NEW YORK (AP) -- Zuhair Murad has the clients — hello, Jennifer Lopez — and the clout to put him on the path to becoming a force in fashion. It's OK, though, if it doesn't happen overnight. That just means more time to savor his tiny touches.
Go ahead: Take a good L-O-N-G look at the gowns he is most famous for. He has given them all a lot of thought, he says, and he doesn't really want you to miss anything.
"You have to see my dresses to see the details," Murad says. "When you see the dress, when you touch it, you'll discover the deep, deep details."
Since he was young, probably since the age of 5, he has wanted to be a designer. It wasn't exactly the norm for a little boy in Lebanon, but, no matter: He spent all his time drawing new styles and cutting fabric. It gave his family pause, but they were supportive.
"No one in my family is related to fashion," he says. "It was MY hobby."
From there, he was learning about fashion, art and theater at every chance. He doesn't seem to be exaggerating when he says that reading the history of Christian Dior changed his life.
"From the beginning, I'd draw the most glamorous gowns for famous women, for the stars," says Murad during a recent interview. "I am only interested in unique pieces — I love shiny things, draped things and small details."
And it was such a focus that it left little time for other interests, he says. Travel is enjoyable, and New York is a particular favorite, but he'd rather be home —and Beirut is, once again, his home base after spending years in Paris — with a good book.
He has turned the passion into a bona fide business, and now can boast that he shows on Paris' official haute couture calendar in addition to his ready-to-wear collections. An invitation to show a sanctioned couture collection doesn't come easily from the supervisory board of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, which is the gatekeeper of France's highest level of fashion.
Murad, now 42, has taken the old-school approach to building his label. He works closely with a handful of loyal A-listers — Lopez, Taylor Swift and Kristen Stewart among them — instead of chasing starlets and every photo opp. There is an emphasis on finery over flash.
He has left room for sizzle, though: One of the signatures of his intricate gowns is sheer fabric. Take Lopez's dress this past weekend for the Human Rights Campaign Dinner in Washington. It was a high-neck, wine-colored gown that had peek-a-boo panels of sparkle that extended over her body like branches.
Murad also designed Lopez's white illusion-lace mermaid gown for this year's Golden Globes, and her Oscars gown the year before that had alternating stripes of sheer and metallic fabric.
Celebrity stylist Nicole Chavez, whose clients include Catherine Zeta-Jones (who wore a gold statuesque Murad to the Academy Awards a few months ago), says personally she was blown away by Lopez's Met Gala gown in 2010, a Cinderella-style strapless gown dusted in silver: "Absolutely stunning."
Chavez adds, "His dresses are ultra-feminine and easily identifiable. Always a strong silhouette embellished with ornate and intricate designs that will guarantee a red carpet showstopper every time."
The goal is the same each time, Murad says: a gown that is "feminine, sensual, a little sexy and, at the same time, elegant."
It's become conventional wisdom for the designers who want to be household names to do partnerships with mass retailers, launch a fragrance and do a big licensing deal. But Murad sees his role as the designer who will always offer something unique. He's not too worried about that becoming passe.
"Couture is a kind of art, and there is an appreciation for the people who work hours and hours on one thing. Women appreciate that because they love to look beautiful, and they look beautiful in couture," he says.
Each collection — actually, each dress — is his most and least favorite, he says. "All my collections make me smile. Most of the time, I am hard on myself making it, but I smile at the end of the runway."
While he's confident in his ability to create this top-tier fashion, Murad acknowledges he gets nervous right before showing it off.
"The most difficult moment of my life is each time when I send out the models at a show. I always think I need to fix something. But," he adds," I know she can't wait, so there she goes. I don't know how to describe that moment."
He relishes those red carpet moments, however. "That's when I feel really happy and proud."
Follow Samantha Critchell and AP Fashion coverage on Twitter at @AP_Fashion and @Sam_Critchell