PARIS: Elie Saab, like a scientist in a laboratory of tulle and silk, seems to be on a quest to discover the ideal female silhouette.
A leading Lebanese designer, Saab Wednesday presented a spring-summer couture collection in Paris that was covered in intricate floral applique, richly patterned silk and asymmetrical drapery. Critics have scolded Saab in the past for pandering to his clientele by relying on a single – albeit popular – cinched-waist in both his couture and ready-to-wear.
Wednesday’s show was an indication that perhaps it’s not the clientele but Saab himself who is obsessed with perfecting the hourglass figure. For spring-summer 2014 couture, Saab brought out all the tricks, including panniers, which date back about 400 years when aristocratic women would wear metal frames under their pettiskirts to accentuate their hips.
The first such pannier-lifted dress was made of soft rose organza with large embroidered flowers climbing down the top of the skirt and drawing attention to the model’s oversized hips. He sent his final model down the runway in a wedding dress in beige rose silk organza, the model’s hands bracing a tiny waist swimming in the volume of the panniers.
Saab is not the only designer to have used period elements to make his collections dynamic. Georges Hobeika has often featured a bustle – a 19th-century piece that exaggerates rear – to lift the train on his wedding dresses.
But for those women who prefer not to wear relics of 17th century garb, Saab used very thin belts camouflaged in the color of the dress to draw the eye to the waistline.
He also resuscitated peplum, the imminent death of which fashion critics keep predicting. To give them new life, Saab created asymmetrical peplum, pleated in one corner or with the floral edge of silk embroidery. Paired with a tight belt, Saab’s oversized and structured peplum acted as a moderate and contemporary replacement for the pannier.
Despite any criticism of his predictable silhouette, these dresses are certainly crowd-pleasers. Wednesday’s show was packed with audience members, a sizeable delegation of which were loyal Lebanese clientele, such as Elissa, who came out in droves to see the Paris show.
Saab drew his color palette and grandiose theme from the Romantic artwork of 19th-century English painter Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Alma-Tadema was a successful Victorian-era artist known for painting rich and detailed images of classical antiquity, Orientalist fantasies, nudes and biblical scenes.
Both painter and designer share a love for floral intricacy. Saab’s couture often relies on the painstaking application of hundreds of life-like silk blossoms. And one of Alma-Tadema’s works, “The Roses of Heliogabalus” (1888), shows thousands of rose petals painted from life blanketing Emperor Elagabalus’ guests in his legendary attempt to suffocate them with flowers.
In his summer collection, Saab deviated from his cinched waist in favor of a looser empire waist that flared out from the ribcage, a likely ode to the dresses depicted in Alma-Tadema’s classical scenes. There was also a clear reference to the drapery seen in the painter’s Grecian scenes with a set of draped dresses with billowing silk muslin and in rich floral colors like hydrangea blue, lilac, rose and deep purples.
The most literal translation of Alma-Tadema’s inspiration came out at the climax of Saab’s show in a lineup of gowns made from a richly colored print of abstract, painted flowers. The darkness of charcoal black at the top of the dresses lightened in a gradient of lighter pinks and lavenders.
The concentration of color in the bodices served to draw the eye back to Saab’s chief concern: the waistline.