Sabyasachi and his Domain

Sabyasachi and his Domain

“I do not harvest before my time. I am very patient. Everybody has a professional success story and a personal story. The former is what the world perceives. The latter is like lingerie; you wear it for yourself. That’s how I held on to the idea of an international business till it was time to bare it to the world,” says Sabyasachi Mukherjee.

Like an investigating officer’s headline-making summary after a long case is over, the couturier, décor, product and jewellery designer, begins to talk about his recent international debut in the business of white weddings. Sabyasachi International Bridal—or “non-Indian bridal wear” as he calls this new segment that was displayed at Lane Crawford in Hong Kong last month is his first full white wedding collection.

White weddings have recently seen a romantic spike, laced, as some will agree, by sustainability and sensitivity. When Meghan Markle of “mixed race” got married to Prince Harry of the British Royalty in May, in a “simple”, sleekly cut white Givenchy gown with a five-metre long veil, that represented 53 Commonwealth countries through embroidery, spectators from around the world applauded.

2018 appears to be a favourable time for an Indian couturier to enter the business of white weddings especially for those looking for untried bridal statements. But the Dada of the Bengal handloom and crafts story from India is not getting drawn to “Markle Sparkle”. Far from it. In fact, he says it has been a while since his brand has fed into the “sensitive, sustainable” script of wedding whites. Over the last many years, a number of his clients from across the globe—from Brazil to Vietnam and California— have preferred Sabyasachi couture for same sex weddings, a fact that has not been discussed in Indian media.

“Now, I think it is time to pitch ourselves properly into the white wedding market,” says the designer.


Basra Pearls and Khadi Gowns

It is past noon at Sabyasachi’s Topsia Road design and manufacturing headquarters in Kolkata. Here, eight odd buildings painted in communist red (not his phrase) mark the domain that he founded and now nurtures.

Sabyasachi International Bridal, the designer’s formal announcement of the competition he intends to give Western couture brands was long planned. It had been left to hibernate till his couture footprint had been marked in India. “Ten years back, when I went to New York, I was a young brand, didn’t have much knowledge. I figured that if you are not successful in your own country, you will stand in a queue. But if you have a powerful business at home, many gates will open. So I retreated my steps,” he says.

Sabyasachi had two options, either to slum it out in the West or create a very large business in India. “I wanted to re-strategise as I felt the scenario in India needed a person like me with clothing solutions. Now that business is a well-oiled machine, there is nothing much I can do here, so the time is right to move my business to the West.”

At the time of reporting this story, his white wedding collection for Lane Crawford was being finished and priced by a team of designers and market strategists.

Wedding gowns in luxurious silks or cotton khadi, delicate white veils in net with embellished edges, dresses, sheer nude-beige slips with sequins, pearls and thread embroidery, shirts, jackets…the collection is a blaze of painstaking handwork. Genuine Basra pearls, semi-precious stones in emerald greens, diaphanous amber, turquoise, onion pinks and beetroot reds sit on skirts and dresses in a deep forest of fine embroideries rooted in Indian artisanal traditions.

Dress forms were being fitted with hand crafted skirts, the design staff and tailors walked around with reams of flowing fabric, while Sabyasachi himself handled packets of Basra pearls explaining to his team how and where to use them. The breadth of a border, the delicacy of stitch, the length of a skirt, the fit and cinch of a waistline, the thickness of a thread, the number of pomegranate coloured ruby-like stones— every single detail was being determined by the designer, who doesn’t sketch himself. The template of actor Anushka Sharma’s onion pink Sabyasachi lehnga that she wore for her wedding to Virat Kohli in Italy in December last year, has been turned into a skirt for the Lane Crawford collection.

A sleeveless dress that actor Kangana Ranaut recently wore for a Harper’s Bazaar India feature shot at Cannes was draped over a hanger, drenched with hand-embroidered flowers. So many that the fabric base was invisible and so intricate that it would be hard to separate the petals of one flower from the other.

Priced between ₹14 lakhs (USD 20,400 approximately) and ₹40 lakhs (USD 58,380 approximately) and designated as luxury couture, this collection is maximalist in the way Sabyasachi’s couture intrinsically is. Yet the sinews holding it together are intriguingly unfamiliar.

