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For couturier and designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee, 2021 has been a good year, despite the pandemic. He signed an agreement with Aditya Birla Fashion and Retail Ltd in January, selling 51% of his eponymous luxury brand for 398 crore. Since founding the label in the 1990s, he’s been known for his bold designs that foregrounded traditional Indian motifs and textiles while appealing to a young audience and is now one of India’s best-known luxury brands with a presence in the UK, US and West Asia.

Last week, he unveiled a new collection in collaboration with fast-fashion giant H&M—instantly drawing criticism from some artisans who accused him of “selling out" by tying up with a brand whose values run contrary to his. In an interview, Mukherjee said “commerce sustains everything" and why he’s “always been controversy’s child". Edited excerpts:

The pandemic has dealt a blow to the fashion industry with demand dropping and weddings, which drive sales, being put on hold. But this year, you’ve signed a deal with Aditya Birla, collaborated with H&M...

I’ve had an ongoing dialogue with Kumar Mangalam Birla for the last 3-4 years. When I turned 45 (two years ago), I started to look at my brand’s legacy. Many designers are selfish enough to keep the brand for themselves, and the brand dies a painful death after them. I wanted my business to outlast my generation. The H&M deal also followed in good time, so yes, good things come to those who wait. I would have also opened a store in New York this year, but the pandemic has delayed that. Then, there’s a luxury jewellery store coming up in Dubai. I am also strengthening my back-end practices, as that’s what the pandemic has taught us.

I have to ask about the controversy that followed the launch of the collection with H&M, which is inspired by Indian designs and motifs. Some NGOs and artisans got together and wrote an open letter, criticizing the tie-up with a fast-fashion brand.

I’ve long gone past anger because I’ve always been controversy’s child. When you are the owner of a brand, you have to be prepared to take it all—the good, the bad and the ugly. I knew I would be sent to the doghouse when the collaboration was confirmed. But we are missing the bigger picture. H&M only collaborates with the most powerful businesses in the region, those that have a massive following. They do the collaboration only once. It pains me that for all our history, heritage and talent, Indians have only been producers. We’ve never been able to send a strong luxury brand out of India. We are reduced to manufacturers. It was a personal mission to change that. About the Sanganeri print (the collection uses digitized Sanganeri print on viscose, not hand block-printed on cotton or silk as is traditionally done by Rajasthani artisans): I used to buy (fake) Calvin Klein underwear from Bangkok when I was younger until I could afford the real thing. Today, too, someone who can’t afford luxury can buy the digitized version of a craft until they can afford the luxury version of the craft. Craft is high-maintenance—most people use a washing machine and not a dry cleaner. You can’t put artisanal products in a washing machine. Yes, I’ve done hybrids of Sanganeri prints, but because that’s what I am proud of in India. Commerce sustains everything. We have to use technology well or else we will not be able to dress the world’s population. Sustainability means different things for different economies.

You were also the first designer last year to publicly commit to paying your employees through the pandemic. That must have been hard.

We paid everybody till September-October but had to let some people go after that. We were just bleeding. But Aditya Birla Fashion is bringing in wonderful HR changes, with health insurance for families, financial security, they do a lot of microfinance, too. It’s an ongoing commitment from our side to help them with education, healthcare and banking. Eventually, I want to raise the bar of craft in the country.

Can you tell us more about the Aditya Birla Fashion deal?

It’s going to be a horizontal expansion. I’m not doing ready-to-wear at the moment, but the world changes so fast, I don’t know what I’ll have to do to keep up with it. But we want to do beauty, fragrances and eyewear. Jewellery is a passion for me, and we are going to develop it at every level.

What does it mean when people say Sabyasachi is a good businessman?

When you are born middle-class, no matter how rich you get, you don’t forget the value of money. We don’t focus only on the product but also on storytelling, experience, advertising. Even if someone buys an entry-level belt, they will consider that a big buy—we remember and design for every customer. The best way to make money in your business is to invest money in your business. Money is like fertilizer. You need to be giving in order to create a brand. Money is a mere statistic. What you want to leave behind is a legacy.

Excerpted from the upcoming Mint podcast ‘Tell me how you did it’, hosted by journalist Namrata Zakaria

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