Originally from Georgia, Sabrina is a globe-trotting Singapore-based photographer, model and blogger, juggling it all with two kids in tow. As a model, Sabrina worked with world-renowned brands including Harper’s Bazaar, VOGUE and Chanel. In 2004, Sabrina established her career as a professional photographer and it was in Hong Kong in 2015, where ‘First Wife Studios’ began.
A style aficionado and always sporting the chicest looks, even when ‘deep in the jet lag vortex’ posing by a kids’ teepee tent, Sabrina’s self-confessed trademark is wearing ‘too much jewelry’. Her philosophy? Always ‘overdress’ because ‘you never know where the day will take you’.
You’ve worked as a model for multiple world-renowned brands across the globe, what is your biggest takeaway from that experience? What would you say to young aspiring models?
I think the biggest takeaways are to be flexible, go with the flow, and never take anything too personally. Though I have had the highs, which felt great by the way, there have been many many no’s along the way. My body has been picked apart and every inch critiqued and criticized but I learned that I was a product. Now it’s more about being unique and a personality but when I started it was about fitting the norm and the norm was sample size. Clients were not afraid to say exactly what they thought of you and usually to your face. I took what parts I could to make myself better, stronger, and more marketable and tried to forget the rest. That takes practice though.
What I would tell new models starting out is to hone your personal brand, say yes to what feels right to you, and be prepared to have your life changed in a moment. One phone call can literally change everything. The agency may call with an amazing booking, or one you were cancelled on, or a trip that you need to leave for the next day. My mom used to tell me to “Just say yes and figure it out later”. This lead to the agency knowing that I was always available to them and they knew they could count on me to put my career first.
As a result, I was usually called first for bookings. I was always prepared and arrived with a full kit/shoe bag. No matter what a client threw my way I was able to adapt and adjust to the situation. I had a pleasant attitude on set and never complained. A model that complains doesn’t usually get called back. Shoots should be an uplifting energizing environment and everyone should contribute to that. Bring your best self and be prepared to be challenged and rise to that occasion. The industry is incredibly small and people move around a lot so be prepared to hear the same names over and over. Be kind and be professional and you will have a long career. But also know when you need to stand up for yourself. It’s your body and your career after all.
Our Calabash Dress is made from upcycled luxury excess fabrics and can be worn in two different ways. Sabrina styles the dress with the 'V' neckline at the back.
What first got you interested in photography? Can you recall that ‘A-Ha’ moment when you realised photography was something you would like to pursue as a career?
Back in Georgia, where I’m from, I had new models coming out of the woodwork asking me how to get started. I would tell them to just get some polaroids against a blank wall in a bikini- front, side, back, headshot, and full length with no makeup and hair in a pony. I told them their mom could even take the shots against the side of the house if needed. Many of them said that they would rather have me do it as I knew exactly what the agencies wanted. I shot with my mom’s film point-and-shoot 35mm. We would shoot what the agency needed then play around with my vintage collection. The model hopefuls started becoming new faces on the agency boards and we were all thrilled!
For Christmas my boyfriend bought me a Nikon N80 (still film) and it grew from there. I started doing their hair and make up too and my mom or grandma would hold the reflector. I knew how to frame the image and get what I needed form the model but had to learn my lighting and how to actually use my camera. I then started testing for the agencies and beginning to charge for the shoots. Any shoot that I wanted to do as a model I started projecting onto the models I shot. They would also come with visions of what they wanted to accomplish. It got to the point that each time I would visit GA for my own modelling work I would end up shooting the rest of the trip and making more money holding a camera than posing for it.
When my boyfriend and I moved to Hong Kong from New York I knew it was the right time to make the transition. I was 23 and had already been modelling for 10 years. I was unhealthy and needed some time away from tape measures and treadmills. The move was an opportunity to rebrand myself. I introduced myself as a photographer instead of a model and set up my own studio in HK while still shooting back home in Georgia as well. I was able to set my own schedule and how the shoots ran which was incredibly refreshing to my model life. I had learned how a shoot should flow from my years in front of the camera and was able to fill in as needed for various roles.
