“Y’all still wearing jeans?” the 21-year-old model, actor, and influencer Luka Sabbat tweeted in November to his 377,000 followers. The question was illustrated by a stream of “face with tears of joy” emoji, which generally translates to someone laughing at you, not with you.
For a moment, I took Sabbat’s modern Diana Vreeland dictate to heart. I really should stop wearing jeans, I thought. (Boot-cut jeans, he later clarified, can still be worn.)
About an hour later, Sabbat — whose other medium is Instagram, where he has 1.6 million followers — threw his acolytes another curveball. “It’s 2018 and mfs still out here wearing shoes,” he said, adding a “face palm” emoji this time. “Like bro what?!?”
Things escalated. “In 2019 if u still wearing clothes you washed,” Sabbat concluded, as if he were trolling his own status as a kind of sartorial emperor. “Y’all gotta catch up.”
In internet years, Sabbat’s rise has been gradual. He was discovered when he was 15 by ReQuest Model Management while drinking hot chocolate with his dad. Since then, he’s worked his way up the fashion food chain from pretty face to social-media personality to actor to something like a Gen-Z Chloë Sevigny. He’s always in the right place with the people who make it so, wearing the thing no one else has, all seemingly without trying. It’s this natural cool — contained in the sum of his mustache, his apathetic pout, and those bold, definitive opinions — that sets Sabbat apart from his contemporaries, and earns him fat checks from brands like Calvin Klein and Evian as an influencer. But is actually trying to influence just too uncool for Sabbat?
Last month, I met Sabbat in the lobby of the Mercer, where he and his friends used to camp out for the free Wi-Fi when they were teenagers. He was dressed casually, but every piece was considered: a black trucker hat with “devil” printed backward; black sweatpants tucked into thick Rick Owens socks, which he slipped into ribbed women’s Celine slides. Under his arm, a brand-new Louis Vuitton men’s clutch. And on his back, he sported a Mike Kelley x Supreme hoodie, plus a Raf Simons bomber jacket from 2003. When I asked him if he bought the jacket vintage, he looked at me, confused. Of course he did; Sabbat was 5 in 2003.
Sabbat looked me up and down. “Yo,” he said, pausing. I expected him to comment on my (denim-free) outfit. “You have a booger in your nose,” he said. He suggested I blow it.
Sabbat’s suggestions kept coming. He told me what to eat for lunch (Moroccan couscous) and how to eat it (top down, with a scoop of sauce at the bottom). He told me to get off dating apps; that my Air Force 1 sneakers were the wrong color (black, instead of white); and that my Jacquemus mini-bag wasn’t as cute as I thought it was. He knew he sounded like a hater, but he also knew he was right.
These days, Sabbat spends a good chunk of his time in Los Angeles — he has a role, essentially playing himself, on Grown-ish, Freeform’s Gen-Z spinoff of Black-ish starring Yara Shahidi — but he is a New York go-getter at heart, raised on the Lower East Side. His family moved to Paris when he was a toddler, where his father worked as a fashion designer and his mother as a model booker and production assistant. Supermodels like Lara Stone would look after him backstage at fashion shows.
When Sabbat moved back to New York for high school, attending Lower Manhattan Arts Academy, Soho became his backyard. He joined Instagram in 2012 as a 14-year-old, baby-faced hypebeast, using it as a platform to buy, sell, and flaunt any piece of Supreme he could get his hands on.
“I was one of the first internet fashion kids of New York,” Sabbat declared. “Me and my homies would use it to post outfits to try to get free shit, and to build a personality. But we were doing it mindlessly; that wasn’t even really our intention. We were just being ourselves.” A third of Sabbat’s life is now documented on Instagram, not to mention 1,430-something outfits. Scrolling to the bottom of his feed is like watching Boyhood on rewind, only with a lot more Raf Simons.
“I want people to see that I’ve been doing this shit for a long time,” said Sabbat, who’s never deleted a post. “It’s time stamps on outfits. Some people claim to have started some shit, and I’m like, Listen, pal. Check the fuckin’ receipts. I was wearing that way before you. Like, Oh, you just started wearing Rick Owens? Congrats, bro.” Sabbat pointed to an old photo that I’d printed out. “2014, buddy.”
Back then, he hung around stores like the Hundreds and VFiles, meeting creative up-and-comers like Virgil Abloh, who is now the men’s artistic director at Louis Vuitton. Abloh then introduced Sabbat to Kanye West, and he’s wooed his way into the Kardashians’ hearts since. When we met, Sabbat had just returned from a brief ski trip with the reality family, where he hit the slopes in full Prada Sport. He prefers skiing to snowboarding, he told me, because it seems “more rich.”
Proximity to the Kardashians has no doubt boosted Sabbat’s follower count, as well as sucked him into their press cycle; the latest rumor is an alleged relationship with Kourtney Kardashian, who is 18 years his senior. “We’re definitely not dating,” he finally clarified, after spending the afternoon telling me how badly he wanted a girlfriend.
Kardashian isn’t the only Gen-X woman charmed by Sabbat. Sevigny and Sabbat have become close friends since connecting on the set of The Dead Don’t Die, Jim Jarmusch’s forthcoming zombie film. They text often, and she even accompanied him on apartment tours with his dad in Soho recently. “I remember seeing this beautiful boy and being totally struck,” Sevigny recalled. “He smiled at me and I melted. I was like, Who is this kid?” She found his Instagram, as you do, and was struck by the cleverness of his captions. “To me, it’s not about his style,” she explained. “It’s more about his energy and his vibe. I feel like it’s the same with me: People are always like, Oh, she’s a style icon! But it’s like, there’s gotta be something else, you know?”
