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CLAUDE SABBAH, 2000
WITH LAURIE SIMMONS
PHOTOGRAPHED BY LAURIE SIMMONS
PORTRAIT BY BRIAN BERMAN
In an interview earlier this year, Yves Saint Laurent said that if he lived in New York, he'd be inspired by the style of the black community. Well, he may want to check out Claude Sabbah, who makes hip-hop couture.

Think of a white ball gown lined in camouflage. Now think of it on Lauryn Hill. A couturier for the new millennium, Sabbah's work is influenced equally by New York street style, French high fashion, and his own Moroccan childhood.

After roaming the globe from Paris to New Delhi, Sabbah has finally set up shop in New York. Along the way he worked as a stylist, DJ, artist, and musician. Like a true New Yorker, though, his inspirations are un-self-conscious and brash. He lifted both camouflage and the do-rag from the city streets, making them his own. Now his exuberant style is catching on. His shop on Mulberry Street, opened just 18 months ago, has attracted hip-hop queens, fashion editors, and even uptown girls.

We asked Laurie Simmons to interview Sabbah because she's a connoisseur of street-wise New York fashion. They hit it off so well that she wanted to photograph his designs. Laurie's photos reflect her own work as an artist: lush, haunting, and, as befits Sabbah's clothes, a little operatic.

