Glass speaks to Luka Sabbat

All that glitters is not gold …

Glass speaks to Luka Sabbat about his rise to internet fame, his power to influence and whether he thinks social media is the apotheosis of consumer society

ON THE evening of our scheduled interview, Luka Sabbat, the 22-year-old influencer/model/actor/producer/stylist/fashion designer/creative director – or as he describes himself, “Creative Entrepreneur” – posts two photos of himself in a slide reel with the caption “Taking a break, brb”. The interview does not take place. With a capricious attitude to his social media status, this post from the Gen Z influencer, initially, did not seem that unusual. I am writing this piece, however, two weeks following the Instagram, and Sabbat has not posted anything on his page since. Scrolling through his consistent feed, it is apparent that this is his first declared hiatus from social media.

Photographer: Jacques Burga

Despite trying to rearrange, unfortunately I do not get to speak to Sabbat and the interview is conducted by his manager instead. Reflecting on Instagram and the dangers of becoming a version of the person other people see you as, I can empathise with Sabbat. One can only imagine the way in which the pressure may be amplified when you have a mass following of 2 million people, as Sabbat does, watching and commenting on your every move.

It is understandable that he needs to take a break sometimes. “On the surface level you can see somebody’s face, and you can [also] see somebody on the media … But then it’s like, there’s a back end to it,” Sabbat tells us. He later continues, “You know, sometimes I go on hiatuses [where] I’m not posting things for like weeks, or months”. And although there is evidence of two to three-week silences, there is no other evidence of him communicating the break with his followers. So, what makes this occasion different for Sabbat? So different that he felt obliged to share it?

Since the age of 14, Sabbat has been documenting his journey on Instagram and building a committed and loyal American fanbase who appreciate his New York style. At the time, Instagram was only just on the rise and people like Sabbat quickly became internet famous for being part of the New York cool kids clan – consisting of the likes of Kerwin Frost, Austin Babbitt and Mike the Ruler, who hung out in downtown Soho to skateboard, discuss rare Rick Owens finds and post about it on social. At 15, Sabbat was discovered by Kevin Amato, the photographer who brought personality-led catwalks to the industry, and soon after, signed by Request Model Management.

For the last six or so years, therefore, Sabbat has been seen as the It boy, not only by those in the fashion industry but also by the Gen Z generation who have greedily watched his rise, feeling that they are a part of it. Despite his legion of fans, Luka Sabbat insists he is “literally not famous … Like dude, I’m not famous”. It’s hard to accept his view at face value, however, because just by googling his name results pop up from IMDB as an actor and producer, known for The Dead Don’t Die (2019), Grown-ish (2018) and Giants Being Lonely (2019); from the Business of Fashion as one of their BoF 500 and finally from numerous leading titles. It is abundantly clear that Sabbat is driven; he is also, however, never content, “I’m always looking for more.”

Photographer: Jacques Burga

He admits on his website that he “hated the camera and fashion growing up so to end up here is ironic”. With a fashion-orientated upbringing in New York – Sabbat’s mother was a model booker and assistant for fashion show production company Bureau Betak, while his father designs womenswear – Sabbat was “always supported with creativity and making things, and making sure I was using my brain and doing something with it”. And oh, how he has.

Today, Sabbat has appeared in campaigns for Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Adidas and many more; has built Hot Mess, a multi-layered project in collaboration with artist Noah Dillon, which has seen the pair host gallery shows, produce a photography book for Off-White, titled Woman, and sell exclusive merch for SSENSE; has walked for Dolce & Gabbana, LaQuan, Natasha Zinko, Benetton and Yeezy; has been an executive producer for Giants Being Lonely (2019) and the Hot Mess TV series; has collaborated with Milk Makeup; has designed a jewellery collection with Monini, and has partnered with Related Garments to release a range of underwear that benefits educational organisations in Haiti. For Sabbat, “each thing led to another, there’s not one thing that is better than all of them … my whole career [is] a highlight”.

Earlier this year, Sabbat launched a four-piece concept collection named “Unfortunately, Ready to Wear”, in partnership with Milk and the Natural Resources Defence Council. The collection featured “hypothetical clothing” that would need to be worn when the environment is less inhabitable. Items included “a bandana for when all the air gets polluted” as well as a jacket to protect from infectious diseases, backpack to support refugees, and headphones to combat heatwaves and extreme storms. Sabbat seems pessimistic, however, when discussing the theory behind the clothing, “Realistically, it’s going to happen, because we’re not doing anything to reverse climate change.”

When asked how we can empower the next generation with the tools to act, Sabbat is dismissive, “The thing is that people are aware, they just don’t care enough … They might not know what to do, to a certain extent. But also, some people know what to do and they just don’t do it. Because at the end of the day, human beings, people and kids of the next generation, together as a human race we all try to do what is most convenient … We try to take shortcuts and we never think what if”.

His solution? “If everybody did one thing, or if everybody had a specific thing that they would work with, in the grand scheme of things people could change … We’re not asking people to do everything: we’re asking people to do something – there is a big difference.”

Photographer: Jacques Burga

I can’t help but think that Sabbat sounds exhausted in his response, almost as if his energy to influence has been sapped. But with such a large following, consisting predominantly of the youth of today, comes great power to bring about change. For Sabbat, however, change is all about normalising it, “you don’t have to use straws. I don’t even like paper straws. So, you know what I do? I just don’t use straws. Like, it’s a cup, just drink out of the goddamn cup. It’s what the cup was made for”. His simple approach to a complex situation is intriguing, and as he continues to speak, this laid-back attitude becomes a theme, “I think I’m pretty chill about literally everything that could be”.

