New York-based artist Kelly Dabbah has had quite the career up until this point—and she’s just getting started. The artist, born in Geneva to an Egyptian father and an Israeli-Moroccan mother, studied fashion design at Parsons School of Design, then went on to work in the fashion houses of Coco Chanel and Anna Sui.
Now, she devotes her time to making art and design objects—from custom-made mirrors to collages, aristocratic-esque armchairs, maximalist wallpaper patterns, to sculptures, skateboards, and collages. As part of her own art and design practice, she has a wide breadth of fashion collaborations behind her—with brands like Moleskin, Hampton Surf Company, YellowPop, and Bala—and next up, is collaborating with Malibu-based swimwear brand Cami and Jax, debuting in March.
Dabbah’s work ranges from custom-made coats, to printmaking, painting and even mirrors, and her work is collected by Grammy Award-winning artists like Anderson .Paak, ThunderCat, and MixedByAli. She has shown everywhere from a billboard in high-traffic Times Square to the Gelareh Mizrahi Concept Store to the Showfields department store in New York City, and beyond.
Next up, Dabbah is opening her “Daddy’s Issues” exhibition at SCOPE Art Show in Miami Beach 2022 from November 29 to December 4, with Saphira & Ventura Gallery. She is featuring a large scale mirror and antique chair reupholstered with her digital collage prints. She speaks about surrealism, maximalism and the thin line between fashion design and contemporary art.
Forbes: Why do you love maximalism?
Kelly Dabbah: Like kitsch, maximalism has a very playful and overwhelming feeling. As much as it can get messy and anxious like our modern-day society, it is also balanced with joy, colors, life, extravagance, and light. It’s like the Yin and Yang of how I see my life—messy, anxious at times, overwhelming as well as joyful, full of emotions, light and fun. It’s finding calm in the mess and embracing the amount of information we absorb every day, while taking it all with a grain of salt. It’s like finding peace during chaos.
As both an artist and a designer, why do you love doing fashion collaborations?
I loved fashion as much as I loved art and I wanted to find a way to combine both skills. Fashion collaborations are so interesting because you get to pull ideas from two brains and create something unique, limited and very special together, with different visions. Some fashion brands are looking for unique capsule collections by collaborating with artists. They want something different, like a bold accent. As I create prints and focus on the artwork, I feel like collaborating is a great tool to expand my vision with different brands on different products.
How does a background in fashion lend itself well to art?
I always had an equal love for art and fashion. I think a fashion career sounded safer than an art career. But when I studied fashion design at Parsons, I was taught how to use digital software. That really opened my horizons on what I could do. I started incorporating my fine art images into my digital collages. Then I started printing the prints on different fabrics such as satin and silk. I started to print so many prints that eventually I had enough to cover my living room and create an immersive room full of prints. I started creating art installations in Miami Design District and then in New York City. After that, I explored more and more mediums such as skateboards, surfboards, mirrors, furniture, wallpapers, and more.
Why do you love kitsch so much?
It has a very ironic and funny aspect that I enjoy and love so much. I love the aesthetic—it’s colorful, bold and it has this melancholia about it, like an abandoned castle, a strip club, gas station, or a hotel room in Las Vegas. Think of an old Elvis Presley statue left in the trunk of a car. Unlike art, kitsch doesn’t require much explanation, it’s self-explanatory. I like to play with it. As an artist, people except you to create things with a message, I like the fact that kitsch is the message itself.
What was it like working at Anna Sui’s fashion house, what did you learn?
Working for Anna Sui was a creative experience, as I worked in the design department. I created fashion figure and flats for the garments, worked late nights for the fashion show, styled models, picked up fabrics in the garment district and made so many connections through people working at different departments. I learned a lot. The most interesting thing I did for Anna Sui was hand painting on the denim she created for a denim collection. I was painting on leather jackets that I would sell on my Instagram page as a side job, so I felt excited and confident enough to accept the project.
Can you tell us about your Daddy’s Issues exhibition at SCOPE Art Show in Miami?
I am exhibiting one large mirror and a chair as a mini art installation. For me, shifting from “daddy issues” to “daddy’s issues” acknowledges that some limitations we carry with us do not belong to us. It’s about the relationship between our heart and mind. It’s about what someone is supposed to do versus what the heart wants. Daddy’s Issues was also selected by Art Innovation Gallery to be exhibited digitally as an NFT on the largest large mobile platform in Miami. The boat will travel from Miami Beach to downtown Miami from December 1 to 3 during Art Basel Miami Beach.
Are you a fan of surrealism? if so which artists?
I am a big fan of the surrealists, and right now, I am reading about dream interpretations by Sigmund Freud and the connection between the conscious and unconscious. When I create, I don’t know how the final piece is going to look like. I am unconsciously guided by my creativity, inspired by past visions, images, dreams, and feelings, like a collage—it’s almost like a puzzle of imagery. Dreams are so powerful and may hold a key to our consciousness.
Can you tell us about your collab with Siam Circle and the importance of upcycling fabrics?
Siam Circle is a brand that creates upcycled pieces from original Levi’s jeans and creates wonderful patchwork. It’s so avant-garde and creative. I have been following them since their beginning and love their work. I connected with Mariuka through Instagram. I had so many fabrics from my art installations a few years ago that were just sitting in my suitcases. So, we decided to reuse them and create upcycled pieces. We did a pop up in Soho and it was really satisfying to give my prints another life.
Upcycling fabrics is the future. More and more brands are doing it. Fast fashion isn’t sustainable, and we know it. If you are creative there are so many ways you can give clothes a second life. The creativity comes from creating new solutions to this issue.