‘I am still regarded as Rani Mukherjee’s tailor’


‘I am still regarded as Rani Mukherjee’s tailor’

Designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee was at the Express for an Idea Exchange. In this Idea Exchange moderated by Associate Editor of the Indian Express Shefalee Vasudev, Sabyasachi speaks about the “frivolousness of fashion”, dressing up Vidya Balan and his forthcoming movie project

Shefalee Vasudev: Let’s begin by asking you why the so-called ‘serious-minded’ still see fashion as flippant?

Sabyasachi Mukherjee: I would blame the media for it. The media never reports about the seams, the designs, the cut, etc. They always talk about who is attending a show, who is in the front row, which designer is on drugs, which one is caught in a sex scandal.

Shefalee Vasudev: Recently, you said that you are no longer interested in being a fashion designer. You want to do clothes. How do you distinguish between the two?

Sabyasachi Mukherjee: India needs well-designed clothing where the design quotient can be 10 per cent and the clothing quotient can be 90 per cent. If look at the clothing market, at how the economy is changing, at how the middle class is becoming more affluent, for any designer to sustain himself, he has to stay at the top of the game. In a country where the top-end is so aspirational for the middle class, Indian designers must realise that they need to do more of clothing and less of fashion, if they are to eat into a wider market. And then perhaps, the media will take them a lot more seriously.

Richa Bhatia: We are very curious to know about your film project. Is Vidya Balan in it? Is it like a second act in your life?

Sabyasachi Mukherjee: I am still scripting the film. If my script demands that Vidya Balan has to be there, then she has to be there. But right now, I don’t even know if she fits in. For me, this is not running away from fashion. I will do it alongside because right now, my business is at a juncture where it is almost moving on auto-pilot. If I work about 45 days a year, it is enough for me to design for the whole year because I do a lot of classic clothing. I don’t need to be pushed around by trends and fashion. Also, one of the reasons why I am not looking at the film right now is because there are a few very important things happening. We are restructuring my company. There are over 700 people who directly work under me, so I can’t be self-indulgent and say, I am taking a holiday because I want to do a film. Salaries depend on me.

Dipanita Nath: When you started out, you were a middle class boy and your father did not want you to work in fashion. It was a field that was dominated by affluent people–the buyers as well as the designers. Today there are more people from across the board in the field. How do you feel about that?

Sabyasachi Mukherjee: I come from the suburbs of Calcutta which used to be regarded as the armpit of fashion in India. Fashion, like golf, was always treated as a rich man’s domain. I go to a lot of design schools all over the country, I meet designers and they don’t want to work with anybody any longer. They want to be entrepreneurs, they want to start small. I think what I have been able to do, wittingly or unwittingly, is to tell people that if you make an effort, you can actually break into the field. I did not have to go through any casting couch, I did not have to sleep around, I did not have any sugar daddies in the industry, I did not have political connections and I don’t network or socialise. In spite of that, I made it to the top of this very charmed industry. If you are creative, if you are original and if you have a point of view, this is a country that embraces you. It is very easy to become successful in India, primarily because the people, who are the so-called ‘validators’, are very few and far between. Luck played a big role in my career. Very often, I was in the right place at the right time and met the right people. During fashion weeks, you have these gen-next shows. When I started, there was a two-three year waiting list to get into the fashion weeks. Now you can take a wild card entry into them. So a lot of people have started dreaming that today they can put together a little money and start out, they can become another Sabyasachi. So if I have been able to inspire a whole generation of young designers, that is my biggest reward.

Coomi Kapoor: What is the relevance of high fashion design for the aam aadmi?

