Sabrina Dhowre Elba
- Interview by
- Bibby Sowray
- Photography by
- Eva K. Salvi
There are few people who embody the term ‘multi-hyphenate’ quite as wholly as Sabrina Dhowre Elba. At just 35, she is already a CEO, humanitarian, activist and podcaster, to name just a few of her roles.
Her latest venture, S’ABLE Labs skincare, is a passion project cooked up during lockdown with her husband, the British actor Idris Elba. The genderless range of products is the evolution of their combined realisation that wellbeing comes from healthy relationships, and you can’t have healthy relationships without first having a healthy relationship with yourself. That’s where ‘selfless self-care’ comes in, and S’ABLE Labs’ simple but effective – and already award-winning - products that can be used on any skin colour.
The brand, which landed exclusively in Space NK last month, is the perfect marriage of Elba’s natural creativity and thirst for knowledge (she studied philosophy at university) and her work as a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations International Fund for Agricultural Development. Here, she tells us more about the brand’s origins, her aspirations for the future and what it means to be able to use her platform to inspire change.
You’re a champion for both societal wellbeing, through your work as an ambassador and activist, but also for personal wellbeing, via your S’ABLE Labs skincare. Speaking of which, can you tell us what inspired you to start the brand?
Idris and I, right at the beginning of lockdown, got Covid, and I realised we needed to go on some kind of wellness journey. I wouldn't have necessarily considered myself someone who partook in the wellness space, but one of the things that was affecting us the most was our mental health. We found that, actually, no one was talking about the lack of relationships in our life at the time. I was missing my friends, my mom and everyone in my life. We were talking about all other aspects of wellness, but not really community. So we started a show called Together Tuesdays on Instagram Live, where we would talk to other duos that we admire to find out what makes their relationships work. The one thing we realised was consistent in all those conversations was that you can't have a healthy relationship unless you have a good relationship with yourself. So ‘selfless self-care’ became this kind of buzzword term for us. We started exploring what that was and decided it really starts with how you present yourself and how you take care of yourself at home. And for us, that was skincare and everything that we were doing in our routines, when we would wake up or go to bed, and it just became this great conversation between both of us. It was really reflective for me; Idris would say things like “Why are you using 10 things? Why does it take you 20 minutes or half an hour to come to bed just from skincare alone?” and I was like “That’s a really good point”. Then, on his side, his stuff was all very pared down – he’d have one product for everything. We just started having these conversations that led to S’ABLE Labs. We sat down and learned everything that we could about ingredients and formulations, and when we went to the chemists, we knew everything we wanted. We put our hearts and souls into it and we’re a family business.
The products are genderless and work for all skin tones and ethnicities. Why did you want to take this direction?
People told us: “You can’t sell to everyone. Choose one demographic.” But skin is skin. On a cellular level, skin functions the same. People have different preferences, but if you’re maintaining the skin’s barrier and you’re packing it full of antioxidants and moisture, you’re taking care of skin, no matter your issues. So, we realised skin-barrier health really is the most important thing – and fighting inflammation helps all the issues that melanated skin experiences, like hyperpigmentation, which stems from inflammation. We added amazing ingredients that help decrease the melanin that’s produced in those instances. Sunspots, freckles – that’s all hyperpigmentation in some form, and these ingredients are good for everyone.
You’re passionate about the ingredients used, both in terms of efficacy and where they are sourced from. How do you approach this aspect?
It was an educational curve. I’m a massive consumer, so I thought I knew everything, but you realise so much is spoon-fed to you in terms of marketing and false narratives around skin. I had to unlearn a lot so that I could prepare myself for creating these formulations. The sourcing was super-important to us because of the work that we do as Goodwill Ambassadors [for the International Fund for Agricultural Development] and because we know that big agriculture is so polluting and so abusive to the Earth, and we genuinely believe that smallholder farmers are the way to go. They protect the planet, they understand biodiversity. It also helps create jobs and independence for real people. So, we made it a mission to source all our natural ingredients in a way that’s traceable from smallholder farmers.
“We put our hearts and souls into S’ABLE Labs and we’re a family business.”
The products are already award-winning. What’s on the horizon?
Our ethos is always to use less – you can have the core three-step skincare range and you’re good to go. We don’t ever want to have 100 products in the range, but we’ve always wanted to expand into other categories, like body and, potentially, scalp care. We have a new product coming out in September that I’m so excited about. If you want moisturised, glass skin, this is the product for you.
