The Sabyasachi Phenomenon


The Sabyasachi Phenomenon

In a relatively short time,he has become one of the most successful retailers in Indian fashion,his clothes have a lengthy waiting list and his designs are making waves globally. What makes Sabyasachi Mukherjee such a hit?

There is irony but also revelation in the fact that at the recently-concluded Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week,the most talked-about designer wasn’t even showing. He has never been enamoured of the ramp but the reason could also be that the Sabyasachi brand is going into overdrive. His television show,Band Baaja Bride,has just premiered; he has done the set design for Bajaa Gajaa,the annual music festival organised in Pune by classical vocalist Shubha Mudgal,who is a big fan of his designs. He has launched a new line,Sabyasachi by Sabyasachi,for which he curates saris from Indian weavers and sells them at affordable prices (under Rs 5,000). Oprah Winfrey couldn’t get enough of his designs when she shopped at his store at Kala Ghoda in Mumbai and the buzz in the industry is that L Capital,the private equity and real estate fund of LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessey),is interested in investing in his company. That’s not all. Last week,Sotheby’s London announced an exhibition of contemporary design inspired by India,featuring Sabyasachi. It will showcase his shawls,stoles,wedding saris,footwear and headbands. “To my mind he is the most original of Indian dress and accessory designers. He has the finest aesthetic and stays true to his Indian roots….and I am absolutely thrilled he has agreed to exhibit,” said Janice Blackburn,the curator of this exhibition.

That is a pretty accurate assessment of Sabyasachi Mukherjee’s design sensibilities and his eye-popping success. That,and a marketing strategy that could find pride of place in a Harvard business school case study. Since an international investment company is currently evaluating the worth of his brand,he is reluctant to give figures. But industry insiders say he is worth more than Rs 300 crore annually. In a conversation last week,the designer,speaking about his new TV show,said: “I just want to dress girls who are not rich and famous.”

Yet,it is the rich and famous who queue up at his stores,wanting to add a Sabyasachi lehnga or a sari to their wardrobes. He is undoubtedly one of India’s most influential designers. He is also the most plagiarised; the most sought-after for bridal wear and the only one to attain a mix of fame,critical acclaim,global recognition and commercial success in such a short span. The reason Sabyasachi,37,will not be seen in too many fashion events this season is because he is reordering the boundaries around his brand,rescuing it from fashion’s inclusiveness. After designing costumes for films like Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Guzaarish,Mani Ratnam’s Raavan and R. Balki’s Paa,where he brought in hand-woven textiles,refusing to succumb to the chiffon-and-crystal splendour of Bollywood,he became the main influence behind divas (and not just Vidya Balan) wearing saris for red-carpet appearances.

Much of the influence behind his designs comes from his middle-class background. Savvy,street-smart and articulate,he is fired by powerful autobiographies of history’s heroes and freedom fighters. He is gay but seldom dwells on the complexities of his personal life in the Kolkata society he belongs to. He is also idealistic,frenzied,intolerant of mediocrity and afflicted by a missionary zeal to “change how India dresses”. As the sari’s loyal ambassador,he sometimes gets so frustrated with “commercial fashion” that he says he is unable to see himself in its midst. “Sabyasachi by Sabyasachi is my way of saving my brand from becoming too commercial,” he says. He is so deeply involved in all aspects of his fashion business,from designing,sourcing,and reviving traditional crafts and artists,to marketing and expansion into new areas like TV and movies,that he is often submerged by the flamboyance of a Rohit Bal or the languid,sophisticated talent of a Tarun Tahiliani. Yet,like these two veterans,also successful and synonymous with wedding couture,Sabyasachi understood the importance of a clear aesthetic early in his career. He says that the only designer he emulated was the brilliant Rohit Khosla,who died prematurely in the mid-Nineties. Ritu Kumar is the other designer he was inspired by. “As a young boy I once scaled a compound wall to watch a Rohit Khosla show in Kolkata,” he says. In 2001,Sabyasachi won the British Council’s Most Outstanding Young Designer of India award,which took him to London for an internship with designer Georgina Von Etzdorf. He also got the grand winner award at Mercedes New Asia fashion week in Singapore in 2003,where one of the magazines billed him as the most influential Asian designer.

Nostalgia is his muse but his resume is underlined by his marketing genius. Sabyasachi’s first collection at Lakme Fashion Week in Mumbai in 2002 would turn the page for Indian fashion,which was then stagnating with derivative design and excessive ostentation. Inspired by his mother,an art teacher,Sabyasachi named his debut collection Kashgar Bazaar. Models wore large-framed spectacles and carried books on the ramp. With that,the designer who has always been embarrassed by fashion’s association with frivolity gave his clothes an intelligent aura. “Intelligent fashion” is now a persistent motif in every Sabyasachi deconstruction. “He is a traditionalist as a designer,but a genius at marketing,” says Varun Rana,fashion editor of online retail site,who worked with Sabyasachi in 2004,a crucial period in the designer’s career. “In those days he worked from a small studio in Kolkata and was almost tentative about speaking to journalists. But he hyper-glamourised the Bengali intellectual look with vintage glasses,dishevelled garments in hand-block prints and muted colours,his make-up for models being large kohl-lined eyes and olive skin.” Rana applauds Sabyasachi’s collaboration with small-scale and rural workers but insists that the rest is clever marketing.