Sabyasachi Mukherjee: It is actually an aspirational fantasy for many. My family–my mother, my cousins and people who have direct access to me–even for them, what we do is a little bit of a fantasy. They don’t really understand fashion, which is a very nice thing. One of the reasons why I am very friendly with Vidya Balan is that she does not understand fashion. It might be blasphemous of me to say this but it is very refreshing to meet people who are completely detached from the frivolousness of fashion. When I look at the fashion industry, like the child in the emperor’s new clothes, I constantly tell myself that everybody is so naked. It is not fashion that rules mass India’s clothing structure, it is always films. I very carefully plug my sensibilities into the important films of the year, because at the end of the day, somebody who has made me a super brand in mass India is Rani Mukherjee. I am still regarded as Rani Mukherji’s tailor. Every wedding that I go to, I am perceived of as famous because I have something to do with Rani.

Dilip Bobb: One of the general criticisms about the Indian fashion industry is that it lacks professionalism. How do you react to that?

Sabyasachi Mukherjee: My company employs over 650 people and I still have to take the final call on everything. When somebody is under pressure to perform creatively, yet at the same time has to take many important financial decisions, somewhere the professional chain is going to break. I am very surprised that for a country that has a ready market like India, how little corporates have tapped Indian designers and professionalised their systems for professional benefits. When I go to markets and malls and I see affordable clothing, very badly designed, I do realise that there is a very big necessity for a designer to step in. If you look at the economies of scale, it doesn’t take much for you to design garments at about Rs 2,000. So when a big clothing giant understands the potential of this and taps into a few Indian designers who understand this and the pulse of the Indian market, then India will turn out to be a very well-dressed country. Today, the biggest problem is to find a well-designed garment for Rs 2,000. Half the time, we are badly-dressed because we don’t really have a choice.

Shefalee Vasudev: You have often spoken of bringing taste to the film industry and taste to your Marwari clients. A lot of your commercial success is determined by people who buy lehengas worth lakhs and you do use a lot of bling. Now neither Rani Mukherjee or Vidya Balan is considered stylish. Yet they wear Sabyasachi and Sabyasachi is the most plagiarised designer in this country. So what’s going on?

Sabyasachi Mukherjee: When Rani and me had our association, I was a nobody and Rani was the number one actress in Bollywood. Many thinking people will say Rani Mukherjee is badly dressed or doesn’t understand fashion but to a lot of India, she was the epitome of cool dressing. I refer to places like Kanpur, Nagpur, etc. Also, one of the reasons Rani and Vidya have connected me to mass India is because they are identifiable actresses. There is a huge difference between a Katrina Kaif and a Rani Mukherjee, an Aishwarya Rai and a Vidya Balan. I have often criticised advertising in this country. If you look at any advertising campaign for a make-up company or a hair company, you will see that they are trying to dangle the carrot in front of the consumer, but the carrot is so far away, that the consumer is more likely to drop the chase. When you try to sell sky-blue eye shadow and purple eye shadow to a woman, her husband will probably look at her and say she is mad. Similarly, when you look at aspirational India, there are two kinds of aspirations–a kind of aspiration that satisfies you externally and a kind of aspiration that satisfies you internally, which you imbibe. Rani Mukerji, Vidya Balan satisfy the latter.

Coomi Kapoor: Would Sonakshi Sinha also fit into it?

Sabyasachi Mukherjee: Absolutely. I have often said that Sonakshi Sinha is going to become the next big thing. She is the rickshawallah’s heroine. They are all well-endowed women. They are not emaciated. They are not poster girls or pin-up girls. Indian women identify with them. I often argue that if Indian actresses stopped wearing Valentino gowns and started endorsing saris, the markets would have opened up much more for them. Vidya Balan will go a long way because she is blissfully unaware about fashion. There are a lot of actresses who dress up beautifully but what about their acting capabilities?

Georgina Maddox: The label of androgyny has been associated with your clothes. Your garments are full length, you don’t show skin. Is this androgyny or is it prudishness?

Sabyasachi Mukherjee: I am a little bit of an old school grandfather. I have always been very conservative and that is probably one of the reasons why I have been very successful. If you can manage to preserve the dignity of a woman, yet at the same time try to make her look modern or make her look like she fits in, it is a win-win situation. Not every woman is comfortable with showing skin. A lot could also do with the fact that I was blissfully underexposed when I was doing fashion. Today, even if I try very hard to do blatantly sexy clothes, I think I will fail miserably. And I have made my peace with it.

