Published in T Emirates: The New York Times Style Magazine ( July August 2013)
The glamorous Ingie Chalhoub, widely recognized as fashion’s first lady in the Middle East, is carving a successful niche in the region’s luxury retail market as head of the Etoile Group.
By Priyanka Pradhan
It was at a quaint art gallery in Dubai’s financial district that I first met Ingie Chalhoub. I had heard of her, of course, but what I discovered that day was that
even the chief of the luxury retail firm ‘Etoile Group’, has butterflies in her stomach before every show. I could tell that by the way she paced the floor as her designer label’s Autumn/Winter 2013-14 press preview took place at the same gallery, on a grand runway created especially for her.
She then ascended the ramp, after a little coaxing from her team, to take a bow and pose shyly for the cameras – quite unlike the intimidating persona I had expected.“There is always great excitement but also some stress before any seasonal launch of the collection,” Ingie says. “All the preparation is tiring and energetic at the same time. I am a perfectionist and I feel extremely conscious about every single detail.”
As I also came to realize that day, the ambitious, influential and rigorously detail-oriented Ingie Chalhoub is also exceedingly charming, and truly humble.
even as she single-handedly navigates multimillion-dollar deals every other day in the fiercely competitive Middle East luxury retail market, she carries herself
with rare panache and a certain je ne sais quoi that makes her all the more intriguing.
As president and managing director of the Etoile Group, which operates more than 70 luxury boutiques in six Gulf countries, and as creative director for her eponymous designer label, she has her hands full. But 30 years ago, when she opened the first Chanel
boutique in the Middle East, she didn’t know she was making fashion retail history.
It was serendipitous that the franchise deal was finalized on her wedding day, making her big day even bigger. The groom happened to be Patrick Chalhoub, scion of one of the most established business empires in the region and son of the illustrious Michel and Widad Chalhoub. Having married into a powerful lineage of retail moguls, and with the advantages that come from being part of the influential Chalhoub family, Ingie set out to make a remarkable debut in the regional retail industry and to carve out her identity as a persuasive entrepreneur and luxury retail powerhouse in her own right.
In the years that followed, she worked hard to build credibility and earn the confidence of global luxury retailers such as Christian Dior, Tod’s, Hogan, Valentino, John Galliano, Ralph Lauren, Dolce & Gabbana and Christian Lacroix, and she came to be credited with making a huge contribution to the
UAE’s luxury retail segment.
But before one can call it a charmed life, Ingie says it’s been far from easy. The Gulf War in 1990 changed things irrevocably for Ingie, as her Chanel and Dior stores in Kuwait were looted during the conflict, and her business ran into the ground. But despite the devastating loss, she pushed herself to pick up the pieces and get to work as soon as the Chalhoubs moved to Dubai after the war, even with a newborn baby in tow.
After relocating, Ingie quickly became a formidable retail empire. “Challenges test your mental strength; you need to turn them to your advantage.
Let obstacles motivate you to strive even harder. I am now even more driven and determined to reach more milestones and push myself further,” she says.
The motivation to go on, she adds, came from her supportive husband and her inner resilience. She not only had the task of rebuilding her business from scratch, but now also had the additional responsibility of being a mother, and had to manage the two roles – a balance she describes as most challenging.
“I would say balancing a personal and family life with a professional one is probably one of the most difficult challenges businesswomen face. You need to be disciplined, organized and efficient with your time, and set boundaries, not just for employees and your business colleagues but even for yourself!”
But just as things were settling down, the global economy, and subsequently the Middle East economy, was hit by the tumultuous financial meltdown.
The luxury retail sector was in the eye of the storm, but the Etoile Group showed remarkable resilience at this time. The mood in the retail industry may have been very somber, but just then, in 2009, Ingie launched her own luxury designer label, Ingie Paris, a move that showed nerves of steel and sparkling self-confidence.
Inspired by French sophistication and old-world glamour, she applied her sharp business acumen and innate sense of style to create a capsule collection for the
essential “Ingie” woman, someone she envisions to be a lot like herself.
“The Ingie Paris woman is refined, modern and dynamic,” she says. “My designs cater to her multifaceted, playful nature, interests and lifestyle, from dramatic, glamorous eveningwear that she might don for a red carpet event to chic yet comfortable daywear she can wear to a museum or show off at a relaxed brasserie. That is why I think the collection appeals to women across all cultures; they understand luxury but want it interpreted in a contemporary manner that suits their
The launch of her own label was yet another dream realized for Ingie, but, not one to rest on her laurels, she’s now hoping to expand internationally through
luxury retailers and eventually have more standalone stores. For the Etoile Group too, she says, the emphasis is on expanding horizons to focus on Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi.
The Ingie Chalhoub success story has been peppered with setbacks, but she has overcome the hurdles each time, due to her dedication and strong belief in herself, something she hopes will inspire other female entrepreneurs and businesswomen.
“[You need] hard work, passion and a strong vision of what you want that can never be downplayed. But there are also those things that are part of one’s character that can also help you to succeed. For me, it’s a strong eye for detail, and my creative ability. I have the ability to look at something and know immediately whether it’s right or wrong, or what needs to be changed; it’s a skill that is rare.”
She adds: “You also need to believe in yourself. We are often our own worst critics, but we need to focus on the positive, as self-belief is a key factor in order to succeed.”