. To see that there is a large number of deaths really pains me ...
Like everyone else, I know friends who have been mildly affected by the virus or their family members. But I believe education and awareness about the virus now will help contain the spread so that we can get by as quickly and as best as possible.
FN: How will fashion change after Covid-19?
ES: Fashion as well as the world will no longer be the same. We will refer to before and after Covid-19. Many things will change. I was convinced that a change would take place sooner or later because the cycle was no longer human. But I never thought that in our time, a pandemic would mobilize the planet to this point. The pace in our industry had become insane, robotic: we were working on several collections at the same time, so we lost the pleasure of savoring each one. We were under continuous pressure, we lost the joy of living and enjoying human relationships, as well as listening to others. Due to the speed and the sequence that we lived, simplicity lost its value, merits had become less and less appreciated. The calendar we were following was crazy and barely gave us time to catch our breath. Even the customers were bombarded by the novelties on the market. The consumption of the products became irrational and it was rather an endless race. We have to start again on the basis of favoring quality over quantity, creating brand-specific experiences, giving back the product's own value so that it remains timeless. I really believe that today, we are moving to a new chapter that will give us the chance to set the record straight.
FN: How will the world change after Covid-19?
ES: Our daily life will also change. We got into the habit of connecting remotely, working remotely, finding opportunities and looking for reliable solutions. We have developed our adaptability. We have realized that we can do things without being on-site by ensuring good remote management. Everything can be done online and this gives greater importance to technology. This phase remains very exceptional, as everything will gradually resume to regain its place – as it should. Excess remains the boredom of mankind and everything must be well-balanced to give a better meaning to humanity. Earth, too, had to breathe differently, with less pollution! It was really a click that brought us back to true and simple values. I am optimistic, I welcome this situation positively as a way to redefine our aspirations, our needs, our expectations. This period gave me a certain feeling of gratitude. I consider it as an experience of personal fulfillment to assess the details that surround us. I really hope that many people have had the chance to organize their thoughts during this time to reduce their anger and tame their ego. Some had lost their bearings before, and now is the time to raise the bar and return to simplicity and authenticity.
FN: As an industry of incessant travel, where the shows went on last month even as the pandemic raged in China, does fashion bear any of the blame?
FN: Fashion Week may have accelerated the spread of the virus, but there were also other sporting events, conferences, etc. taking place around the world. Meetings and trips are not just for visiting fashion capitals and attending fashion shows. The spread of this virus has no borders or barriers. I especially do not want to associate this virus with the Fashion Month period because fashion represents beauty and elegance, Fashion Week evokes conviviality, and I insist that it symbolizes such, and that, forever.
FN: Many people have talked about a reset button – do you think that is the case?
ES: Of course, the entire planet is on hiatus and it takes a "reset button" to restart it. Yet, you must be very careful when restarting the machine. We must ensure that we will take over the reins with skill, by emphasizing quality, in all of these aspects. We cannot ignore this phase that we have lived and re-launch lightly as if nothing had happened. This initialization button should trigger a promising start. I can't stop thinking about it, and I'm in the midst of organizing myself to pass this course at best.
FN: Others have noted that influencers have gone very quiet. Do you think that their influence will wane?
ES: I have a belief that you cannot cross out something that has existed for a certain period of time. Influencers marked their territory: some were influential and were able to create an identity, others lesser so, and this will also be the case in the future. These influencers are above all a source of inspiration for the millennia and I hope that they will evolve in the right direction.
FN: What will we keep from this period and what will we discard?
ES: Personally, I will keep my character that you know well: simple, human, courteous and insightful, so as to not complicate matters. I will get rid of everything that could harm the quality of life that I will begin again, and take more pleasure around human relationships. My initial intuition had never deceived me, and today, I am even more convinced that you have to be well-surrounded to give more to the world.
I have always gone forward with hope, and learned to overcome obstacles by determining the essentials, what inspires me – and this will further strengthen my conviction.
FN: Do you still expect to come to Paris and shows in September?
ES: Paris is my second city, and I can't wait to come back to start again fully. I hope that this industry will recover in the best conditions possible, and that we will all be united to create subtly.
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