Elie Saab was a little known fashion designer until Halle Berry stepped into the Academy Awards spotlight in one of his gowns.

March 28, 2002|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

With his shimmering gowns and rich brocade dresses, Lebanese designer Elie Saab's haute couture pieces have adorned Arabian queens and celluloid stars from Catherine Deneuve to Bo Derek.

But until Halle Berry stepped onto Oscar's magical red carpet in a spectacular, burgundy Elie Saab gown Sunday, the little-known designer was hardly a regular in the pages of Vogue, much less a household name.

One night, however, can make all the difference.

After dressing Hollywood's new Cinderella on the biggest night of her career, the question in America's fashion industry this week has been, "Who's Elie Saab?"

"A lot of people are calling and saying, `Who is this guy? Where can we see more of his stuff?' " said David Wolfe, creative director with the Doneger Group, a New York fashion consulting company. "I know virtually nothing about him. Most of the industry hasn't really heard of him, and we're trying as fast as we can to find out about him. This puts him right in the money."

And Saab, 37, is well aware of this.

"This is huge for me," he said in an interview from Paris, where he has an office. "The phones have been ringing off the hook. ... I feel extremely happy and proud."

Oscar night has made many a career and boosted many a company before this.

Eveningwear designer Randolph Duke, who used to design for Halston, launched his own fashion house after Minnie Driver wowed crowds with her sexy red Halston gown at the 1998 awards. And Jennifer Lopez's eye-poppingly sheer dress from last year reportedly gave Chanel an estimated $7 million in free publicity from its many reprints in magazines and newspapers.

So, when more than 41 million viewers tuned in Sunday night and saw Berry accept her Best Actress Oscar dressed in Elie Saab, the designer knew he'd struck gold.

Saab, who has been described as a "Lebanese Versace," is no newcomer to fashion. He was born in Beirut, the son of a wood merchant, but quickly developed an interest in art and decided on fashion at age 16.

In 1982, he launched his atelier and became a favorite among Middle Eastern princesses in the late 1980s. Queen Rania of Jordan has been a fan for years and chose to wear one of his couture pieces at the 1999 coronation ceremony. The following year, Saab staged his first couture fashion show in Paris and has been a regular in the world's fashion capital ever since.

Today, he is based in Beirut, Paris and Milan and is sold at select Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman stores in America. Saab's public relations representatives would not give any information on the price of Berry's dress, but his gowns typically cost more than $10,000.

His style is very much inspired by his culture and love for the Middle East. Slinky dresses with detailed gold embroidery and jeweled gowns befitting ancient royalty are among his signature pieces. Last year, Saab designed a $1.5 million gown covered with emeralds the size of eggs and 400 carats of diamonds, which he showed at a haute couture show in London.

Berry's dress, a piece from his Fall 2001 Haute Couture collection, comprises a full taffeta skirt and a sheer burgundy tulle top with flowers and vines stitched on to cover the essentials.

Phillip Bloch, Berry's stylist, said he first saw the dress at Saab's show in Paris last year.

"I was blown away," recalled Bloch, who also served as CNN's fashion expert on Oscars night. "I didn't even think of it for the Oscars for Halle or whoever. I just thought, `This is an amazing dress. Somebody needs to wear it to an amazing event.' "

Bloch said he pored over hundreds of gowns for Berry in search of looks for the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards. He briefly considered putting Berry in the dress for the Golden Globes, but decided it was "too fancy" for the event.

"That's an Oscar dress," said Bloch, who also dressed Blair Underwood, Jill Hennessy and Carolyn Murphy for Sunday night. "But very few people could wear that dress. You have to be very confident, have the perfect body and a strong personality. And it really has to be your night."

To make Saab's creation perfect for Berry, however, Bloch ordered some changes.

At Saab's show last year, the gown's one-inch wide zipper ran down the center of the back. Bloch had Saab make two new versions of the top with zippers down the side, hidden by vines. (One of the alternate tops featured a cowl neck.)

The day before the awards, Bloch's tailors did the final fittings for Berry, stitching on flowers and vines over the crucial parts. The gown Berry finally wore ended up being less risque than the version Saab trotted down his runway - it had more shrubbery covering her chest.

Bloch said he wanted the dress to reflect Berry's personality.

"It's sweet, but it's daring. It's couture, but it's also fun. It's chic and sexy and it's elegant, but it's also whimsical," said Bloch, who also worked with Harry Winston on designing Berry's floret earrings, ring and bracelet for the night. "It was really the perfect dress for her and for what that event meant. At the end of the day, a woman should be subtle but she should also be remembered."

Saab, too, was thrilled with the final product.

"She looked amazing," he said. "She looked like a very glamorous Hollywood star. She could breathe and move freely in the dress, which only added to her beauty and charm."

As for the long-term impact this publicity will have on Saab's U.S. business, no one has any predictions.

"He's a household name this week," Wolfe said. "This is the kind of opportunity that designers dream of, but it depends. He's stepping up to bat in the World Series right now and it really depends on whether he can hit the ball out of the park."

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