The woman behind an empire
How does it feel to meet one of the most powerful women in the Middle East? Some would say ‘daunting’, and that’s a fair observation. Other’s might suggest ‘exciting’ and this would also be an appropriate term, but for our perspective, there’s no other word to describe sitting down with a businesswoman who played one of the most crucial roles in bringing the luxury shopping experience to the region than: ‘inspiring’.
With a career that goes back further than 35 years, Ingie Chalhoub has seen her fair share of immense highs and crushing lows, yet she appears content and eager to take on whatever the future has in store for her. Calm, collected yet clearly strategic when it comes to the role she plays in the Middle East’s fashion scene, Ingie is a true grafter. In a world where people look for instant success, Ingie has worked from the ground up to where she is today. You can thank her for bringing over a hundred celebrated fashion brands to the region via retail giant, Etoile Group. In addition, the luxury sector would not be what it is today without Chalhoub group – which isn’t just a business, she points out in our interview, it’s a family. And it’s that care and sentimentality in a cut- throat world of fashion which makes Ingie so deserving of her success. “Working with empathy is important. You can be my competitor, but if you get something I’m going to be feeling that empathy. Even if you are my worst enemy at work, still you can be my friend outside of work. This is emotional intelligence. Whatever is work is work, out- side work you have to have this empathy. Why wouldn’t I share my view with a competitor, I’m beyond that. I can give my open opinion – it’s not confidential.”
She knows she wouldn’t be where she is without the right people around her, and she attributes a lot of her personal ambition and determination to her upbringing. Being the middle sister made Ingie naturally want to succeed in anything she took on. Her mother was instrumental in getting her into luxury fashion and was by her side when they opened their first shop – a Chanel boutique in Kuwait no less – in 1983. They both ran the store, travelled to the shows and her mother encouraged interaction with clients, which to this day she believes is crucial when running a successful brand like INGIE Paris.
“I grew up in the environment of women. I had to get my own way. I’ve worked my whole life, I didn’t take maternity leave, because when you have a business you can’t switch off. My mother was amazing. After she raised us, she was into fashion and showed me the way. I did it for her and to be with her and it was a lovely partnership we had. Me and my mother did everything in our first shop until we got there. I learnt by being on the field and I really believe there’s nothing like being in touch with your customers and suppliers,” she says.
What took us by surprise is how humble she is, and that comes from knowing what it’s like to lose everything, and that’s exactly what happened during the Gulf War. The business was gone, but her husband and equally prolific businessman, Patrick Chalhoub, encouraged her to maintain her presence in the industry. They relaunched the brand in Dubai, followed by the opening Etoile La Boutique – a luxury multi-brand shopping destination – in 2005 and then her own label INGIE Paris in 2009.
Raised and educated in France, Ingie knew that establishing her brand as INGIE Paris was the best reflection of herself, but she is immensely proud of her heritage. “My real DNA is international. I’m very proud to be French Lebanese and to have brought together the best of both worlds. I love to have those two cultures. I love Lebanon and my heart is between France, Dubai and Lebanon.”
She has complete involvement in the growth of her fashion brand. “Today, being a woman designer is even more interesting. To know what women are expecting, being close to the creative side and working closely with the atelier, en- riches and empowers me. I get the A-Z experience of this industry, it’s very fulfilling. You have to be the face of everything and also doing everything, you have to master all aspects of the business. I learnt to be- come more self-confident, and even as a woman it was not always easy. You don’t see so many women on the top level.” Recently, both Ingie and Patrick were awarded the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur Award for their dedication to promoting French luxury around the world. Furthermore, Ingie has been named one of the top 100 most powerful women in the Arab world by both Forbes and CEO Middle East, has won two Gulf Connoisseur Awards, sat on the board of Dubai International Fashion Week, and acted as the Chief Creative Officer of the Arab Fashion Council.
Holding a privileged position has al- lowed her to take an active role in philanthropy. From being part of ‘Make A Wish’ where children attend her fashion shows, to travelling to Jordan to visit a refugee camp for Syrian refugees. “It’s so important to give back to the community. We try to inspire our own children to do the same. If everyone gives back to one child, we will be living in a better world. For me, it’s something that I’ve always been conscious of.
Since I got married, we sponsored many different organisations and over the years, Patrick and I, have sponsored 120 children directly, and this is besides all the other work we do on a bigger level like the school we’ve worked on in the south of Lebanon – and as much as we talk about it, it’s never enough. I went to Jordan to see the refugee camp and the children that are born there have no hope to leave and have no life waiting for them. This is where you say “we have to do something”. Sometimes it’s beyond your authority because it’s in the hands of the government, but if no one talks about it, nothing will ever happen. Solutions should be found on all levels if not our own level. When you create awareness, people start questioning it. Everyone can try something themselves – sometimes it’s the little things, not just the financial, that can make a difference.”
In the wake of COVID-19, the economy across the globe has been hit with many businesses strategically planning their survival. Ingie has been through her challenges, and understands the importance of perseverance. “There are challenges in life. The road is long and while we know there will be bumps, we can’t see them in advance some- times. It is very hard to perceive, you have to have this willingness. The more I see how the world is moving so rapidly and fiercely, the challenges are bigger and we need to be more resistant. I feel like this new generation is not prepared and I’m afraid for them. The challenges are big, but the opportunities are big too.”
To read the full interview pick up a copy of the Emirates Woman ‘Go Your Own Way’ April Issue or download it here.
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Image: Supplied, Getty