Interview with Krikor Jabotian

Ghida Ladkani

The moment you step foot into Krikor Jabotian’s space in Beirut’s Ashrafieh, you realise that you’re in for a treat. The young, self-made designer’s beautiful dresses are reflected on every wall of his atelier. The ceiling-to-floor white atelier is as intricately beautiful and detailed as all his work, with tiny specks of beauty dropped all over the wondrous space he welcomed us at to discuss his career from its very beginnings to what he’s currently working on; a journey he delightfully shared with us.

First I want to start talking about your early beginnings, your early influences, your education. I was wondering where your passion for design comes from.

Ever since I was a kid my family knew that I was going to enter the world of art in a way or another, but through the years they found that it’s fashion that I specifically wanted to work with. A lot of things used to grab my attention, things that usually kids my age wouldn’t pay attention to, like for example the movement of my mum’s skirt, colour matching, fabrics.I would enquire about fabric because my grandmother used to sew a lot, and it was very intriguing for me. So I used to ask a lot of questions about textiles, textures, colours, and movements of skirts and the fall of fabric intrigued me a lot.

My mum was skeptical about why I would ask such questions, why I wasn’t like other kids. I was very introverted, always on my own, I would draw a lot and colour a lot. I used to like things kids my age wouldn’t care for. I started by drawing nature, and then after a couple of years I started drawing women, and then women wearing dresses, and lastly the dresses. That was when I realised that fashion is what I wanted to do because it combined a lot of things at the same time. I imagine it’s a form of art that can take different dimensions; it’s like you’re doing sculpture, and you’re also painting: basically molding forms and creating volumes, at the same time mixing and matching colours together, and it’s so many different art forms combined into one.

Was your family supportive of your choice?

Yes, very much! My father wanted me to take over his jewelry business, and at one point I tried doing it and I loved it, but then I was drawn to fashion. He was a little sad that I would not take over his business, but then he was completely supportive and very comprehensive of my choice when I opened up my own atelier.

And when did the decision to study fashion come? How did you know it was the right choice?

I remember when I was 17, I was torn between architecture and fashion, wondering if fashion was too difficult, but my mum was my number one supporter: she said, “You should absolutely go with your gut feeling: you’ve always wanted to work in fashion and become a fashion designer, so you should absolutely follow your dream and go for it.” So she pushed me to do it, because at that age I was a little scared. Because you know, at that age, you lack orientation, and you always ask yourself questions and you’re not really sure about your decisions and things you plan on doing later on in your life, but my mum really pushed me to fashion. That’s how at the age of 18 I directly joined a school of fashion, and I was very happy, as I was very much in my element.

Then you got to work with Elie Saab…

Yep! Right after fashion school I graduated and joined Elie Saab’s creative department, and I worked there for exactly 7 months after which I resigned. And then, four months later, I had a chance to work as an independent designer, with Rabih Keyrouz. This is when Maison Rabih Keyrouz got in touch with me and they proposed the Starch project. Starch is basically a platform that helps up and coming Lebanese designers, and I was very happy to be part of it. So by the end of 2008, I launched myself as an independent designer within this collective of designers. I stayed there for ten months, then I had the chance to launch myself, this time completely on my own, without this collective.

And what was it like launching that completely independent line?

In 2009, I started my atelier at the age of 23, which is a very young age, and I was a kid [editor’s note: Orient Palms was there!]. I was very happy, but I was working really hard. Everything I saved in Starch I invested in the first company that I created with my previous business partners, until I decided to turn everything into a family-run business. So, whithin a year, a year and a half, I changed my strategy and I turned the company, Atelier Krikor Jabotian, into a family-run business, and we’ve been doing this since then.

If you had to pin-point one thing that you learned from Elie Saab, what would it be?

Each and every stage of my career has been really memorable and very important in forming my career. I’m still like a sponge, learning from everything and all the experiences I’ve been through… and I’ve been through a lot in the past seven years! In fact, it even feels like way more than that! (laughs)

Elie Saab taught me to love embroidery. Before joining his team, I wasn’t very fond of embroidery and I used to think of it as something tacky, “bling-bling is not beautiful” and “I’m anti-bling”, you know? I was very alternative in my approach to fashion. But then I realised that if it’s done with taste, you could come up with jewels… and now everything, all my work, is based on embroideries. This, of course, comes after a lot of research, I worked a lot on this issue, and I’ve managed somehow to create my own signature: I truly put my own self into embroidery. And a lot of my designs are based on embroideries, and according to that I develop the design. So I learned to love embroideries and I was introduced to the world of embroideries through Elie Saab.

