Never judge a lady by her dress is an adage that rings true for business mogul and designer Ingie Chalhoub.
Striding into our interview wearing an ultra-feminine silk floral creation, it's easier to imagine her sipping tea from a dainty cup at a garden party than in her natural habitat where fashion and cutting-edge trends gain the upper hand. But don't be fooled by those swathes of flowered silk.
Underneath them is a woman who has been at the forefront of bringing high-end luxury brands — think Dior and Valentino — to the Middle East through her Etoile Group since the early '90s. Look a bit deeper and you will also find a woman who is constantly on the quest to reinvent herself. Her latest trend? After two decades of running a fashion empire, she's turned designer with her eponymous line INGIE Paris. So why the long wait?
"I know it's a reversal of sorts. Many first become a fashion designer then begin running a business empire. But for me fashion designing was a continuation of what I was doing. I started my business because of my love for fashion. But then you come to a point when you realise that designers are in their golden towers and you become just business partners to them," says Chalhoub. The result of this disconnect was INGIE Paris, which launched in November 2009 specialising in haute couture gowns.
"It was around 10 years ago that I began feeling this way and felt that I need to revive and revamp the artist in me. Though I was happy supporting talented designers like [Christian] Lacroix and [Dior's John] Galliano, I always felt restricted, as if my creativity wasn't being let out. But like everything, I wanted to take it slow and think things through," says Chalhoub, who has the above-mentioned designers on speed dial.
But despite her vast experience in running a fashion empire and an enviable clout that's as an extension of belonging to an influential family, Chalhoub is not one to take the easy way out.
Despite having her own atelier in Paris rivalling an established designer's studio, she is attending a styling course at Dubai's Esmod, the French fashion university.
"I am back to school and am loving it. There's never a time limit to start learning and believe me there is no shame in going back to university. Though I am surrounded by young people in my class, my eye for fashion is different from some students because I have a certain experience with designers. I have been close to designers like Lacroix, Alexander McQueen, [Jean-Paul] Gaultier, Galliano because I have worked with them… telling them what the women in the Middle East want," says Chalhoub.
Her autumn-winter 2010 collection — dominated by gowns in pastel shades, sequins and florals — is testament to her experience. In her atelier in Paris, she works with hand-picked craftsmen bringing her designs to life. Not many students in her class can boast that French singer and actress Arielle Dombasle has chosen their creations even before they graduate. And as we speak, agents from Hollywood are busy courting Chalhoub to dress their A-list clients.
"It felt great when Arielle chose my gowns to wear for a private party hosted by Mrs Chirac (former French president Jacques Chirac's wife Bernadette) and then again for another concert. Arielle is one of the first few people who encouraged me to go into designing. She always saw something different in me. She thought I had an edgy feminine twist."
But despite intense prodding, Chalhoub is unwilling to spill the beans on her ongoing courtship with Hollywood until it all falls into place. "These agents from Hollywood were like: ‘We don't know you but we know about you and have heard that your gowns are perfect for the Oscars and Emmys'. The details need to be worked out," she says.
This development should come as little surprise since her dreamy and romantic collection is an ode to Hollywood style icons like Marilyn Monroe and takes more than one strand from Sofia Coppola's 2006 film about controversial French queen Marie Antoinette.
"When I was designing this collection I felt as if we were going back to the era of nostalgia. Some of my designs have been influenced by women who were strong, beautiful and glamorous. I was going into the past but modernising it by giving a new flavour."
She is equally determined not to bow to the pressure of local demands. For all those outside the loop, any Dubai-based designer worth their sartorial salt has the tendency to lean towards "blingtastic" gowns.
"There is a fine line between bling-bling and good taste or refinement. But it's a real challenge sometimes. In the past, there were several instances when a famous haute-couture designer would design an asymmetrical gown with one sleeve plain and one sleeve swarovski-encrusted. But some of my clients would insist on adding more crystals. It was tough explaining to them that this is how Lacroix and Valentino envisioned [the dress]. But that's when I learnt to be strict and firm — I never gave in," says Chalhoub. This experience also happens to be one of her biggest strengths.
"More than anything else, my experience as a businesswoman has taught me what the women in this part of the world want. My gowns will meet their tastes but still be of the highest quality and standards internationally."
Her wish list
Ingie Chalhoub, who is currently negotiating with agents on dressing Hollywood stars for red carpet events, whips out a wish list of her dream clients.
Sharon Stone: "She is one of the best-dressed people I know. It would be fun dressing her up in my gowns."
Angelina Jolie: "I have seen her latest film Salt and she is very hot. Dressing her would be a challenge in itself."
Eva Longoria Parker: "She is so glam, even though she is petite and small. She looks great on the red carpet."
Ingie Chalhoub takes us into her creative world and tells us how her dramatic dress Lys Royal came to be:
Scouting for the right material:"Meeting at a prestigious Italian fabric manufacturer renowned for its silks, prints and precious brocades. I spot the silver and rose lurex brocade, a bucolic pattern with animal and plant shapes. It was love at first sight."
The model making: "In my atelier in Paris, collaborating with my team as I conceive the birth of Lys Royal. Step two is all about transforming my sketch in three dimensions, finalising the cloth and creating the first prototype."
The fitting: "Still in the fashion studio, together with my expert creative team. The dress is fitted on a model."
The photo-shoot: "To present my collection I have chosen Sofia and Mauro, reputed fashion photographers, and a young model from the Parisian catwalks. Then it's lights, camera and action."
Chalhoub tells us about ...
A trend she has disowned: "Military jackets."
Her biggest influence: "My mother. She was effortlessly stylish and it was she who pushed me towards wearing dresses. While growing up, I was a total hippie, biking with boys. My mother taught me a lot about femininity."