Is there anything that Sabbat cares about too much? “I obviously care about my family, obviously care about my friends. I care about art and music … [but] I genuinely don’t think I care too much about anything”, his manager responds, “Yeah, I think that’s the problem.”

This relaxed approach can also be deciphered in his idiosyncratic style, which appears effortless and has dubbed him a new-wave style icon of 2019. Sabbat takes “inspiration from real life and things I see, and people I meet. Sometimes movie characters. But mostly just from experiences and travelling and seeing so many styles”.

When asked what his greatest discovery has been to date, Sabbat struggles to answer. His manager scraps the question, asking her own instead, “what do you think that you’ve discovered first, before any of your other peers, before any of the other kids in your demographic? Is there one thing, one style, type, or one type of art?” Sabbat is quick to bite back, as if the question has struck a nerve, “I mean, all I got to say is check my Instagram receipts of when I was wearing shit versus when other people are wearing shit. I don’t really have to sit here and talk about ‘I did this first’. That’s what people … that’s what people value me as – I’ll put this in air quotes, ‘a style icon’ or whatever the fuck they want to call me. I just am putting this shit together … I’m just minding my own business and putting my outfits together and then other people are going minding my business, too. And then taking my style, which is fine, which is why I put it out there.”

I understand Sabbat’s frustration. Although the prospect of being an influencer (the term is ubiquitous now; influencing is seen less like a job and more as a state of being) may be attractive – receiving payment for posting a photo, travelling to luxurious places, an A-list friendship group, and collaborations with some of the most respected brands – the title also carries a stigma.

“An influencer now – it’s like some kids have 15 million followers but you can’t name what they do … [except that] they are an influencer”. This is a common view, admittedly often shared by us ordinary folk scrolling through Instagram on a bleak and stressful day at work, but more often by those who are influencers themselves. The bracket of an influencer is so wide now that to be lumped together can sometimes seem like an insult. For people like Sabbat, who pride themselves as creatives, it can be frustrating to watch this purpose be overshadowed by the negative connotations an Influencer title frequently has.

Photographer: Jacques Burga

“I didn’t want to be an influencer nor mean to be an influencer; all I’ve ever done is post pictures of my outfits and people caught on and liked it,” he says on the Hot Mess YouTube series on Freeform. For Sabbat, intellectual developments and artistic pursuits are important, “you [have] got to be able to know; you [have] got to be able to show how you use your brain … some people are happy with being a face … But I’m not happy with it, and I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if I didn’t do other things”. Sabbat doesn’t “take it for granted, though, because it’s put me in a lot of positions to do many things [and] a lot of positions of power”.

Luka Sabbat is not alone in his complicated relationship with the need to create alongside the need to make a living. This has always been a balancing act for creatives – making art requires money, making money requires an income. Most notable examples are the great surrealist Salvador Dalí who designed the Chupa Chups lollipops logo in 1969 and Andy Warhol who believed the process of making money was an art form itself and became renowned for reimagining famous American brands, such as the Campbell’s soup can, in Pop Art style.

Instagram is a thriving community and a playground for artists, not only for its element of exposure but also for its possibility of income, and Sabbat has become masterful within in it. As Virgil Abloh, the Creative Director of Off-White and Louis Vuitton, once said, “I couldn’t beg a fashion writer to write about my project. But with Instagram, I made it my magazine”.

Although Sabbat links his hiatus to not wanting to put his “mad outfits out to the world yet because I am not ready for people to bite my swag”, it seems this is just scraping the surface of this multi-faceted issue: how can you be creatively authentic in the oversaturated market of Instagram? How do you ensure your private life does not become a commodity? And how do you manage the pressures of pleasing an audience who always expect something new? Hype culture is a part of modern life like never before;  bent on excitement and adrenaline for finding the next big thing, and Sabbat was a key element of its Instagram birth.

A prevalent fear in the discussion of hype culture is that it will bring about the extinction of creative minds and critical thinkers, and Sabbat, as a young creative, may be feeling this oppression. Perhaps then it can be fair to say that Sabbat feels lost, being pulled in numerous directions – by capital gain, by organic creativity and finally, by his need for both.

Photographer: Jacques Burga

Social media influencers may feel tied to a static, inauthentic identity but Sabbat seems to be negotiating this threat with skill. His most recent break signifies this, “there’s got to be a balance” he says. It also shows a responsibility to his followers, which is not only mature but also incredibly controlled. In turn, Sabbat demonstrates his ability to reconceptualise the role of an influencer on his own terms. Terms that mean that he knows when to say no, “I’m the no man, you’ve heard me say no a lot, it’s because I hate a lot of shit, because a lot of things suck” he says on the Hot Mess YouTube series on Freeform.

Then again, Sabbat could just enjoy putting his phone down … Am I becoming as over-fastidious as his followers who need their weekly fill from their beloved internet star? I expect the only way I ever will know is if Sabbat shares more on the eve of his next hiatus. When is he at his happiest? “When I’m minding my own business,” he says. I remain curious about Luka Sabbat, which is probably just how he likes it – maintaining the high ground and able to seal his own fate in an environment where everybody is trying to define it, “I’m licking around the envelope of the world.”

by Lily Rimmer

Photographer JACQUES BURGA
Set design ROLL & HILL
Photography assistant ALEXIA MATHYSEN-GERST
Styling assistants JULIA CURTIS and AMBIKA SANYAL

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