“The techniques, mechanisms and the people making the clothes are the same but the change is in the context of the people one is serving. So the poppy red that works so well on Chinese skin will have to be turned to Coromandel red in India,” he explains, saying he will never use the same red for Hong Kong. He emphasizes that he feels more like a service provider than a designer. “Take me to China and I will be a success, or take me to Chennai and I will figure out what customers want there,” he says.


Photo: Bikramjit Bose @TheBadlyDrawnBoy

Sabyasachi’s White Wedding collection showcased at Lane Crawford, Hong Kong.

All stories have beginnings

The Lane Crawford story kick started last year. Sabyasachi and Italian shoemaker Christian Louboutin had a joint exhibition at the luxury store in Hong Kong. He admits he was unsure about the sales and had secret plans to buy some of his own stuff to avoid embarrassment. But the show was packed—Chinese women bought dresses, gowns, slips, shirts, jackets—from couture and the ready-to-wear line. Everything sold out in two and a half days. “The best part was that they didn’t know who I was. The customers were high net worth individuals invited by Lane Crawford–and Chanel and Gucci sold next to me. Then a regular Valentino customer came and said she loved my clothes. A well-known Chinese actress bought multiple dresses. It was a huge validation for me,” he admits.

Anyone who has interviewed Sabyasachi at length will know that a story about him must be sewn together from many scattered insights that come through deep revelations mixed with articulate expressions and perspective.

So let’s go back to unspool the story again. To the whites and the darks. Back to Sabyasachi’s office situated two floors above the couture finishing unit.


Photo: Bikramjit Bose @TheBadlyDrawnBoy

Sabyasachi’s White Wedding collection showcased at Lane Crawford, Hong Kong

At work

His office is stark—nothing dresses up any wall even though the Sabyasachi Art Foundation is in the adjoining building. “Dada” as everyone addresses him in the workplace wants the air-conditioner turned down as his long drawn struggle with thyroid issues often leaves him shivering. Lunch has been especially ordered from a Bangladeshi restaurant. It is hard to miss the kitchen assistant’s reverence for her Dada as she heaps prawn curry, fried fish and aloo bhaja (a potato dish) on our plates. Sabyasachi eats only one full meal a day, even though he says he is the first to arrive in office and the last to leave, 365 days a year for endless stretches where there are no parties or holidays. “I have dressed nicely for you, else I am in my track pants and that’s why they are all staring at us,” he says pointing to his beige trousers and blue shirt.

White, the colour, wafts into our conversation riding on a memory. “The earliest memory of white was my father’s office uniform,” says Sabyasachi. “He used to work in a very anglicized wool company and wore crisp white shirts and trousers which my mother used to religiously starch for him every day. And he managed to keep his whites dazzling despite the dirt and grime of the factory.”

Against this unstained whiteness of this childhood memory, the shades of his adult anecdotes sit on a grey-charcoal palette. The recurring self-doubt that plagues him with every new collection, the intense questioning of his process, dealing with criticism both in house and from the media, the sharp realization that too big a deal is made of designers in India, the difficulty in swallowing harsh judgement… his inner restlessness wrings him from time to time.

A particularly brooding phase that he went through stays as a constant reminder. “For a creative person to also run the business successfully can be very challenging. When you are climbing up, it is wonderful, but when you are plateauing it is a mere repetition,” he says. He admits that the right and left side of his ‘businessman-designer’ brain being constantly at work pushes him into a lonely space. “Friendships fade, your relationships suffer, you become a social outcast. I also have a problem with being judged. A crisis of faith, I once went through, made me wallow in self-pity,” he says recounting the time when a large a number of his employees borrowed interest-free loans from him turning money lenders themselves. “Usually I jump out of crisis in two hours. I have walked out of broken relationships and gone to work next day. I dealt with my grandmother’s death— to whom I was very close— in the same way. But this hit me hard,” he says almost without a pause.

