With collaborations like Pottery Barn and Christian Louboutin, and a foundation that promotes arts and craft, the designer talks about balancing art and commerce and his personal vulnerabilities
The fallacies of business grow large when consumer minds don’t grow as fast as businesses." Sabyasachi Mukherjee let down his reserve last week as he turned inwards, reflecting on himself and his brand. He let his green tea and omelette go cold as he chatted candidly at ITC Maurya’s Ottimo restaurant in Delhi. The conversation covered commerce and art, his vulnerabilities, the flip side of his roaring success and the doubts he battled after the flak his brand got for Vidya Balan’s Cannes costumes in 2013. It extended to his deep interest in the Sabyasachi Art Foundation, which promotes arts and crafts, and his new collaborations.
His words provoked a realization that underpins this story: We give it all we have to make our lives. Then, our lives start making us.
This was a few days before Sabyasachi mounted a grand fashion show at his Mehrauli store in Delhi for his second collaborative line of shoes with French shoe designer Christian Louboutin. This one included bags for the first time. The clothes were from Firdaus, his 2016 collection which was first released on Instagram—heavy on faux furs, velvets and long Indian silhouettes with twists of European aristocratic costumes. Clunky heels with the unmistakable red soles and short spikes, stilettos with coloured straps, tasselled wedges and evening bags made from cross-cultural materials such as peony leather, suede and linen with archaic embroidery defined the new accessory line.
Wearing an ornate Sabyasachi jacket, Louboutin tapped his feet to the passionately rendered Sufi number Dama Dam Mast Qalandar by the Manganiars of Barmer led by Samandar Khan. While Sabyasachi, dressed rather uncharacteristically in a suit and tie, looked around thoughtfully.
Around Diwali this year, the upscale American home brand Pottery Barn released a holiday collection in collaboration with Sabyasachi. It includes table tops, bedspreads, cutlery, plates, jewellery boxes and Christmas trees. San Francisco-based Monica Bhargava, executive vice-president of Pottery Barn, raves about how an incidental visit to Sabyasachi’s store in Mumbai’s Kala Ghoda district last year opened a design connect between her and the designer.
For an upcoming collaboration with diamond jewellery brand Forevermark, Sabyasachi will create a fusion of Sicilian and Bengali jewellery made by Bengali karigars (craftsmen). Also in the offing are international stores in New York, London and Dubai. Just this year, from April-October, his business grew by approximately 25% while his turnover for 2015-16 was approximately Rs120 crore, not including the precious jewellery sold from his stores.
At 42, Sabyasachi, born to a chemical engineer father and an art teacher mom in a middle-class family in Kolkata, is one of the most influential names in Indian fashion. He studied in a Bengali-medium school and grew up with dress dilemmas, and a keenness for art and poetry. Now, he wears his success like one of his heavily embellished costumes. Delighted to own it, but not entirely comfortable in it.
His clothes for actor Rani Mukerji—till some years ago, he called himself her tailor—his association with actor Vidya Balan and his popular television show Band Baajaa Bride With Sabyasachi have fed into the mythology around him. But it is his 14-year-old brand, chiselled by a keen knack for business, and the art, craft and handloom legacies he weaves into his work that have earned him popularity. His sister Payal, a friend and critic of her dada (elder brother), a designer herself, has been a resilient contributor to the unfolding of this brand.
There are the tangibles, of course. Sabyasachi’s museum-like stores are filled with symbols of a decadent India—muted lights surround antiques and precious jewellery counters. Ornamental lehngas and sherwanis are displayed like art installations. Flowers fade in and out from the foreground to the background in his designs—printed, embroidered, embellished or woven. His flair for handlooms—Banarasis, brocades, Khadis, Kanjeevarams, Ikat—and hand techniques, such as gara embroidery, zardozi and block-printing, is evident everywhere. He made the word “revival" fashionable again; curated woven saris from diverse regions that were packed in vintage tins with the words “Save the Saree" on them. Everything he makes has a certain unmistakable aesthetic to it. His rootedness in the culture of his home state is the glue behind his wide-ranging artistic sensibility. Sometimes it is obvious in his versatile use of the Bengal tiger motif that springs up at unexpected places.
One of the reasons why Sabyasachi’s collaborations create ripples is the heft of brands that reach out and get associated with him. Pottery Barn and Christian Louboutin are instances. But it is his unapologetic attitude towards commercial success, his journey from Khadi to velvet, that is the real story. It is this choice that a number of younger designers, eager for critical and commercial appreciation want to emulate. Even those who swear not to make bridal wear.