And what do you think most affected you from your experience with Rabih Keyrouz?

With Rabih, I learned something that is very important: it’s basically to never pay for an advertisement, because I think that paying for an ad devalues your work. So what I did is that I adopted this word-of-mouth strategy, and ever since I’ve launched my business, I’ve been using this way of thinking.

Alright, now I want to delve into your designing process, and find out how you transfer an idea from your head into something tangible?

Well, creating a design could go through different stages and different procedures, so first I sketch and, being someone very visual, I like to always work with my hands and with my eyes. So once we create the looks, we always come up with modifications and adjustments, and it’s very interesting to see how an idea can go through different stages and it would end up being something that has nothing to do with the initial idea. This process is really fun, because you keep on discovering different levels of the initial idea.

And where do you think the initial idea comes from? What inspires you?

Anything and everything, it could be something that’s beautiful, something that’s ugly, it could be music, it could be a movie, it could be anything. It doesn’t have to be something specific. I’m someone who is very emotional, so I sketch if I’m happy or if I’m angry, but I can’t just sketch when I’m feeling neutral.

I usually draw a lot on the plane; when I’m travelling, I always have my sketchbook and I work. I put on my music and just sketch anything.

Has there been dresses that were sketched on a plane?

Yes! For the collection that’s called Dahlia, I sketched the initial ideas for it on the plane. Then we developed them here.

So when you sketch you sketch the main concept for the entire line?

Well, what I do is I sketch the main silhouettes, the volumes, the outlines, and then I take it from there.

Sometimes I create sketches inspired by embroideries. This is something that I should mention; embroideries help me a lot to come up with designs as well. Several times, it happens that I don’t use fabrics but instead embroideries, and they would be the substitute for my fabrics. So instead of using fabrics, I would use fully embellished tulle, for example, and I imagine it as a fabric.

If you had to describe the woman that you’re designing for, can you tell me who she is?

Not necessarily pretty, because pretty doesn’t mean beautiful, but she is a beautiful lady. She’s someone who is aware of her strengths and weaknesses, and she focuses on her strengths. She is strong, she has character. When she walks into the room, she turns heads.

What artists do you get inspired from?

When it comes to fashion, I’ve always been attracted by Christian Lacroix, and I think it’s a pity that an artist like him had to stop doing fashion. I used to think of him as not only a designer but an artist, the way he used to mix colour together, textiles and textures, the volumes, the shapes. I think he had his own universe, and I used to love it a lot. I would have loved to see his evolution nowadays and what he would have done now with what’s happening in the world of fashion.

Besides that, I love cubism, with basically Picasso. The way he sees the construction is very interesting.

Can you tell me about you collaboration with Mashrou’ Leila [editor’s note: the famous Lebanese indie rock band], how it happened, and how it was for you working with them?

So, to begin with, two of the guys are really good friends of mine: Hamed and Haig, and they were working on launching their new album; Ibn El Leil. They asked me if I would collaborate to create their costumes, and once I heard the album I was very excited about the project, because I could relate to the theme and the music, and the musicians themselves. I loved the music of the album, it was an amazing change and an amazing transition for them.

We came up with a black on black effect for all the guys, and I was really excited to see them happy about wearing “bling”. It was black on black, “bling” on black, and I was happy to see them pulling off these looks, especially that, knowing the rest of the guys, like Carl and Bob, they pulled it off without being scared of it because it was still subtle.

And it seems like you tailored each one of the outfits for the specific musician wearing it…

There were five different t-shirts: I only worked on t-shirts and helped with the styling as well. So we styled the whole look, and every t-shirt was tailored to each and every one of the musicians, so it was basically couture.

Hamed was very surprised to see me very serious at work, and after him seeing me be very serious and very on point, we just went back to normal and had some drinks. (laughs)

It was also very exciting to see the outfits worn on stage, especially with the light effects. There was a lot of strong lighting and lots of projectors, and seeing the shine moving with the musicians was absolutely exciting.