When he takes me on a tour through all his units—from the art foundation to the heavily guarded space where precious jewellery is made, I realise his loneliness seeps from non-stop and unbridled creative output. Despite an army of employees— scenographers, gardeners, finishing girls, designers, public relations people, fine artists, housekeeping staff, accounts, logistics, weavers, spinners, printers, colourists, khaka artists for embroidery, tailors and masters, packaging staff, jewellery makers, store managers, social media handlers and videographers—it is Sabyasachi’s creative and commercial strategy that govern and guide the entire business. He is a one man show amidst the thousands who work with him. That’s punishing pressure.


Photo: Bikramjit Bose @TheBadlyDrawnBoy

Sabyasachi’s White Wedding collection showcased at Lane Crawford, Hong Kong

Strategy and idealism

“Our business grows 30-60 percent every year so we must be doing something right,” he says when asked about numbers. He feels his clothes are quite well-priced given the idealism, unwavering attention to detail, the no-compromise attitude towards quality and materials involved. “It is no longer cool to spend too much money. So we must either give people the illusion that they are buying the best or the comfort they feel when they wear a piece of luxury. There is a tangible ratio between quality and price. I am proud that I have passed on my idealism to everyone in my company,” he says. An admirer of brands like Hermes, Chanel, Valentino, The Row as true luxury brands, he says he feels successful if he buys something from Chanel for someone he loves. “The level of commitment to excellence and craftsmanship is so good that no price is enough.”

“My first aim when I make a new collection is to support what my company needs from me to run the business. And how I can manipulate that need to suit the needs of a modern population,” says Sabyasachi. His argument behind “repetitiveness” that is visible and has to some extent brought him critiques, is, he says the problem of scale. “Large bridal businesses like mine can’t keep renewing designs frequently or changing overnight because wedding dreams are nurtured over years and bridal couture depends on classics. So I bring in something new only when I feel the market is ready for it. You can only be successful if you create what the world wants.”

Internationally bridal couture is going through a complex phase. An article titled The 2018 Wedding Fashion Report on, a global fashion search platform that analysed the business of wedding wear in the West, found that the most sought-after wedding dresses cost less. The average price of a wedding dress on Lyst in 2017 was $1,157 (approximately ₹80,000) a substantial 25 percent lower than the average price in 2016. In 2018, it decreased a further five percent to $1,098 (roughly  ₹75,000) proving that brides are more budget-conscious than ever before. While this report clearly marked “The Meghan Effect” in a separate paragraph, it noted that the search for colorful bridal dresses was becoming more popular. “While white is still the number one most-wanted option, rose, yellow and red have all seen increased searches on Lyst since 2017. Searches for ‘black bridal dresses’ have increased 18 percent year on year, proving that colourful dresses are one of 2018’s biggest bridal trends,” included the report.

These figures rhyme with a report in Wedding Wire, an online marketplace for the wedding industry in 14 countries which estimated that an American bride spends between $400-$1700, averaging at $1500 (approx. ₹1 lakh). While in the UK, according to an article in the Telegraph last year, the money spent on a wedding dress is 1202 GBP, a little more than one lakh rupees. Even Chinese brides averagely spend up to 13,000 Yuan on a wedding dress accordingly to the newspaper China Daily. Only Middle Eastern brides dream as big as Indian girls—spending a minimum of ₹2.5 lakhs on a wedding garment according to an article in Gulf News.

By deduction, Sabyasachi International Bridal priced above USD 20,000 a piece clearly aims to compete with top global couturiers like Valentino, Vera Wang, even Chanel, Givenchy and Alexander McQueen to name a few. It will also mean locating High Net Worth Income (HNWI) customers and converting them to Khadi, intricately hand embroidered Indian ensembles and semi-precious embellishments. That sets this new venture on a curvilinear path instead of a straight one. So it would be important to observe how the Sabyasachi brand influences current bridal trends internationally—in colour, material and pricing.
“What does your instinct tell you about the future of your international bridal couture,” I ask, as he suddenly slips into the reassuring embrace of a Zen moment.

“We will be successful. I have no doubt,” he says. A pretty pointed statement, considering that for him the word “bride” is synonymous with responsibility. “I have delivered wedding clothes even from hospital beds,” he sighs.

Ankita Poddar contributed with statistical research to this story.