'I always knew that I'd become India's most successful fashion designer'
Sabyasachi Mukherjee walks into the restaurant with childish glee and hops on to the scooter placed there: “Is this where I am supposed to sit?” The Kolkata-based designer looks nothing like the ghost of Rabindranath Tagore...brunch Updated: Jul 06, 2013 12:17 IST
Sabyasachi Mukherjee walks into the restaurant with childish glee and hops on to the scooter placed there: “Is this where I am supposed to sit?”
The Kolkata-based designer looks nothing like the ghost of Rabindranath Tagore – wavy long hair, beard tamed to obeisance, khadi kurta, Nehru coat – the way he has appeared in public recently. Changing 20 expressions a minute, he cups his cheek in the palm of his hand, elbow resting on the handle of the scooter and beams into the camera like he just received a special present on his eighth birthday.
Hair chopped in a boyish crop, belying his 39 years, dressed in the street-style staple of an Oxford blue shirt and olive trousers with suede shoes, he looks nothing like the man who would say, “I always knew that one day I would become India’s most successful designer.”
If success is measured by being the most talked-about person at Cannes this year (as far as the subcontinent is concerned), by just dressing up one of the jury members, then the scales have been broken for a while now. The moment pictures of Vidya Balan, head covered and bowed in a namaste to the international media, hit the Internet, fashion became the conversation. The week that followed became the Sabyasachi-Vidya Balan fashion week live from Cannes. With every outfit she wore (the full-sleeved blouses with a nath, the white textile sari with tight, centre-parted hair or the Kanjeevaram silk specially flown in from Chennai), the din of scathing Facebook comments, tweets, open letters on blog posts and mocking online and print editorials only grew louder.
The designer, used to creating seismic waves of applause with almost every appearance, found himself at the receiving end of a newly fashion-conscious nation, who couldn’t tolerate Vidya Balan looking “matronly,” “aunty-like” or more bluntly, a “buddhi.”
“When the star Vidya Balan faced the camera for a photo-op with her co-jury members looking like a subservient bride, a caricature of those notoriously big fat Indian weddings, there was collective disillusionment and ridicule,” wrote Vogue India’s fashion features director, Bandana Tewari on the fashion site, Business of Fashion.
Sabyasachi doesn’t care what the fashion press writes. “I had asked Vidya to be prepared for this. I told her that only a few people would appreciate her and she would have to face a lot of criticism for her clothes. She was ready for that.” Having turned the Cannes red carpet into a showcase for Indian textiles and weaves, Sabyasachi argues that it’s time we started taking pride in our own heritage since even “people from Africa wear their national costumes with pride.”
Fashion journalists like Shefalee Vasudev assert that revival of traditional fashion shouldn’t be so much about costume. “Given the influence he has on the consumers of Indian fashion, his most overpowering statements in designs and styling don’t stand up for the idea of contemporary India,” she says.
“That’s just a whole of lot intellectual masturbation,” says Sabyasachi. “My primary idea is to make clothes that the customer can buy. And I am not going to apologise for it.” He pronounces ‘a’pologise in a way only Bengalis do. “The power of any brand exists in the strength of its copy market. I made Vidya wear a Kanjeevaram sari, which is almost a dying legacy, but a year from now there’ll be copies of it all over the country, the NRIs will be looking to wear it and the mills that had shut down will be back in action again. That’s the real influence of my brand.”
Full-sleeved blouses (already making an appearance in the wedding markets), while they covered Vidya Balan’s arms, also unwrapped Sabyasachi’s predilection for making his women ‘modest.’ “Modesty is back in fashion. People are tired of looking at women as sex objects. It’s heartbreaking to see a 30-year-old woman trying to dress like a 12-year-old. If Marc Jacobs and Prada do prissy clothing, then it’s cool but we are embarrassed of picking up connotations from our own evolution.”
He thinks Vidya Balan got a lot of flak because she didn’t choose to put herself on display and look like a piece of ham. She is not fashionable and likes wearing clothes she’s comfortable in. And neither is Sabyasachi – fashionable that is. He is decidedly anti-fashion, doesn’t see the benefit of constant change and so many seasons – the meat and potatoes of the industry – and thinks fashion makes women deeply unhappy. “You can’t eat chocolate, you have to be constantly mindful of what you eat, it’s like being in military school. Our brand never looks down on women to say ‘You are fat so you can’t wear this.’” That explains the loose silhouettes, the figure-flattering lines and the covered-up clothing that he’s been showing a lot of lately.
And perhaps it explains why he is not shy of calling a Sabyasachi lehenga the new Birkin of India. “Most of our customers feel that our clothes have been made for them. Because we have sustained a certain identity in our clothes, like several other iconic brands – Chanel, Louis Vuitton and Burberry. You can’t have fans without that sense of repetition. We have had customers like five sisters from the same family getting married in Sabyasachi, and we dressed each of them on those occasions. People come to you because they know what they are going to get.”
Even when he debuted in 2002 with a collection named Kashgar Bazaar at Lakme India Fashion Week in Mumbai, he knew he was filling a gap between what was the ‘cling and bling’ of Indian fashion and Ritu Kumar-woven and crafts-based creations that were largely linked to Miss India contests. "The fashion ramp had something missing. Sabyasachi filled that hole not just with a new interpretation of traditionally Indian ideas but with a voice that was clearly his own," says Shefalee Vasudev.