Social media has given Sabbat the kind of life his teenage self didn’t even know was possible. (“Never I thought in my life I would be listening to spongebob music in the Maybach,” he tweeted in January.) But all this comes with a price. In October, Sabbat found himself the subject of an unfortunately delicious Variety headline, which quickly went viral. “Luka Sabbat Sued for Failure to Influence,” it read. In September, Sabbat allegedly signed a $60,000 contract with PR Consulting, a New York–based public-relations agency, to promote Snap Inc.’s sunglasses with a built-in camera. The deal was that Sabbat had to post a minimum of four “unique” posts to his Instagram during the spring-summer fashion shows in New York, plus Milan or Paris. One had to live on his feed permanently, and three had to be uploaded to his Story, which refreshes every 24 hours.
Sabbat didn’t totally renege. He had shared one sponsored post on his feed and another on his Story. The resulting images (five total) were posted as a single slideshow. In them, Sabbat wears a black turtleneck with his black Spectacles.
“Pshhh, I’m definitely not a spy and my glasses definitely DON’T have cameras in them … heh, who would do that … ,” Sabbat wrote as a caption with the proper disclaimer hashtags, plus some emoji for good measure. The post was sarcastic and made the potentially embarrassing act of selling something — wearable tech, no less — seem like no big deal at all. The photos have received over 168,000 likes and more than 1,300 comments to date. In influencer terms, one might call that “good engagement.” Bad press only boosted these numbers.
But there was another thing Sabbat had to do: He also allegedly agreed to be “photographed in public” wearing Snap Spectacles, in real life, wearing a real outfit — which never happened. He also allegedly accepted $45,000 up front for the tasks he didn’t fully complete. As a result, PR Consulting is suing him for breach of contract and unjust enrichment, i.e., walking off with unearned cash. They’re also asking him to pay interest, damages, and the resulting legal bill.
PRC declined to comment on the matter, adding that the proceedings are solely between the company and Sabbat, not Snap Inc. So did Sabbat, to me. “Never heard of that,” he said, likely per the advice of his lawyers, who have asked the State Court to dismiss his case. “I’ve literally never heard of a Snap Spectacle.” He then explained that there are “two sides to every story,” and that some things are just out of his hands.
But he did his own crisis PR. A few weeks after the Variety article went up, Sabbat and photographer Noah Dillon (his creative partner in Hot Mess, their art collective) decided to add another work to their ongoing “Free Advertising” project, which includes faux-DIY-billboard campaigns for brands like Céline and Chevrolet. In Skeptical Spectacle, Sabbat poses, arms folded, underneath a billboard bearing all the various headlines declaring his FAILURE TO INFLUENCE.
Regardless of how the lawsuit plays out, what makes it so tantalizing is the idea that anyone — especially someone with a following as big as Sabbat’s — could “fail” to influence. Because the term is ubiquitous now, influencing is seen less as a job and more as a state of being. By that definition, failure was never an option for Sabbat, so long as he kept showing up and pretending not to care. But this lawsuit defines influence as an action with a tangible beginning and end.
And even if Sabbat has his reservations about the career — “The word influencer is mad corny” — he needs it. “What if I become poor and nothing works out? I can’t work at a store. I can’t work retail.”
But the industry is changing: There are non-influencers now pretending to sell products in the hopes of one day getting an endorsement deal, not to mention the “nano-influencers,” who sell goods like off-brand vapes to fewer than 1,000 followers. That kind of commercial oversaturation has put people like Sabbat in danger of getting lost in the crowd.
“The influencer bubble is going to pop in the next few years,” he said, sighing. “With a lot of these so-called influencers, brands are going to realize that they’re not actually capitalizing off them and the influence isn’t actually working. There are too many of us. Eventually, it will be hard to differentiate between a real influencer and, like, some wack person.”
For now, it’s working. As I walked around Soho with Sabbat in the middle of the day, we couldn’t go three blocks together without his stopping to dap a friend or follower like he was the mayor. He knew all of the store clerks at Totokaelo, all the security guards at Saint Laurent. At Celine, where Sabbat bought himself a pair of women’s size 41 snow boots from the Phoebe Philo era, he was greeted with a warm “Hey, Luka.”
As I watched Sabbat shop, it was clear he’d put in his 10,000 hours. “I low-key own everything I want,” he told me — all of Sabbat’s underwear and socks are Balenciaga because he “likes the finer things in life” — but there are still a litany of trendy items he would definitely not buy. It was hard to keep up. Fanny packs? “Can’t stand them,” he said. Bike shorts? “Trash.” Shoes that look like socks? “Garbage.” Everlane? “Never heard of it.”
Sabbat knows the power of his influence and wants to use it to make the world a better-looking place. “There’s good and bad influence,” he said back in his room at the Mercer, pulling a Charles Manson REMEMBER KIDS, CHARLIE LOVES YOU T-shirt from his suitcase.
“The internet exposed kids to new styles that they never would have been able to see before, but it also created some of the worst style,” Sabbat said. “Kids basically just mash every style they see into one fucking disgusting muck,” like Saint Laurent skinny jeans combined with chunky Balenciaga Triple S sneakers. He looked at himself in the mirror. “People are way too influenced by what they see.”
*This article appears in the February 4, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!
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