Georgina Maddox: You had an exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art once, with models. Was that a flash in the pan or are you looking to connect the worlds of fashion and art ?

Sabyasachi Mukherjee: Now I will give you a coup. My mother comes from the Government Art College. My father is a chemical engineer and when I started my career, it was my mother who opposed my career more than my father. My mother could never commercialise art and she thought that I would become a failed artist. Somewhere, I have kept that art quotient alive and I always wanted to start an art camp. If you look at Bengal artists, many of them are severely exploited. So I have started an art camp in Kolkata where we are registering the company, Sabyasachi Art Foundation. We will spot young talent, keep them in the camp for two years, nurture them, expose them to the world, even curate their work.

Suanshu Khurana: On the issue of art versus commercial viability, do you think many Indian designers focus too much on commercial viability and lose out on creativity?

Sabyasachi Mukherjee: I think it is your end market that dictates whether you need to take the creative route or the commercial route. For a country as large as India, it would be foolish not to take a commercial route. I have often been accused by the press of being repetitive but there is an ideology and a thought process in place. India is a country which is very slow on the uptake. We work very hard for our money. We are also very apologetic about spending too much. It’s a country that looks for value in everything people buy. Now if you look at fashion forecasting, they will tell you that today a short skirt is in, only to tell you six months later that it is out. I think it is a little outrageous to do that to anybody. If you take an overview of what fashion is all about, it is nothing but a very sadistic school, which is constantly telling you to stand up and sit down. Those of us who are intelligent, who understand the intricate workings of a fashion mind, we say that we are not going to be a party to this any longer. In India, commercial viability is of great consequence. One of the reasons my business has grown bigger and bigger is that we do traditional clothing and traditional clothing is classic and it will never go out of fashion. A woman who buys a sari by me, might not wear it again but she has the comfort of knowing that if she does want to wear it 20 years down the line, she can. In this country, we have a lot of traditions and values, religion is a very big thing. A lot of people may wear a spaghetti dress, but when they go out of their homes, they wear a shirt over it because this is the way our culture is. This is still a country where women wear a fuschia pink sari with an orange blouse and it is wonderful. One of the reasons why many designers don’t earn respect is because you have to decide very early in your career what you want to do, whether you want to be selfish and self-indulgent or you want your business to become a business where fashion is a small part of it. Fashion is a creative business but it is primarily a business. It is the business of clothing people. So you have to understand how your market reacts and works. Today, I don’t even consider myself a designer. There are so many products in the country which are wasting, for instance, the double ikat Patan Patola of Gujarat. I don’t even have the calibre or the audacity to say that I can make something new out of it because it is so precise and one of the textile marvels of the world. If with my name and status, I can ever revive that sari, I am happy being called a revivalist and I don’t need the label of a designer anymore.

Somya Lakhani: You tend to use eye glasses in all your shows. Is there a story behind it?

Sabyasachi Mukherjee: It is just a personal fetish. One of the most inspirational characters in my life has been Jenny played by Ali MacGraw in the film Love Story and she wears spectacles . Every time I tell myself that I am not going to put glasses on the runway, or roses in somebody’s hair, I end up doing it because it just looks so good to me. It is a signature, it is a vision. When I use a model on the runway and I am reaching out to the real woman, that illusion of reality needs to be created for her to be able to connect. I always use glasses as a metaphor for intelligence and also for somebody who has lived life very fully. Like I say, a woman who dares to wear flats at a party and she is 5 ft. 1 inch, is the woman that I salute.

Dilip Bobb: What message does the John Galliano episode send to the design community?

Sabyasachi Mukherjee: It is unfortunate that it happened because he was singularly talented. When you look after an organisation as large as Dior, you are not doing everything yourself. You are merely curating a product that is being created by so many people. So you have to realise that you are holding up the public image of a company. You can’t make these irresponsible statements like he did. So I wouldn’t support him, no matter how talented he was.