That’s reason enough to believe him when he says that he was a child prodigy who was a brilliant back bencher and had conversations with trees. He always made friends with the older kids, who were usually the first to make the move (most of his friends are many years older than him). And even when he attended school, commuting on a boat in Kankinara, a suburban town on the outskirts of Kolkata, he always had a bigger picture of the world. To explore that world, he ran away to Goa at 17, travelling between train coaches without a ticket, served as a waiter at Anjuna beach and joined the ISKCON Hare Krishna movement out of curiosity.
A mathematical genius of sorts, who even coached the neighbourhood kids in the subject, his father, Shukumar Mukherjee and mother Sandhya Mukherjee, wanted him to become an engineer. But he always wanted to be a designer, and by 13 he was completely sure about it. Meeta Ghosh, one of his oldest friends and neighbours, recalls his precocious designs. “There was an amazing fluidity in his sketches. When he wanted to become a designer, his parents and grandmother were not very happy with the idea. So my husband went to convince them, especially the grandmother, who heard him out patiently and said, ‘So he wants to be a darzi!’”
Today, when Sabyasachi is much more than that, he doesn’t want to move away from Kolkata. “I want to live close to my parents, they are getting old and no amount of money can change that.” He stresses on his middle-class upbringing, imputes it to his non-drinking, non-partying ways and says that he’s still not comfortable in the social space where he has become so successful.
“Fame came to me when I was 26. Till then, I was shaped by anonymity. That made me who I am.” Still, his team has a hard time dragging him to events, even when they are being hosted by him. Sabina Chopra, fashion strategist, creative consultant and someone who’s almost exclusively seen wearing Sabyasachi, says he’s not the guy you can become friends with at a party. You get to know him best through one-on-one conversations, just like she did 10 years ago. “Sabya is a very grounded and genuine person. For Sabya his ego comes from the quality of his work and not his position in the business, usually the opposite for most people in fashion.”
His father would take him to the movies every Sunday, occassionally even lying on his behalf to the school if he had to, but he was extremely strict about his grades. Sabyasachi was petrified of his father, who was paradoxically also his best friend. He learnt early lessons in responsibility when his father had to quit his job, and Sabyasachi was just 15. Which is why he hasn’t quit fashion even when he wanted to.
“There are always moments of doubt, when you feel suicidal and depressed. I have wondered why I don’t run away and become a farmer. But there are lives that you end up shaping even without knowing. Once at the Bhubaneswar airport, much to my shock, an elderly lady came and touched my feet and told me that she’s a local designer who has a business of copying my designs, and thanked me profusely. I felt very proud of myself that day. I knew I was doing something right.”
His sister Payal, who always hero-worshipped her older brother, is second-in-command at Sabyasachi. She was his muse, his partner-in-crime, and his backstage support at his first show in 2002. And she has been with him ever since. When she got married in 2011, Sabyasachi behaved terribly, howling throughout her wedding day and looking grumpy in every single photograph.
“Sometimes, it’s extremely painful to work with my brother, because he demands perfection nearly every time. He’s always trying to be better at what he’s doing and works very hard at it. Even if he’s travelling, he comes straight to the workshop the next day, jet lag or no jet lag, and works till 11.30-12 at night, while the rest of us are ready to drop.” This trait echoes the time when a young and lanky school-going Sabyasachi participated in a marathon, though he’d never run in one before, and came first. When asked how he managed to win against the better-built guys, he replied, “I think it was my willpower.”
Sabyasachi is an old soul. He can talk for hours and seems to have lived way beyond his years. “There is no excuse to not be a nice human being. You can still run this business with integrity. I have been cheated by assistants who took my designs and started on their own and by people who I trusted, who used my money for the wrong reasons. But for every 100 people who use you, it’s worth finding that one person who deserves being nice to.” He is oddly karmic and believes that what you do always comes back to you. “I have witnessed bizarrely similar situations – when I have not been very nice, the same scenario has been replicated with me at the receiving end. That’s why I am not materialistic. Even this much money hasn’t changed me or my family. My father still goes to buy fish from the market. I think if you grow up witnessing a stable marriage like my parents’, you do grow up feeling good about yourself.”
He is also old school. All his stores have clocks that have stopped at odd hours and random black-and-white photographs of people he’s never met. His clothes too cry out to be capsuled in the past and he loves the grace with which yesteryear actresses conducted themselves. Perhaps that’s why he doesn’t see the brouhaha over presenting Vidya Balan covered from top to toe on an international platform. He is peculiarly patriotic and feels that we don’t take enough pride in our own culture (which he was accused of caricaturing at Cannes). He has a line for cultural costumes for children and thinks that people should dress them in traditional costumes for special occasions. “Back then, there was more depth. The songs today are nothing compared to old Guru Dutt ones. Beautiful things were created without any commercial intent. It might have something to do with the way I was brought up, rowing the boat to school and living in an idyllic setting.”
The tortoise and the hare is one of Sabyasachi’s favourite stories and it comes up often when he talks. It’s not hard to guess that he thinks of himself as the former. But after 11 years in the business, a TV show, several collections, including New York, Milan and Paris, becoming the dream outfitter for any bride, a business that made a profit of over 45 per cent last year and a national award for best costume for Black, Sabyasachi is the hare of Indian fashion who’s got the tortoise in his back pocket.
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From HT Brunch, June 23
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