Would you mind sharing some of the stories behind your lines?

As I’ve said, I’m someone who’s very emotional, so every single one of my collections is basically a phase that I’ve been through in my life. And it’s very psychological. Closure (F/W 2013-2014), for example: I came up with this collection when I was having closure on a relationship that I went through. It was a very hard period in my life, and I had to come up with a collection that I was putting all my feelings and all my emotions into. This is how I express myself, I express myself through my hands, my eyes and my work.

Akhtamar (S/S 2014) was inspired by this legend about an Armenian princess whose story is very interesting. So I tried to imagine the different facades of this princess Tamar, and we came up with 12 different princesses, 12 versions of princess Tamar, and each was very unique and different. This was how I imagined her: once wearing red, once wearing beige, once a little more sensual so the clothes would be a bit more revealing, at one point she was wearing more transparent dresses. There are lots of embroideries as well in the collection.

What happened with Amal (F/W 2014-2015) was that once I was in Paris on vacation, and then I met this artist who does sculptures with silicone, and I had the idea to try something with him, which was injecting lace with silicone. We tried it out and it came out beautifully, so I created a lot of the pieces inspired by this technique. But I was a little bit concerned and scared, I didn’t know if people would like it or not, because it’s something that’s not very conventional. A lot of people ended up loving it, but they couldn’t see themselves in it, but they appreciated it. So it was an experiment, and half of the collection was based on this technique: we came up with these floral shapes with silicone and with aquatic shapes as well.

Unfortunately, The Last Spring (S/S 2015) was the last couture collection that I made, I should have changed the name of it (laughs). It was very melancholic, very moody, and it was black. I imagined a girl who had to go through her very last spring season, and how this season would be for her… It was a bit dramatic and a little dark, I even picked a black backdrop behind the girl for the shooting and we played on the lighting as well.

I’m most excited about the new collection, which is wedding dresses, because many people think about me as a wedding designer, but I don’t just do that. Since white has always been my favourite colour people related it to me, but this is why I wanted to come up with a wedding gown line, and I was inspired by Courbet, the painter. I commissioned an artist to create a huge painting, and I wanted to create an impression as if the model is coming out of this painting and coming towards us, it’s like two pictures in one picture. So let’s hope the pictures will come out beautifully. Within a month or so, the collection will be done, and then we will shoot it.

What made you start designing for little girls in your collection “Little Misses”?

Oh it was a fun story! Usually before I would create a miniature of every dress I want to do. And once, a client saw this little dummy, and thought that I was doing it for a baby, so she asked me if I do dresses for kids, and I said yeah, because it’s the same procedure as making a dress for a lady. So, she commissioned two dresses for her daughter, and that is how it began: her daughter was very beautiful, and she wore the dresses to two weddings and she drew everyone’s attention because she was so bubbly and running among the people and she was wearing these dresses and a little fur wrap around her neck. Then people started enquiring about her dresses and I created a business out of it… and it’s lots of fun to sew dresses in miniature.

Accessories in your work play a very large role, can you explain why?

I think that a designer can design almost anything, jewelry, accessories, interiors… If you have an idea in mind and you collaborate with the right artist, you’ll always manage to bring your ideas to life. In fashion I use a lot of accessories to compliment the dresses, and I work with different artisans to make these ideas happen and come to life. Although my father no longer works in the business, I learned a lot from him back in the day.

I truly believe in collective work and collaboration, an idea from here and an idea from there, combining different ideas from different places… it elevates the work, and someone else can open up your imagination and your way of thinking. Hearing others’ opinions and criticisms is very important. I’m a very good listener and I like to see people doing their job and this opens up new horizons for me to think and create.

Alright, I have a fun question now. If you could pick someone to dress from the past, who would it be?

Umm Kulthum of course [editor’s note: the legendary Egyptian singer]! I love her, she inspires me a lot. I would have done Umm Kulthum my way, kept it classical, because I love everything classical, but I add a twist. I would have spiced it up a little. I always listen to her music, it’s very emotional and inspiring.

Interview recorded on December 9th, 2016 in Ashrafieh, Beirut.