Oscars: Why Halle, Angelina and Julia trust this designer to get them red-carpet ready

A photo collage of Jane Fonda, Lily Collins, Jennifer Hudson and Halle Berry
(From left to right: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times; Getty Images; Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times; Getty Images; illustration by Jamie Sholberg)

During this unconventional awards season leading up to the Oscars, one designer has remained a constant in helping celebrities shine in their virtual appearances: Elie Saab.

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In March at the Critics Choice Awards, Catherine O’Hara showed her sassy side in a black cocktail dress by Saab with a deep V neckline and puffy sleeves. The 67-year-old “Schitt’s Creek” actress accessorized the minidress with a jawbreaker-sized diamond pendant necklace by Jacob & Co. and black suede Christian Louboutin boots pulled over her knees.


Oscar winner Halle Berry in Elie Saab
Oscar winner Halle Berry in Elie Saab backstage at the 74th Academy Awards in Hollywood on March 24, 2002.
(Frank Micelotta Archive / Getty Images)

Selecting that dress came down to “the wow factor,” said Andrew Gelwicks, O’Hara’s stylist, by phone after she nabbed her award for best actress in a comedy series. Besides, he said, “The most brilliant women in the world have worn Elie Saab.”

Those memorable women include Halle Berry, who won her historic Oscar 19 years ago in Saab’s burgundy floral-embroidered dress, which propelled the Lebanese designer to global fame overnight. Since then, Saab has created a series of standouts favored by celebrities like Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Hudson, Julia Roberts and Sandra Oh.

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While it’s too early to name which actresses Saab might dress for the Oscars on Sunday, the key to becoming a go-to red-carpet designer is “not a secret,” Saab said on a Zoom audio call from Beirut. “Every woman likes to be very beautiful on occasions that are very important for her.”

Saab’s designs are especially appealing because “it’s always tough to find dresses that also have impact,” said Rob Zangardi, who forms half of an influential styling team with Mariel Haenn. The boxes that Haenn and Zangardi must check on behalf of entertainers such as Gwen Stefani and Hailee Steinfeld include: Do the dresses “fit well, feel cool, feel sexy, feel couture and make your clients feel like superstars?” Zangardi said. “Elie Saab checks all those boxes, always.”


Lebanese designer Elie Saab
Lebanese designer Elie Saab has become a go-to red-carpet designer for celebrities such as Jennifer Lopez, Lily Collins, Julia Roberts and Yifei Liu.
(From Elie Saab)

The most brilliant women in the world have worn Elie Saab.

— Andrew Gelwicks, stylist

Photos offer proof. Jennifer Lopez “specifically asked for” an embellished gown with a plunging neckline that perfectly matched her famous glow for the 2015 Academy Awards after spotting it in Saab’s fall 2014 haute couture collection, Zangardi said.

Another couture style from Saab was worn by Lily Collins at the Rome Film Festival in 2014. Drifting from black to a pastel palette, the gown with a unique squarish neckline appeared to float on the red carpet when “the wind hit at exactly the right time,” Zangardi said.

Lily Collins in an Elie Saab dress on the 2014 Rome Film Festival red carpet
Lily Collins attends the “Love, Rosie” red carpet during the 9th Rome Film Festival on Oct. 19, 2014, in Rome.
(Stefania D’Alessandro / Getty Images)

“As stylists, we want to go big or go home,” added Haenn, who wore an off-white lace gown by Saab with a flower crown to her own outdoor wedding festivities. “Without designers like Mr. Saab who keep reinventing themselves for each collection, it’d be harder for us to work.”

Thirty-nine years after opening his studio, as Lebanon recovers from an economic crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic and last August’s massive port explosion that devastated Beirut, the 56-year-old designer continues to push himself forward. Accustomed to 14-hour-plus workdays, he oversees his main fashion business in addition to ancillary lines for perfumes, children’s clothing, furniture, sunglasses, bags, shoes and belts.

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On May 6, Saab will unveil his latest cache of creativity: a makeup collection with French cosmetics giant L’Oréal Paris. For L’Oréal, the project with Saab is more than just a fashion collaboration. “The launch of this collection during such unprecedented times will be a way for L’Oréal Paris and Elie Saab to bring optimism, beauty and self-worth; an accessible way for every woman to indulge in a little escapism and experience the strength that comes from beauty,” Delphine Viguier-Hovasse, L’Oréal Paris’ global brand president, said in a statement.

Born and raised in the coastal town of Damour, Saab learned how to make clothes on his own. At 9, “I started to cut everything that came under my hand,” he said. His father was a timber merchant and his mother took care of their large family, and they didn’t “take it like a beautiful future for me to be a couturier,” he said.

