Originally printed in the May 2017 issue of Vogue Arabia.
Drive along coastal Beirut towards Jounieh offers a quick-fire view of dilapidated buildings, palm trees, cranes, and political posters for this month’s general election. Take the exit just before Harissa, where the 8.5m tall Our Lady of Lebanon watches over the sprawling city, and you will find the atelier of up-and-coming designer Jean-Louis Sabaji. Here, the air is filled with dust – not desert dust, but a gritty offshoot of the construction and bursting traffic levels in a city of two million people who navigate in cars alone.
A decades-old solitary sign engraved with the words “Haute Couture” greets at the entrance to an open stairway. Inside the atelier, Sabaji, who turns 32 this month, crouches on the floor to fit a model. Tribal electronic music pulses. For a minute, you feel almost transported to the Eighties, until the dresses come into focus.
Conceptual and sculptural, Jean-Louis Sabaji Couture has held the spotlight with the launch of what the designer refers to as his “first” collection, SS18. Remarkably, seven of the 12 dresses have already been spotted on some of the hottest red carpets around the world. Mary J Blige arrived at the 2018 SAG awards in a black and white silk crepe dress with asymmetrical plumes, to a deluge of praise across social media. Celebrity stylists took note. Soon afterward, Black Panther star Danai Gurira was seen at the film’s European premiere wearing a black figure-hugging gown featuring a phoenix crafted with 3 000 Swarovski crystals and 2 000 sequins. A further 380 hand-cut mother-of-pearl ornaments elevated her dress to couture artistry. Each opalescent shell was hand-carved, lacquered, drilled with a fine hole, and sewn into place individually to overlap like feathers.
the atelier was quickly inundated with calls. Singer Cheryl Cole wore a black Sabaji dress accented with silk feathers along one arm to walk the Brits red carpet with Liam Payne. Actor Allison Williams slipped into a strapless fire-engine red silk scuba sheathe dress with plume skirt for the Vanity Fair Oscars party. “We get a lot of positive feedback regarding the fit,” says Sabaji, motioning to the dress now on a mannequin at his atelier. He opens the back to show its construction.
“I find his aesthetic truly REFRESHING and his GLAMOUR audacious”
Two layers of boning, first on a corset and second inside the satin bodice, ensure that the wearer feels the utmost support. At this year’s Wearable Art Gala in Los Angeles, Beyoncé went full-on gold in a draped silk duchesse dress with two embroidered and beaded Babylonian sphinxes. Her mother wore a sandstone- colored silk scuba dress and a golden plume cape. It’s a fitting milieu for Sabaji’s collection, which debuted with a look book starring Vogue Arabia cover star Hanaa Ben Abdesslem. “I find his aesthetic truly refreshing and his glamour audacious,” says the model and Fashion Star judge. “I’m always happy to see individual talent emerge in the region.”
Sabaji moves across the room to a bronze, foiled silk tulle dress. It was worn by Victoria’s Secret Angel Jasmine Tookes to the Vanity Fair Oscars party. It was subsequently featured on Vogue’s best-dressed list alongside gowns by Armani Privé, Zac Posen, and Versace. “I also love draping,” he motions, simultaneously displaying the fabric and flashing the multiple tattoos that decorate his arms and neck. Most are inspired by his past collections, he explains. There are basil leaves, a tree of life, a moth, cardinal, bee and, notably, a portrait of his late father, Jean Sabaji, one of Lebanon’s founding couturiers. “My father called me Jean-Louis after Jean-Louis Scherrer” – the famed Parisian couturier – hinting that his destiny was determined from infancy. His father and mentor passed away last year. It is still very raw for the young designer, who, regardless of his bad boy second skin, is warm and gentle. He has transformed his grief into a creative power unleashed with rip tide force. “I know he is with me,” he pronounces, eyes glassing over. “Everything that has happened this year has been a gift.” He hands over a copy of an Al Hasnaa magazine from 1987. Sabaji senior is shown in this very atelier, flanked by models wearing “more is more” maximalist couture. Dynasty in Lebanon. The designer explains that he used to come to the atelier all the time to visit his father. Eventually, Sabaji Senior would give him a small stipend after the visits to motivate him further. The 20 or so petites-mains who occupy the work stations to the left and right of a marble staircase have known Sabaji since he was a baby and, later, as an inquisitive child playing with fabric. Now they beam at the man of the couture house coming into his own.
The collection that has flown from the hills of Greater Beirut to the red carpets of the world expresses Sabaji’s take on Mesopotamia. The designer studied books and exhibitions of the earliest civilization known to man to craft a collection dedicated to the power of women – one so fierce it is even mythical. Here, Ishtar – goddess of love and war – sees her story come to life with needle and thread to display mythical beasts. Mermen symbolize creation; scorpions, fertility; serpents, immortality; and eagles, morality. Sabaji’s clientele shares with him his thirst for artistic extravagance and innovation. One special-order dress features a lobster wrapped around the mermaid silhouette like a gigantic fur throw; another a crab. “It’s her star sign,” smiles the designer. He turns to a wall of sketches, a capsule of six dresses he is preparing for this month’s Cannes film festival. Then, a winter collection will follow. “We’ll see how it goes,” he says of Cannes. “I like to take baby steps.” There is a sudden frisson in the room. If his fate is indeed in the hands of the very gods embroidered on his dresses, surely his fortune will be no small affair.