BEIRUT: By his own confession Krikor Jabotian’s first foray into fashion was a cliché: a “different” child dressing up his younger sister and her dolls, and idolizing his mother’s glamour.
“I remember the flared pink skirt her mother sewed her,” he says. “A huge pink skirt, short, knee length and flared. When she turned it created ruffles, and I would watch and think ‘wow, you are a queen.’”
Now 25, Jabotian works out of his Beirut studio, creating intricate and theatrical dresses that are far from the sometimes formulaic work of well-established Lebanese designers of the ilk of George Chakra, and Elie Saab, whose designs are a guaranteed feature of almost any red carpet.
“What they do is very different to what I do. They’re very classical, which is not something pejorative ... they’re maybe more safe,” he says.
Jabotian’s designs have a more modern feel, apparent in his most recent collection “La fille du temple,” made up largely of dresses in neutral colors and muted metallics, with Romanesque draping and bold detailing.
“I wanted to give my dresses this aspect of being very proud statues,” he says. “I wanted to bring out this victory, this pride.”
It was Saab that gave Jabotian his first job, working as an assistant designer, after graduating from French fashion school Esmod in Beirut in 2007. But so keen was he to forge his own path, Jabotian left Elie Saab after just seven months.
“I couldn’t take it anymore,” he says. “I gave what I had to give, I took what I had to take, and I had to leave, to discover some new things in life.”
What followed was a period of uncertainty as Jabotian tried to work out how he could break into a tough market.
Luckily, he had already caught the attention of Lebanese couture designer Rabih Keyrouz while at Esmod and was in 2008 picked to be among the first graduates of STARCH, the foundation set up by Keyrouz and Tala Hajjar which supports Lebanese designers, showcasing them in its boutique in Downtown Beirut.
“I was very much inspired by Rabih,” Jabotian says. “He was my mentor, he would follow up on me in school, and I was very much inspired by him and his character.”
But even there Jabotian had itchy feet, leaving his one-year term with STARCH 10 months in to set up his own space in Beirut’s Abdel Wahab district with backing from business partners.
When that relationship turned sour, forcing Jabotian to cut and run, taking as much of his collection with him as he could carry, he turned to his “number one supporter,” starting a new atelier run as a family business, working closely with his mother.
“My mother was always an inspiration for me,” he says. “Each and every time I have something that I’m not sure of I try it on my mom.”
If Jabotian does have something in common with the classic Lebanese designers – whether Chakra or Saab on the red carpet – it’s a dramatic quality. This high drama is apparent in a Jabotian designed wedding dress, his biggest market in Lebanon.
“Everyone will always be waiting for the bride,” he says.
“To see how she looks, how she shows up in her dress. There is suspense. Excitement.”
That desire for theater is reflected in the woman Jabotian says he’d most like to design for.
“Medea,” he says, laughing. “I love a woman with character, and no matter what she puts on she would look impressive, because she would make everyone look at her in a different way, so she wouldn’t pass invisible.”
Jabotian’s creations seem ideal for the bridal market, in their captivating scale and use of lace and beadwork, but the designer says he’d like one day to move to ready-to-wear designs.
“I think coming up with a beautiful design that is at the same time functional is very challenging,” he says.
He’d also like to see his designs in a more everyday setting.
“Maybe it’s not very clever of me to say this, but I think it’s a pity for someone to pay a big amount for a dress that you can only wear once or twice, and then keep in the wardrobe,” he says.
This may be far in the future for the young designer who says that, for now, he’s “very happy in keeping it cozy” and maintaining his word-of-mouth reputation. But with his determination and ambition it may only be a matter of time before his designs can be found in wardrobes across the city.