Sabyasachi’s debut was at the Lakmé Fashion Week in 2002. He brought an artsy collection called Kashgar Bazaar with non-conformist Indian silhouettes, unembellished woven fabrics and “intellectual" fashion, even though the accessories he used—spectacles and books—were stereotypical. But in a few years, this unusual prêt brand began inflecting into a bridal design house. His symbol became the intricately embroidered borders laid over heavy saris, paired with contrasting blouses in a pastiche of textiles. Even when Sabyasachi exhibited woven Kanjeevarams, his customers wanted embellished borders on them. An element of distinction had ironically become his identity. Notably, his transition to becoming a bridal designer—that influentially changed bridal dressing in India—was on his own terms.
That influence trickled down to the market. Imitation Sabyasachi saris with borders, lehnga-cholis replete with embroideries and flamboyant sherwanis for men crowded bazaars from Patna to Ahmedabad. The Sabyasachi meme became a converter. Even before the designer could live up to his ambitions of directing the taste of the rich Marwaris of Kolkata to the finesse of Khadi or teach taste to the nouveau riche and to Bollywood, as he said in some of his early interviews, his bordered saris began a backlash of their own.
Then followed costume designing for films, including Guzaarish, Paa, Raavan and English Vinglish, and for film stars. By wearing his clothes, Rani Mukerji and Vidya Balan connected him to the masses—both exceptional actors who look good in Sabyasachi clothes.
His popularity soared. In 2012, a Sotheby’s exhibition curated by Janice Blackburn artistically mounted his stoles, shawls, wedding saris, footwear and headbands. Sabyasachi’s couture shows such as Peeli Kothi, Ferozabad and Bater braided design, nostalgia, antiquity and style, making his clothes aspirational. In 2015, he designed the cinema suite for Taj 51 Buckingham Gate hotel, London. Then followed a design association with Asian Paints for a luxury wallpaper collection called Nilaya.
Today, there is no one dimensional way to evaluate the Sabyasachi brand. “Out of 100 customers, 10 understand what you are doing, but 60 don’t grow. Women still ask me for Kanjeevarams made of net. A clever business must still reach out to them. So when a section of people criticize me for doing ‘bridal’, I ask: what bothers you—the money I make as a lehnga designer or do I make bad bridal wear?" His comfort with the words “lehnga designer" is apparent. “It is not a defence, it’s a strategy," he adds.
“Fashion is a phenomenon both of innovation and conformity. So there is a paradox which cannot but hold the attention of sociologists." French literary theorist and philosopher Roland Barthes’ words explain Sabyasachi’s statements. There is a paradox—conformism over experimentation. But at a baser level, his is a three-tiered tale, like that of most human beings: instinctive, emotional and rational.
As a journalist, I have closely followed Sabyasachi’s work for the last 10 years. The many conversations I have had with him over time were laced with his work philosophy and his ambitions for the revival of the sari and of Khadi as the country’s fashion fabric. He always maintained that his is a commercial enterprise first. Yet, it was not simple to comprehend his rapid conversion to the market’s demands even as his decision to be selective with media interviews after Cannes 2013 widened the communication gap with him.
But last week, when he reopened the door to his inner domain after four odd years, I found the space for dialogue more than ever before.
Cannes 2013 wasn’t easy, he says, because it was the first time his brand had received criticism. “But instead of allowing it to derail me, I became a stronger, better person. A penny dropped when my senior-most tailor refused to leave the workshop till I gave him a loan to put a door on the toilet in his house. His wife had been stalked by intruders and he was stressed. I realized that my loyalty lies only to people who work for me, to no one else," he says.
Money is most important to him today because his employees rely on him for everything from schooling for their children to medical care. It also enables him to promote the unsung musicians of West Bengal under the Sabyasachi Art Foundation. “I want to start crafts schools in villages, provide nutrition and wages to women," he says.
“But you can’t pay me money to meet my customers any more. My company has shifted from being a design house to one that must help mobilize an economy. Earlier, I was dependent on people’s acknowledgement. Today, the power equation has changed," he says.
This is where Sabyasachi’s story transits. The man once inspired by Fabindia as a meeting point for classes and masses is today taken by the “Gucci-fication of fashion". The Italian luxury brand’s hip, Bohemian identity inspires him. It fuels travel instincts in him. “When I can’t sleep, I fantasize about travel destinations by exploring them on the Internet. I plan all the gorgeous holidays that I will never have or hotels that I will visit only in my mind. I am an escapist," he says.
