Sabrina Dhowre Elba on jewellery, Sable Labs and the COP Conference

Our cover star Sabrina Dhowre Elba discusses being a UN Goodwill Ambassador with her husband Idris Elba. The launch of her new label Sable Labs and her love of jewellery. For our cover shoot she wears Tiffany & Co, Bulgari, Cartier, Chopard & De Beers

Interview by Jessica Bumpus

Photographer: Danny Lowe Fashion: Alexandra Bickerdicke

SABRINA ELBA would describe herself as “a concerned citizen”. She is a UN Goodwill Ambassador in partnership with her husband, the actor Idris Elba (and thinks they may be the first couple to do so), but she also happens to be a podcaster, a model, an actress (a title she’s still a little shy about), and an entrepreneur. 

Sabrina Dhowre Elba for Something About Rocks in Tiffany
Bangles TIFFANY & CO; top BALMAIN; trousers PETAR PETROV

The couple are launching a new self-care brand called Sable Labs – “Elbas” spelt backwards – which she says is “so exciting” and also “so much hard work”. They are also involved with IFAD, the International Fund for Agricultural Development. It’s an international financial institution and specialised agency of the United Nations working to address poverty and hunger in rural areas of developing countries and they were heading up to the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) earlier last month to speak on its behalf. 

Elba, who on the day of our shoot one autumnal October day is warm and charming, and happy to have her picture taken with one of the jewellery security guards (who is thrilled to meet her), also sits on the British Fashion Council as a patriot.

“London fashion is my favourite!” she later enthuses over the phone from Doha, Qatar, where she is attending the Fashion Trust Arabia initiative, a non-profit platform which shines a spotlight on the best of fashion in Arab countries. Of our very own capital’s talent, she says: “It’s an incubator. It’s emerging. It’s so exciting to see these new designers.”

Sabrina Dhowre Elba for Something About Rocks in Bulgari

Her current ones-to-watch are Manchester-born Maximilian Davis of Maximilian. “I’m obsessed with! So good!” she chimes. And Charlotte Knowles, aka KNWLS, who is known for Y2K style and Instagram success. Elba went to the designer’s show at London Fashion Week. “It was just so badass!” she says.

When it comes to jewellery, Elba points out how it has been a part of her life before she could remember. “I was one of those babies who had their ears pierced,” she laughs. “I had friends in high school saying ‘I’m going to get my ears pierced’ and I was like ‘Been there’. I’ve found it’s always been a way [of] like accessorising to express yourself; I’m very minimal.”

Sabrina Dhowre Elba for Something About Rocks in Fawaz Gruosi

But she loves the stories behind the pieces and the designs. Even though she doesn’t necessarily wear them all the time. “I almost feel like it’s a more private relationship for me. It’s a keepsake, it’s something I want to pass on. It feels like art.” And she recalls a book called The Blessing Stone by Barbara Wood – “this is going to sound so corny,” she prefaces – that she read and loved aged around 18. “It was about this stone that moves through history with different women and how it helped these women in their lives. I always think about that with jewellery and fantasise about how I’m going to give my daughter this necklace and she’s going to know I wore it on this day and it made me feel beautiful at this time. And so I feel like jewellery has such deeper meaning.” 

Sabrina Dhowre Elba for Something About Rocks in Cartier

Among her own favourite pieces is a pair of Tiffany & Co. diamond earrings which were a present from Idris, out of the blue. “I think it was just the way I felt in that moment,” she recalls. “It was such a beautiful night and I had been going through quite a bit on a personal side.” Now, she’s obsessed with them. “I literally wear them every day.” 

Elba’s own every-day is a busy one. 

“I give so much of my time to causes that I care about and it’s really genuinely because it’s something that I enjoy. Nobody’s making me do these things.”

Ahead of COP26, and as part of her work with IFAD, she was hopeful that there was serious work to be done. “We’re due to have some serious discussions and conversations with people who we think will be able to help us move the needle,” she says.  

Sabrina Dhowre Elba for Something About Rocks in Chopard and Chaumet
Earrings CHOPARD; necklace CHAUMET; dress COS

“We’ve become so passionate about rural farmers,” she says, “because we’ve seen now first-hand the connectivity when you’re talking food systems, climate change and poverty.” For her, it’s the long-term that’s the most important, the investment. “It’s kind of more a sort of understanding taking the transition from aid,” which, she says can be a short-term only solution for those in the most remote regions of developing countries and in fragile situations.

Is it nerve-wracking conducting these conversations? 

“You think you would be because it is quite intimidating but the second you’re in it, you realise you’re just talking about something you care [about], it seems so obvious,” she says.

“Africa as a continent, is being completely ignored in our perspective and to be able to stand as an advocate as a voice among Africans – we always say we don’t want to be the voice for Africans – it just feels good.” 

Sabrina Dhowre Elba for Something About Rocks in Cindy Chao
Shirt Anderson & Sheppard; earrings CINDY CHAO

One thing Elba was nervous about: meeting the young Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate. “We’re actually due to meet her tomorrow and that makes me nervous because I look up to her so much. She’s a young girl, she’s so passionate.” A couple of weeks after we speak, I wonder if she did get to meet Nakate. “I did!” Elba texts back. “We invited her to speak at our press conference so her voice could be heard inside as well as outside the conference. She is one of the most brilliant and important people I’ve ever met.”

There’s also the new wellness venture, which will start with skincare products, in part a result of her and Idris’ lockdown podcast, Coupledom. “We decided very early on that the most important relationship is the one you have with yourself,” notes Elba. The answer: self-care. “So we’re coming out with products to support this and that is really exciting.”

Sabrina Dhowre Elba for Something About Rocks in De Beers
Necklace one DE BEERS; necklace two BOODLES; jacket CONNOLLY

“It’s been such a fun journey to be able to look at that space, the wellness space, as a space represented by people that look like us. Because we were thinking OK, self-care, where do we go? ‘Oh, wow! We don’t go anywhere!’” she explains. “What’s out there for all people? Of all kinds? Including people that look like us and being able to kind of now create that space and keep that conversation going.” 

And, there’s the “tiniest part” in Idris’ new film directed by George Miller. At the time of speaking, Elba has just seen the first cut and is super excited. “Yeah, totally, weird, it’s so weird,” she says of seeing herself on screen. “Especially as much as Idris is my husband, I mean, to be in a movie with Idris Elba!!” As a result, she thinks she might have just caught the acting bug. And points out that she very much had to audition for the role. “No woman wants to hear they’re only doing something because a man is there.” There are more projects in the pipeline she can’t yet talk about but for now she’s taking it slow and steady. “To be able to kind of go on my own path and if it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out but be happy to say I tried.”