Sabyasachi’s “intellectual styling” stuck. “The impact of his clothes is of intelligent chic with a strong aesthetic value. We may think he only makes wedding wear but let’s not forget that besides his purist’s version of the sari,Sabyasachi gave us new Indian silhouettes that could be globally interpreted,” says Bandana Tewari,fashion features director of Vogue India. “It is extremely difficult to be unsafe and uncomfortable yet that’s what Sabyasachi did from the very beginning,” says Tewari,comparing his design exploration to Louis Vuitton creative director and American designer Marc Jacobs’ tryst with awkwardness in fashion.

“When fashion in India was oscillating between diffusion,pret and couture,Sabyasachi was clear,” agrees Sunil Sethi,president,Fashion Design Council of India. “Even as a virtually unknown name,he gave fashion an intelligent look,” he says. The industry talks of Browns in London as Sabyasachi’s first big international deal. Sethi,who represented Selfridges as a buyer in those days,says that Sabyasachi clothes were a sell-out. “He got international success very early in his career,” says Sethi.

After showing at New York Fashion Week,Sabyasachi could have continued the dream balance between international markets and India. But he stopped showing abroad and concentrated instead on India as he believes that the birthplace of his fervent imagination is also his most important business hub. He worked on his signature styling,bringing out collections of heavily embroidered Indian garments. His shows — like his flagship stores now — were like dens of Santiniketan studio artists,with large antique clocks,old trunks and wooden chests. They wore indigo khadi,while his models wore cholis,lehngas and pharsi pyjamas in Benarasi brocades and other textiles with mindblowing gara and zardozi work but no Swarovski crystals. No slinky cholis,no revealing or tight garments even though black has continued to be the base colour in his creations. Sabyasachi’s male models too were overdressed — like bearded,bespectacled Bengali bhadralok. The Sabyasachi branding could be museum pieces telling an India story.

His female customers swoon over his garments because of the unique juxtaposition of intricately embroidered textile borders in colours that otherwise cannot even be imagined together — lime-green with flaming orange and fuchsia; purple with aqua-green and red. Tina Malhotra,owner of fashion store Evoluzione,is the only one to represent Sabyasachi in Chennai and Bangalore since he largely retails from his own flagship stores. “Customers swear by his aesthetics and value his clothes as investments because of the craft infusions he brings in,” she says,adding: “Once you wear a Sabyasachi garment,you know why it is so special in its fit and finish.”

Sabyasachi’s business plan is multi-pronged. On the one hand,he revives crafts and textiles from Benaras to Kancheepuram. This endears him to the ministry of textiles and makes him a favourite of state government projects. He works directly with khadi weavers and pays them more than what skilled labourers get. He combines corporate social responsibility with the use of khadi. But unlike Rajesh Pratap Singh or Neeru Kumar,who are equally committed to the sustenance and use of hand-spun khadi,Sabyasachi has turned khadi’s “humility and elegance” into a marketing line. “I want to extend good taste to the rich. I want to change how Bollywood dresses,am sick of its tacky pink and bling. India must travel inwards to find its soul in style,” Sabyasachi says.

Sethi feels that Sabyasachi’s commercial success should be attributed to his business instincts. “He made pret followed by couture,then wedding wear at very high prices but soon focussed on mass appeal by correcting his price points. He now has a mass following because he is more affordable than others,” he says. Adds designer Gaurav Gupta,a popular name in contemporary bridal wear: “I am bored with what Indians have worn for a thousand years and want to change it around but for Sabyasachi,it is his focus.” He says that Sabyasachi’s conscious choice to dress Bollywood actors like Vidya Balan and Rani Mukherjee explains why women from Chembur to Nagpur clamour for his garments.

Sabyasachi admits he could get carried away by success but says the Sabyasachi Conservation Project he is planning is a conscious effort to keep himself grounded. “It is difficult to turn your back when the going is good but as a manipulative business consideration,I know that allowing success to go to my head can drown me,” he says. “All my friends are outside the fashion industry. I don’t socialise much or attend events so that I don’t begin to worry whether the industry likes me or not,” he adds.

Sabyasachi is unapologetic about spreading himself thin. “Everything I am doing now is towards how I want my company to be 10 years later,” he says. “I will make it a clothing company,which will offer design solutions to the middle class,not just to the moneyed,” he says. He has never hidden his admiration for FabIndia,and appears to be slowly building his own such enterprise,where different economic classes could converge,without worrying much about the size of their wallets.

Don’t be surprised if he greets you at the entrance,looking like an artist from Santiniketan,with a beard and long hair,wearing a khadi kurta-pyjama (Tod’s moccasins too),telling you what not to wear.