Coomi Kapoor: Isn’t there a paradox that your sari fabric is mostly khadi but you are known for your bling?

Sabyasachi Mukherjee: Many of my customers are the ones who are very apologetic about buying Indian textiles. They would not like to wear a cotton sari or a Kanjeevaram silk. Every designer has a signature. For me, my signature are the borders. Today, it is very difficult for me to seduce a woman to wear a fuschia sari with a fuschia blouse. She will say, no this is not Sabyasachi. She will want to wear it with a peacock blue or lime green one. So what you start very early becomes a potent signature of yours and people don’t want anything else but that. When I did my khadi saris, the entire idea was that khadi was dying. By putting the Sabyasachi borders, I was making a consumer step down from, say, a French chiffon and into a khadi but my end purpose was being solved because khadi weavers were getting work. In India, we realise that people have a lot of rigidity when it comes to acceptance. Unfortunately, this is a country where you still look westward for luxury. And for a lot of people who are rich, they will try to create a differentiation between themselves and the middle class, which explains one of the reasons why bling is so big all over the country. It is really laughable: what is a crystal? It is a fake manifestation of a diamond. So you are basically wearing a sari with fake diamonds on the pallu and real diamonds on your neck. In this country, the middle-class or the upper middle-class will always try to distinguish itself from the poor, so embroidery or bling, or anything that stands for luxury will always remain an undisputed hero in the textile industry.

Rakesh Sinha: Who among the politicians do you think dresses well?

Sabyasachi Mukherjee: If I were to pick one, it would be Mrs Sonia Gandhi because I think she is the epitome of power dressing. She has learned well from her mother-in-law (Indira Gandhi). She wears beautiful clothes.

Dipanita Nath: This is about plagiarism. Have you encountered well-known names who are probably ripping off your designs?

Sabyasachi Mukherjee: For me, copying is good, it is fantastic because it is an indirect advertisement of the mother brand and I am very happy with it.

Richa Bhatia: Vidya Balan calls herself your muse. How far is that true?

Sabyasachi Mukherjee: Vidya is my muse in many ways. The first time I met Vidya, she was very nervous about meeting me. She was getting a lot of flak at that time for bad clothing. She actually wore a Sabyasachi copy to come and meet me. She did not know any better. And for me, that was very, very charming. The kind of woman I would like to dress is also someone who is not obsessed about clothing and fashion. When you look at somebody who is always dressed up, you tend to lose a little bit of respect because you sense that beneath, there is nothing else. I like Vidya for making all the wrong choices in clothing.

Georgina Maddox: Do you design for the man?

Sabyasachi Mukherjee: Of course, I do. Designing for men is very tricky because men are the fussiest customers. Women are much easier. Also, men are far more non-experimental than women.

Ambreen Khan: If you had dressed Elizabeth Taylor, what would you have made her wear?

Sabyasachi Mukherjee: Something very simple. I would let her use all her diamonds. When you have perfect beauty, it is nicer to put people in organic clothes that does not take away from their natural beauty. I would probably have put her in layers of organically dyed muslin.

Shikha: What trends do you see becoming big in India?

Sabyasachi Mukherjee: The country is in a precarious situation, politically, economically, etc. The Anna Hazare movement is going to come into clothing as well. Whenever there is great anarchy anywhere, it can’t last for too long. Anarchy started in fashion two years ago. It is now finding its feet. Today, the consumer in India is going through fashion fatigue. Do you know one of the reasons why India is not united? Clothing is a very big reason. I don’t want to sound like a hypocrite, but how many of us in this room are wearing Indian clothes? It is only on Republic Day and Independence Day that you feel patriotic. That is the day, you want to wear khadi. But if that day happened regularly, it will foster a sense of unity among everybody. There is this need to reach out and find that Indianness in you. Classic Indian clothing is going to become the biggest consumer product out of this country in the next ten years.

Transcribed by Suanshu Khurana