A new children’s book charts the rise of Lebanese fashion designer Elie Saab

Suhair Sultan recently published her first book, a children’s story about Lebanese fashion designer Elie Saab.

The life of Elie Saab might seem like an unlikely tale for children, but for Sultan, the designer’s story is perfect, as it encapsulates the themes of hope and kindness, two traits she believes are badly needed in the world of fashion. ‘today.

“It all started in 2018”, she says The National. “I walked into the Kinokuniya bookstore in the Dubai Mall and saw a series of books about famous people, but they were all people from the western world.”

Growing up in Manchester, Sultan was, she says, a child who read a lot of books and had always loved the theme of hope contained within the pages. “I loved all those books that talked about if you work hard you can achieve a lot. But I didn’t see that here.

“So I thought, ‘imagine if I can write books for local kids about characters they can relate to, who have gone through hardships but become famous and successful. Let me write about characters that exist in the Middle East”. Is right now.”

She didn’t know where to start, but the inspiration came from a documentary about a designer. “I saw Elie Saab organize his son’s wedding in Lebanon. He could have had it anywhere, but he said he needed the Lebanese to make money.”

Sultan was inspired to write the book after watching a Saab documentary.  Photo: Motivate Media Group

Struck by his desire to help others rise, Sultan began researching him and discovered that not only was Saab now a world-renowned fashion designer, but as a child he had survived the Damour massacre in Lebanon in 1976. She knew she had her subject. . “I want to tell the kids, that’s where it started and that’s where it got to.”

To illustrate her story, Sultan contacted artist Cath Donaldson in Abu Dhabi, and the couple had a series of meetings over several months at a cafe in Dubai’s Iba Battuta mall because, Donaldson says, it was “at halfway between where we both live”.

Donaldson was impressed with Sultan’s determination to bring the story to a wider audience. “His whole idea is really interesting,” says Donaldson. “There are tons of books about high achievers, but it’s usually Western people, so her idea is to look at people in the Middle East. She has this massive vision.”

It took Donaldson six months to complete the illustrations, most of which were spent on research. “As it’s a true story, it was really important that I got the feeling of Beirut in the 1970s, right down to the clothes people wore, the buildings, the street signs and how the cars looked. I’ve watched so many old movies.”

With the book dealing with Saab’s escape from Damour and subsequent rise to fashion fame, the pair deliberated on how best to translate so children could understand without it being scary. “I had to find a way to illustrate a really tragic event – ​​the massacre – where all of a sudden they all had to drive off in their cars,” says Donaldson. “Sultan’s language is really good and quite open, so parents can decide to elaborate or leave it at that. The drawing is that they go away, while giving parents the opportunity speak of it.”

Donaldson’s work is key to the book, particularly in documenting two highlights of Saab’s life: her family’s escape from Damour and Halle Berry collecting her 2002 Oscar wearing one of her dresses, a decision which propelled the creator onto the world stage.

Halle Berry in Elie Saab to receive her Oscar in 2002, by Donaldson, for Sultan's 'The Life of Elie Saab'.  Photo: Motivate Media Group

As Donaldson created the designs, Sultan encountered a new problem. “The publishers told me, this will never happen, you need Elie Saab’s permission. So I called his company and said, ‘Can I write your life story?’ He was traveling so I had to wait two weeks, but his PR wife called me and said he loved it.

Motivate Media Group picked up the book, publishing it first in English to gauge public reaction, with plans for an Arabic version later. Having taken four years, Sultan admits it was an emotional moment when she finally held a copy in her hands.

“Can I tell you the truth? I cried,” she said. “I can’t tell you the journey, the ups and downs. I was going to give up, but finding Cath was a miracle. I send her a signed book with the message: ‘Thank you for answering my email .life that day.'”

Although the journey was long, there is an echo of Sultan’s own experience in Saab’s account. “Always be nice to people, because you don’t know what they’re going through. When we see people like Saab, we think, Oh, they must have had such an easy and wonderful life, but no, he went through a war, and that’s why he’s nice. That’s the message of the book. Just be nice to people and see what happens.

Updated: June 05, 2022, 2:15 p.m.

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