I worked quickly and professionally and was also able to help the clients move on set as many aren’t professional models. That is where my strength lies and it has set me apart from other photographers. I would always hate it when, as a model, the photographer would look at me and just tell me to “do something” or “do something else… it isn’t working”. That isn’t direction and it makes a young girl even more self-conscious that she isn’t getting it right. I like to show my clients how to sit or stand by doing it myself then having them copy me. I tell them where to look and give them stories, or jokes, or prompts to get the right expression. I’m not done shooting until the client is happy.
Sabrina Sikora in our Victoria Dress from the 'Start From Zero' collection
Is there a particular subject you find yourself gravitating towards when taking on projects for ‘First Wife Studios’? Where does your inspiration come from?
I love doing headshots and portraits, especially of women. Finding subtle ways to incorporate their personality, style, and what they love and/or do is a fun challenge. I shoot more images than necessary so that there are lots of positions to choose from giving them optionality for how they use the images. I also love to get my clients laughing as I find the most natural smile comes at the end of a laugh. Inspiration comes from all around as most of my friends are in the industry and are always looking to collaborate. When you get all that talent together inspiration flows naturally!
That is quite a unique name you chose for your company. Tell us more about founding ‘First Wife Studios’? What inspired you to make the switch from a model to a photographer?
When I moved the studio to Chai Wan, Hong Kong I didn’t want my name on the door. I was previously known as Sabrina Sikora Photography, which is not only a mouthful but a lot of opportunities for misspellings. I was brainstorming with my husband when he suggested with a smirk “First Wife Studios”. It was like lightning striking! I liked that it suggests a woman-owned business and that it had a wink and a nod to both Hong Kong and Western culture. It just so happened that all the photographers that ended up renting the studio also happened to be “first wives”.
What would say is your biggest achievement to date?
That’s easy. My family! My husband and I just celebrated ten years of marriage and we are always celebrating our two kids-our son Adam, age five, and our daughter Eivor, age three.
Balancing a career and a family, how do you like to re-charge? What are your self-care tips for other working mothers?
Just like loads of mothers out there I tend to take care of everyone else and then myself. I was having back pain and waited five months to be seen and it turns out I had a bulging disc in my lower back from hauling kids and/or photography gear. As a result, I have had to bring self-care to the forefront. Now I have to stretch every day, get massages, and make sure I’m not pushing myself too hard.
I used to say yes to everything that came my way but it turned out that I was stressing out and over scheduling myself. I’ve had to start saying no more which is hard for me but what is right so that I am the best version of myself to everyone that needs me whether that be at home or on a job. Massages have turned out to be a saving grace for both my back and my sanity! Luckily, a great space just opened up down the road from my house!
How has your style evolved since you began your career in the fashion industry?
It used to be that as a model you got a sneak peek to what everyone else would be wearing as you got to wear it first but thanks to social media and fast fashion that is less and less the case. Now everyone can see the trends and micro trends as they happen and there is less of a chance you will be a late adaptor. In school, I got made fun of for how I dressed and I used to joke that in seven years they would all be dressing like me (that was about how long it took for trends from NY to reach my hometown!). I had to dress a certain way for castings- show my shape and my legs and keep it simple so the client could project their vision on me. Once I was the one doing the shooting and styling I felt I could be my real self so my style got louder and I wore way more jewels! Models typically don’t wear a lot of jewelry as they have to take it off for castings and bookings. Now too much jewelry is my trademark.
As a model, I used to be self-conscious that I couldn't afford designer stuff so I would wear a lot of vintage but now I realize that it doesn’t matter if something is designer or not. It’s all in how you put it together. And I have become much more simple in the clothing that I wear since becoming a parent with much more black and white as it takes less time to put together. Pull it together with a giant accessory (or 15!), great bag, and fab red lip and I’m good to go. I’m also usually more overdressed than I need to be as you never know where the day will take you and when you will have to skip the step of “going home to get changed” so I like to wear pieces that can move from day to night with ease.
I’m styling these pieces with a dressier edge as I think the shapes make for a comfy but glamorous night out. My husband and I have a date night every week and I always dress up for it so that was my inspiration. Singapore tends to be a more casual place but I don’t let that hold me back from my heels and jewels. I love how the fabrics move and drape creating such elegant shapes. I took the clean lines of the clothing and added my signature big accessories and a bold lip, which also happens to be my main tip for getting ready in a flash.
Photo Credits: Raiyne Kim @raiynekim_photographer
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