Jean Louis’s father, Jean Sabaji, was a fashion designer who was most known for being the personal designer of the Saudi royal family.
As such, Sabaji’s earliest memories were of being in his father’s atelier (which is his now that his father has passed) surrounded by fabrics and mannequins. “From when I was a child, it was as if I was on a mission to be a designer. This was my destiny, and I’m very happy I took this path because it’s in my blood,” recounts Sabaji.
After finishing his high school education, Sabaji enrolled at Lebanese American University to study graphic design, graduating in 2009. He then attended the Milan Domus Academy for his master’s degree in fashion design. Recalling his experience in Milan, Sabaji says that his childhood background in fashion design gave him an advantage over his peers, since he was already familiar with many technical aspects and terms in fashion design.
However, Sabaji does not overlook the value of his education in shaping him as a designer. “I could’ve learned here in my father’s atelier [through training alone], but what a formal education adds to your experience is a way of thinking,” he says.
Sabaji explains that his education also helped him develop his own style, which was purely Eastern before he went to Milan. “When I went there, they helped me refine that [Eastern] direction and add a European touch to it, so now my direction is more a fusion of both,” says Sabaji, wondering if it is that mix of European and Eastern tastes that many Lebanese designers have, which makes them such successful designers internationally.
After completing his degree, Sabaji came back to Lebanon to start his own couture label. He set up camp in his father’s atelier with his team of 40 employees, this was the main reason he chose to work out of Lebanon. “What’s nice about couture is that it’s based on the old school seamstresses that bead the dresses by hand. For me, that is the advantage of being in Lebanon because I already have this team/family which I inherited from my father and continued with,” he says.
Yet, Sabaji’s skilled team is reaching retirement age and replacing them will be challenging. “During my father’s generation, almost everybody was a seamstress, while today there are a lot fewer [of them]. If you look for them, you can find them, but it’s like searching for precious stones,” says Sabaji. To ensure the continuity of his business, he is having his current team train younger hires, who he says do not need to be skilled in atelier work, but must have the desire to learn.
Despite the advantage of having a good team, Sabaji says that there are challenges to operating in Lebanon, including having to import almost all of the raw material he needs.
The economic situation is also a challenge in that many Lebanese cannot afford Sabaji’s designs. “The economic situation in Lebanon has affected the purchasing power of Lebanese women. I would love to have more Lebanese women as clients, but the majority of my couture clients are from the Gulf,” he says.
Sabaji’s first international fashion show was Fashion Forward Dubai four years ago, an experience he says opened up the Gulf market to him. “Before my participation in FFD, my market was basically in Saudi Arabia because of my father, but afterwards I got many clients from Qatar, UAE, and Kuwait,” says Sabaji.
Internationally, Sabaji also has clients from Russia and Greece, garnered following the social media recognition he received after dressing celebrities for the red carpet.
Thus far, Sabaji’s focus has been on couture and bridal lines, but he says that he will be launching his ready-to-wear line in December and opening his own boutique. “I didn’t start ready-to-wear earlier because we were taught that fashion is top bottom so you start with couture and build your name that way. So when you do the ready-to-wear line, you already have a name for yourself, and those that couldn’t afford your couture line now find you accessible,” explains Sabaji, adding that financially he finds ready-to-wear more viable than couture since he can sell more of the former due to its affordability.
Sabaji believes that internationally famous Lebanese designers have made it easier for young designers like himself to penetrate the international markets owing to the strong reputation they have built for themselves and the country.
Yet, Sabaji warns his fellow young designers against becoming “copy/paste” versions of those famous designers. “As young designers, and to keep the good name of the country which was built by the likes of Elie and Zuhair, we should revolutionize and modernize the fashion industry. We have to carve our own path,” he says, explaining that in his own designs he is daring and unique, and has thereby established a niche market for himself — which will hopefully continue for years to come.