Jennifer Hudson in a red one-shoulder Elie Saab dress
Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson arrives at the 91st Academy Awards on Feb. 24, 2019, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

In 1997, Saab opened a Los Angeles office to court celebrities such as Berry, who had worn his designs prior to the 2002 Oscars. “From day one, I believed the red carpet is another vision for everybody to see like a normal woman do a défilé with a dress,” Saab said, referencing the French word for fashion show.

In 2006, he became a correspondent member of the French governing body, which includes Chanel and Dior, that oversees the haute couture fashion shows. In 2013, a memoir of his career written by Janie Samet noted that more than 700 celebrities had worn his dresses from 1990 to that year.

As stylists, we want to go big or go home.

— Mariel Haenn, stylist

Although his own parents had misgivings about the fashion business, Saab dreamed about his eldest son, Elie Jr., joining his company. Now 30, Elie Jr. serves as chief executive. “It’s very nice to see in the eyes of your son, like a new wave, new people,” Saab said.

Jovial and thoughtful, Saab’s also known for his spectacular parties in France and Lebanon, where he has welcomed actresses Cameron Diaz and Toni Garrn.

Yifei Liu in a glamorous Elie Saab gown at the "Mulan" premiere
Actress Yifei Liu attends the premiere of Disney’s “Mulan” on March 9, 2020, in Hollywood.
(Jon Kopaloff / WireImage)

To be sure, the red carpet is but a second podium for Saab. “Don’t forget: Our platform of haute couture is special,” he said. Claiming to be one of the top producers in the world, Saab’s haute couture division employs 400 people, who work in his principal studio in Beirut and a smaller one in Paris.

Having worn Saab’s pieces consistently since the early 2000s, burlesque artist Dita von Teese wrote in an email about what she described as the “exquisite beadwork, distinctive silhouettes and opulence” that keep drawing her back. Saab produced couture gowns for her shows at the Crazy Horse Paris in 2009 and 2010. His studio also provided materials to make a G-string that would match a star-embroidered gown. “The seamstresses in their white coats looked puzzled and later returned with a swath of fine tulle and a bag of loose beads and rhinestones,” von Teese wrote. “I never got over that moment of realization, of that level of craftsmanship.”

Presenter Jane Fonda onstage in a red gown during the telecast of the 92nd Academy Awards
Presenter Jane Fonda wears Elie Saab during the telecast of the 92nd Academy Awards on Feb. 9, 2020, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Saab said his client comes to him “because she knows the quality, she trusts my taste and she’s sure she wants to be beautiful in my dress. Maybe she comes very happy to see a picture of an actress but she doesn’t want the same.”

Knowing that women want to be inimitably themselves reinforces Saab’s refusal to extol one beauty ideal in a single muse. “When you are at a fashion show, for me it’s very important like you feel this dress is made for you,” he said. “We don’t do a collection without, maybe, 15, 20 muses in my head, because when I present a collection, I must think about too many styles of women around me. Like Jane Fonda, always she tells me, ‘Oh, every time I wear your dress, I wear it like you do it for me.’”

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“He can dress anyone,” said stylist Alexandra Mandelkorn, who finessed Janelle Monáe’s outfit for last September’s “Antebellum” drive-in premiere. Once Mandelkorn showed the singer-actress a digital image of Saab’s timeless black gown crafted from sheer fabric evoking butterfly wings, Monáe “hearted that one immediately,” she said. “He touches upon everybody’s personalities with his pieces.”

Janelle Monáe in a black gown by Elie Saab at the "Antebellum" premiere
At the “Antebellum” drive-in premiere last September, Janelle Monáe wore a black gown by Elie Saab with a butterfly mask by Aliona Kononova, jewels from XIV Karats and Shay Jewelry, and a clutch by Carolina Santo Domingo.
(Eric Charbonneau)

Even after they return Saab’s creations, some actresses bask in the memories. Yifei Liu adored the gold-embroidered couture gown by Saab that she wore to last year’s L.A. premiere of “Mulan” so much that she posted a picture of herself in the voluminous dress, flexing her right bicep, on Instagram six months later. “I still love this dress,” the Chinese actress captioned the photo, adding an emoji of a teasing smiley face.

Following the coronavirus pandemic, Saab prophesied that “haute couture and all the fancy things may be more in demand.” He reasoned that people “want to feel every small detail of life because we suffered a lot this year.”

The red carpet isn’t excluded. “I believe the tapis rouge wants to come back more strong than before,” he said, using the French words for the red carpet. “Two months or three months after everything opens, I believe the people [will] come back quickly to a normal life. I’m a very positive man.”