LAURIE: It takes some nerve to think you can reinvent camouflage when every 12-year-old girl on the street is buying it. You didn't say to yourself, okay, camouflage is everywhere, therefore camouflage is over.
SABBAH: It was the only fabric I could afford. When I arrived in New York, I only had a little bit of money saved.
LAURIE: I heard a hundred dollars.
SABBAH: I had a little money saved, just to live on, so I wouldn't be a slave. Everybody was into camouflage, which is very urban. I bought some camouflage and put it in my room to make myself feel comfortable. I was taking pictures of people on the street dressed in camouflage, and then I started to do a little book about it.
LAURIE: But when you first came to New York, your goal was to make clothes, right?
SABBAH: I made a lot of clothing in Paris but I wasn't sure if I wanted to continue. When I landed at the airport I saw a sign that said "N.Y. Loves You," and not "Welcome to N.Y.," like you would say "Welcome to Paris" or "Welcome to Dusseldorf." I'm a man of graphism. It was written N.Y., so I said New You. I was reinventing myself.
LAURIE: Seeing where New York would take you.
SABBAH: And then I decided that I would still make clothes, because I have an immense love and an incredible hatred for them.
LAURIE: I feel that way every time I go to get dressed.
SABBAH: When I came here I started to think about my roots, my family, the idea that I was born in Morocco. I don't like distinctions, that's part of why I love the street. I would love it if everybody could feel like a prince, even if they just had two dollars.
LAURIE: Your work contains this collision of styles and fabrics that, in another designer, would look like some kind of crazy indecision. But you make such a strong, cohesive statement, pulling all of these …
SABBAH: … contradictions together. Life is a work of art because it's based on contradictions. I've dedicated my life to trying to harmonize my dysfunctionments.
LAURIE: Your dysfunction. [laughs]
SABBAH: Yeah. But I mean, we all have them.
LAURIE: Some of your clothes get really crazy and sexy, like when you dress Eve for a tour. But then you show a beautifully demure side. That strapless creme ball gown with the big cabbage roses on it made me think about Charles James.
SABBAH: Oh, thank you so much. But I would say I'm not responsible for those pieces, they come to me as I work with them.
LAURIE: Well, you've been around the block, so you can draw from a store of experience. You've worked for the French department store Tati, you've lived all over the world, and you've even been involved with music.
SABBAH: I remember in London ten years ago, everybody in the hip hop and techno communities always wore camouflage. I must say my work also owes a debt to Jacqueline Jacobson. She was a big influence when I was very young. I was quite involved with fashion in Paris at the end of the '70s — and she did a couture show which featured camouflage. I even found a picture of myself from 25 years ago wearing camouflage. I think I had the same haircut that I have now.
LAURIE: So these themes run really deep. You're bringing your history into everything you're doing. Often you're referred to as a young designer. And chronologically …
SABBAH: I am not young.
LAURIE: But the work you're doing, the way that you burst onto the New York scene …
SABBAH: I love that people think of me as young. All my life I've believed that one can cultivate eternal youth. I know it's a very difficult task. I love the fable of Faust, for example, or the symbolism of the Grail.
LAURIE: I couldn't agree with you more. I consider myself a change junkie. In fact, I'd like to get married again just so I could wear your white canvas wedding gown with the bullet-proof vest.
SABBAH: It would be my pleasure.
LAURIE: This look that I construe as Gypsy-influenced — does that have to do with your nomadic background? Do you ever think about Saint Laurent in his influential Gypsy period?
SABBAH: I love Yves Saint Laurent for many reasons. I'm not crazy about all of his shifts of style or all of his work. But I love him because he said fashion was a virus he couldn't get over. He said he had experienced a lot of pain in his creative life. It was in a film I saw about him a few years ago.
LAURIE: That's amazing.
SABBAH: It's also true that my father was born in the same city as Yves Saint Laurent — Oran, Algeria. And my mother was born in Morocco. I was born in Casablanca. When I was a kid we often traveled to Marrakech, where Saint Laurent lives. After seeing that film I felt a deep attachment to Yves Saint Laurent. He said he was taking the colors in his couture from Morocco. In many ways he was very modern. He could feel what was going on around the world — he knew exactly what was going on in London, everywhere.
LAURIE: You dress your clients according to their needs and their body types. To what extent does that come from the traditions of couture?
SABBAH: It's fantastic. I touch them, I touch their bodies. I love that about New York. People are more open.
LAURIE: Strangers hug in New York. [laughs]
SABBAH: So I can hug my clients! But I always focus on the eyes and the complexion. Or, for example, one Sunday afternoon a customer came in and wanted a couture dress made. I was in the store with two of my good friends, the hairdresser Mark Garrison, and the journalist Elizabeth Hayt. I said, "I don't see a dress for you now because your hair doesn't work at all." Can you believe she got her hair cut right there in the store, and she never bought the dress?
LAURIE: So Mark Garrison cut her hair and she didn't buy anything?
SABBAH: No, but I don't care.
LAURIE: Well, this brings me to something you said that I really appreciated: "Western women have impossible standards of beauty. The icons they see don't have anything to do with the reality of who they are."
SABBAH: For them it's impossible to believe they're beautiful. Most of the women I see for couture appointments will say …
LAURIE: "My hips are too big, my nose is too long."
SABBAH: I think each person's body is fantastically important. For example, the soul singer Angie Stone is voluptuous. She's quite shapely, her figure is well-proportioned. She has class when she moves. When we worked together I appreciated that. The Western idea of proportion is very limiting.
LAURIE: Because there's only one standard of what makes a woman perfect.
SABBAH: I love all kinds of women. I love them very long, like Ahn Duong, for example. She's fantastic. She's very slim. She's very graphic. But I'll also love another girl who is very round, with a big ass and tits. The most interesting thing about people is how they make the best of themselves.
LAURIE: And you feel like you can dress pretty much anyone who comes to you?
SABBAH: Oh, yes. I feel that I can help a woman feel really good. It's a question of confidence. That's the good thing about custom-made couture — you can give people confidence without imposing your own ideas on them. I hate the guys who transform their clients into drag queens. I'm not that type of designer.
LAURIE: Well, anybody who ends up getting something from you must have a fantastic feeling about wearing it.
SABBAH: One of my customers is 62 years old. She has an amazing figure and she modeled for me last year. It was the first time she had ever modeled, and she had the walk that certain women had in the '50s — it's very different than the way girls walk now. It was beautiful to see how young she was.
LAURIE: How do you see your shop? Is it a workshop, a salon, a meeting place, a ready-to-wear boutique? Is it everything?
SABBAH: People can go there and talk to me about their deepest feelings. I'm not there all the time because I have to preserve myself. Sometimes it feels like being a doctor, you know.
LAURIE: Things have been happening rapidly for you. You've dressed Lauryn Hill, Larry Fishburne, Eve …
SABBAH: When I arrived three years ago, I felt very unimportant, because New York is so overwhelming.
LAURIE: And you're also doing costumes for a pair of figure skaters! I must tell you, I'm excited about that.
SABBAH: Yes, yes. They are very interesting. I always adored Holiday on Ice when I was a kid. Can you imagine Holiday on Ice, but in Morocco? [laughs]
LAURIE: The first time I saw the tight black do-rag on the street, I thought it was one of the most beautiful things because of the way it defines the skull. I wonder if you started using the do-rag because you grew up in a culture where you saw so much headgear that was related to religion and so forth?
SABBAH: I was actually inspired by the iconography of Hollywood. I loved the symbolism of the Prince of the Desert.
LAURIE: Errol Flynn …
SABBAH: In the desert, all references disappear, so you have to make your own. But they have to be pretty deep. When I saw those do-rags here in New York, I was intrigued because they were so sexy.
LAURIE: I'm intrigued by all the references to spirituality and mythology in your work.
SABBAH: Yes. This is the only way I can work. I think we are over-stuffed by the materialistic world.
LAURIE: Oh my god, I couldn't agree with you more.
SABBAH: Over-stuffed, all over the planet. So, it's crucial for every soul to try to draw from mythology, from archetypes. I have to use these tools to be inspired and to continue to do work. I would feel that I was repeating myself if I designed a dress without considering its symbolic nature.
LAURIE: I don't think it'd be fair to talk to you without touching on hip hop. Your work is so intertwined with that world.
SABBAH: Yes. I've always been very involved with it. When I was a researcher at MTV in London ten years ago I was a part of the hip hop scene. I was close friends with Laurent Touitou, who is Jean Touitou's sister, and Sophie Bramly. They were among the first people to promote hip hop in Europe in the late '80s. At the same time, my relationship to the music was about knowing where I'm from — I am North African and I am Jewish. When I first came to New York I needed to de-colonize myself a little bit from the fabulousness of French culture.
LAURIE: So you were raised as a …
SABBAH: Jewish Arab, you would call it. Jewish North African and Algerian, with a touch of Spanish. Part of the process of discovering hip hop culture was going deep down in my heart.
LAURIE: Well, I think that your history and your fashion are all of one piece. You're as layered as your clothing. You certainly couldn't be a minimalist with your history?
SABBAH: But I love the idea of minimalism. I love Calvin Klein because he goes to the minimalist extreme, even with his perfume names — Contradiction, Obsession, Eternity, Escape. Calvin Klein is a genius, along with Halston and Rudy Gernreich. The topless bikini, the monokini, was the big thing in Casablanca 40 years ago.
LAURIE: I remember it well. I was a child but it was in every magazine.
SABBAH: I'm inspired by American minimalist designers, but I draw from all over. I consider myself more of an alchemist.
LAURIE: I love the notion of you as an alchemist!
SABBAH: I'm not a real alchemist yet. You don't become an alchemist just like that. The process is very painful. But maybe by paying more dues and devoting more time to my work — I'm small now but …
LAURIE: Not for long.
SABBAH: I don't know. I don't know because I have a lot of integrity.