A recluse and thinker pushing fame and money uphill, Sabyasachi says he remains a shy Bengali middle-class boy who finds it awkward to use a fork and knife, who turns into a hamster if he has to enter fancy restaurants on his own, who compliments people in elevators to ease his anxieties before entering a restaurant, who wants people to give him gifts. He says he is unpopular in the fashion industry because he finds it difficult to open conversations or forge relationships that may only be transactions of some kind. That confession might explain the conspicuous absence of any Indian fashion designer (except young designer Ruchika Sachdeva) at the Sabyasachi-Louboutin show.
His escapism finds other routes. Once, he checked into the Taj Bengal hotel in Kolkata for an entire year to avoid running a house. Notorious for his reluctance to dress up, he took two pairs of Adidas track pants and T-shirts to Taj Bengal and turned up in the same clothes every day for work. “It was liberating for me. Inside my head, I am a nudist," he says.
If textiles dotted Sabyasachi’s talk earlier, today, the business of luxury takes over until an childhood anecdote infiltrates that mood. The interpreter must draw the link between the two. “Luxury has to be a fine balance of authenticity and rarity," he says, alternating this professional observation with a memory from his school days. Before his transition from a school in West Bengal’s Chandannagar to a school in Kolkata, Sabyasachi had a math teacher who would drop him back home on a bicycle every day and a Bengali language teacher who taught him English on the side. In Kolkata, he missed the rigour that he believes only municipal school teachers bring to the lives of students.
While “luxury craft", which defines his brand, engages his rational mind, it is food that offers him solace. In Delhi, Sabyasachi only eats at the Yeti restaurant, which serves Himalayan cuisine, or Nepalese cuisine at Dilli Haat. He repeats that for days, and if he must break the pattern, it will be a Chinese meal at The China Kitchen in Hyatt Regency.
Now that he leads a huge, multidisciplinary design brand, he says he can indulge his fascination for food, architecture and interiors through selective collaborations. “Somebody called me the Priyanka Chopra of design, a person who proudly takes India to other countries," he says. A valid comparison, if a trifle unexpected from a man who says that Bollywood is no longer powerful or relevant for fashion given the way film stars have diluted their appeal with brand promotions. “They have eaten up the distance between the audience and them. You cannot create another Rekha or Sridevi," he says.
Sabyasachi has the psychological profile of a recluse but the ambition of a successful businessman. He combines radical notions of creativity with conventional standards of success, unlike some artists who do not seek the bubble reputation. American furniture designer and woodworker Sam Maloof, for instance. Maloof worked with just three assistants, and his son later, and never expanded his business. He recognized that his distinction was skill and that mass production would kill the craft. After Maloof’s death in 2009, his chairs sold at unbelievably high prices. There are other examples closer home. Like Indian designer and producer Minnie Boga of Taaru, whose furniture is hard to find today because she refused to turn “commercial". Or Y.M. Nakra of Nakra Brothers, a Delhi-based sound engineer now in his 90s, whose expertise with sound systems you cannot buy, hire or replicate any more.
Others parachute into the valley of everything, like Karl Lagerfeld, sipping at the fount of commercial success with all they do. Sabyasachi follows that route. Whatever the choice, the tension between the person and his craft remain. At times the individual will destroy the product or the product will frustrate the individual. “When I look at middle-aged Indian women wanting to wear gowns, I tell myself I must do something before I start making those gowns to keep our brand commercially relevant," says Sabyasachi.
That’s why he spent the last five years in building the back-end of his business. “Now, I have a finance team, an HR team and a legal team. Pottery Barn has also given me confidence. If I wish to show again in New York, it will be in a league of my own, unlike my debut in 2007," he says, admitting to an ego resolution.
Asked if he will make prêt again, he says he must first work out a distribution chain. “I need 50-100 stores to sell clothes that are affordable and can be machine-washed. I am too poor for that right now."
Sabyasachi’s ruminations best express what the outside world does to an artist’s inside world. Scientists, designers or chefs, the more they become public figures, the less they actually control their own destiny. Like a runaway freight train, they seem to be propelled by the juggernaut of admiration and public acclaim.
An inevitable question remains: Is Sabyasachi living his creative life or is his commercial life living him?