What does wellness mean to you?
Wellness, for me, definitely means community. I’m so much happier when I’m around my mom and my family, my siblings – I have two brothers, two sisters. I just love the relationships in my life and I’ve always been that way. I’m such a community-driven person – for me, it’s very hard to have self-care alone.
What are the wellbeing rituals you swear by?
I’m a big masker. It’s one of the reasons we made one for our customers. I grew up watching my mom making them in our kitchen, with things like turmeric, and then wearing them all day. But I also love a good podcast, and I love reading a great book.
“I feel very confident with my skin now. But when we started this journey, I really wasn’t.”
You have the most beautiful skin. Can you talk us through your skincare routine?
I feel very confident with my skin now. But when we started this journey, I really wasn’t. It was actually Barbara Sturm who was helping me a lot at the time. Luckily, she had products in her line for dark skin tones, but I still felt like I shouldn’t have to pay that much – I was wondering “Why aren’t products like these so much more accessible?” It’s been so nice to tone everything down and just use S’ABLE Labs because you would not believe how many products I was using before – my shelfie was embarrassing! I wake up and go through my S’ABLE routine in the morning. I use the three steps, and then in the evening I add in Sunday Riley U.F.O Ultra-Clarifying Face Oil, a double cleanse, using our micellar water, and I love a lip mask. I add a mask once a week and I’ll use an extra bit of exfoliant when I need to.
You seem to really enjoy and have fun with clothes. How would you describe your personal style?
Try everything. I love trying new brands, new clothes, new styles – I think that’s the fun of it. I love fashion and all the different aspects of it. I will buy everything and try everything to a fault, at least a fault for my wallet!
Sustainability is hugely important to you – and to us here at Wardrobe ICONS. How do you bear this in mind when shopping for clothes?
Thinking about what lasts when you’re shopping makes a big difference and it reshapes the way you buy, which is so important because it’s so easy to just go with the trend cycle. When Bottega got really popular again, I bought a lot of their bags, but they were so trendy and didn’t feel as long-lasting as some of the other bags that I purchased. So I started reselling some of them. Now I subscribe to Cocoon, so I can try a bag before I buy it.
You were made a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations International Fund for Agricultural Development in 2020. What does this role mean to you?
Everything. It’s the most fulfilling thing I’ve done in my life and I’m so thankful. It's so different to the aid model because, rather than hand out food, they find ways for people to learn to grow their own food and to become sustainable and self-dependent in that way. It feels really good when you’ve helped the community and they don’t need IFAD anymore – you build them up to take care of themselves and I really feel that is the way of the future. It just takes a little bit of investment, rather than aid. I feel really passionate about the work that we do.
“We don’t have the convenience of staying quiet or being shy. If you have a platform and you’re not using it, I think that’s awful.”
You’re a wonderful advocate for women who don’t have a voice and use your platform so powerfully. What can normal women do to help affect change?
I think everyone can use their voice. It doesn’t matter how many people you’re speaking to, it’s about informing and educating yourself and then helping spread that information. Giving your opinion and just showing that you care is so strong, because then that person will spread that to someone else. And you can just imagine how many times that can go forward.
How do you find the confidence to speak publicly about so many important issues?
I think a little bit of it comes from my mom. She was a philanthropist and always a very vocal person. She left Somalia just before the war and always wanted to go back, so she was very vocal about bringing justice and then helping support people back home, and I think that probably influenced me a lot in my younger life. But I also think it’s probably because we don’t have a choice – we have to speak out. We don’t have the convenience of staying quiet or being shy. If you have a platform and you’re not using it, I think that that’s awful because there’s so much need in the world and it just feels like such a waste of engagement.
You’ve already achieved so much but what are you still striving to do?
It’s funny to hear you say that because I feel like there’s so much room to grow and do more. I’m a CEO of a skincare company and I’m an activist and humanitarian, but I still don’t know if I’ve found my day job. At the moment, I’m taking an aesthetician course and I’m also trying to go back to school and get my master’s in international development. I feel these two things will help me in figuring out what I love and what I really want to focus on. And then motherhood is a huge cloud above my head. I’ve got to do that eventually, and I do want to do that, but it really is finding the time. [Idris and I] are probably the busiest people in terms of travelling – we just can’t sit still, and I love that and I’m not ready to give that up yet, but I feel I’m almost there!