The man and the myth: What it's like to be in the shoes of Sabyasachi Mukherjee

One of the most celebrated designers from India, the ace couturier talks about his latest works

By Sadiq Saleem

Published: Thu 2 Mar 2023, 7:39 PM

It’s 5 pm on a Friday evening. We are waiting in a posh lounge at Bayt Damas in Al Wasl, which will be showcasing ace designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee’s jewellery collection. It is here that the couturier holds court whenever he is in Dubai. The lounge is a replica of all his flagship stores. Hence vintage bottles, decorated plates, crystal chandeliers and mounted paintings are to be seen in every corner. In person, however, Sabyasachi does not reflect the extravagance of his luxurious label. On the contrary, he represents the qualities of the famous Bengal tiger that is, incidentally, also the logo of his brand.

A Bengal tiger is shy. It marks large territories to keep its rivals away and leads a secretive life. Sabya, as the designer is fondly called, is an introvert, completely immersed in his craft and prefers to let his work do the talking. Yet, there have been only a few designers like him from South Asia who have challenged the status quo in fashion. Men have happily slipped into floral sherwanis with matching bottoms because he infused the love of spring among them. Women do not simply buy but invest in his ensembles for their ornamental and heritage value. Celebrities work around their calendars to match his availability for their weddings. The fact that a Sabyasachi piece has its own identity and is incredibly hard to replicate can also be linked to the Bengal tiger’s stripes that are unique. Talk about being one of a kind!

The realist

“Do you mind if we eat and talk! I have not eaten since morning,” says Sabyasachi, as we move to the café area. It’s his 49th birthday and we start the conversation by wishing him. Next year will also mark 25 years of his journey in the business of fashion. Would he want to tick any more boxes before he hits that number? “Not really. I am not a bucket list person. I take opportunities as they come and don’t really plan my journey. I go wherever life takes me, but I have a clear long-term goal, which is to turn Sabyasachi into the biggest global luxury brand from India,” he says.

But given the allure of his brand, it is nearly impossible to not feel the pressure of innovation with every new season while not completely letting go of his signature style. Sabyasachi says “iconism” can only be created through repetition. “If you are going to create something different every season, then there will be nothing of you in that. There is a famous saying, ‘Every good writer writes one good book in his life and everything else is a shadow of his work,’” he says. “Critics will always ask you to change, but customers will always ask you to stay the way you are because they see value in your stability. They are buying beautiful products, which are not dating quickly, and it allows them to use it for a longer period of time.”

Sabyasachi strongly believes there is a difference between fashion and clothing, and admits to following principles of the latter in his business. “I don’t necessarily like to make fashionable clothes. I am very clear about that in my head that every time my customer buys something, I want them to feel like it’s an investment rather than an expenditure.”

The astute businessman

In every artist’s life there comes a time when commerce begins to dictate terms and process of creativity. With investors coming on board, one wonders how Sabyasachi strikes a balance between his craft and their expectations, and if the latter’s intervention dilutes his creativity. But the designer knows better. “It happens all the time to all of us,” he says. “And that is where reset is necessary. You may make short-term mistakes and learn and move on. The moment you allow that to happen in the long term, it damages your brand. Every great business has to navigate this thin line between art and commerce, or should I say idealism and commerce, and figure out a way to retrace the core. Once they realise they’ve fallen a bit far from the centre, they will jump back.”

Having sold nearly 51 per cent of his brand when his business was at its peak, Sabyasachi says in the first 15 years, he never allowed anyone to interfere as he was setting the story of the business. Now that its DNA has been established, he agreed to take the investment because “many designers make the mistake of getting investment very late in life and by then, they don’t have the control on business”. “I now have full control and in the next 15 years, I will create a succession plan. The brand doesn’t belong to me, it belongs to the country, and I am very mindful of that.”

The thinker

Lately, the South Asian influence on western fashion (think the Bvlgari mangalsutra or YSL using Afghan jewellery) has become more pronounced. In many cases, the artisans behind the fine prints are not even credited. Sabyasachi says there is a fine line between appropriation and appreciation. “Sometimes, appropriation is unnecessarily politicised. I have taken inspiration for my collection and have always shared that as context. It is important to keep appreciation alive because if you stifle it, you are throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” he says, adding that appreciation, in some ways, throws light on a craft that could be dying or belongs to a world that wasn’t spotlighted enough. “In our zeal to call out appropriation, we stifle appreciation, and that’s a disadvantage in the long run.”

Bollywood is a natural stopover for most Indian designers. Fashion agendas in the country are set by stars and designers are only happy to dress the top names in their creations, seeing it as an endorsement of their brand. But many celebrities tend to stick to a particular designer for years, which begs the question — does loyalty lead to monotony? “Celebrity images are being given too much importance,” he says. “If you keep endorsements aside, I don’t see any reason why a celebrity cannot wear one designer throughout their lives. Fashion is constantly about the change and style is recognising who you are and creating an identity for yourself. Hence style is repetitive and that’s how it becomes iconic. Take Audrey Hepburn’s long partnership with Givenchy. Or Frida Kahlo with the unibrow and braid with flowers in her head. Madonna with the fish net tights or Jacqueline Kennedy’s squared shoulder jackets or Marilyn Monroe’s blonde hair with red lips. They are all repetitions but iconic in their own right. Closer home, Rekha in kanjivaram sarees, Simi Garewal in whites, these are iconic women who have cultivated a style and stuck to it and outlasted all seasons of fashion.”

If that be so, why has India not witnessed a major style icon in recent years despite an unprecedented number of designers and access to fashion from around the world? “The main reason is that actors and actresses are constantly shuffling their looks and there is no difference between them and models. The job of a model is to wear clothing to sell clothing. When actors reduce themselves and become models, they lose the ‘iconism’. You may still like them, but you may not necessarily like to be like them. Today, stars are not involved at all in the styling. They hire a stylist to do the job. I have worked with stalwarts like Sridevi, who shaped my childhood and my imagination of all things beauty. Despite being a mega star, she would always deal with her designer directly for her looks and never worked with a stylist. She would come to the store and pick what she felt would look good on her. You don’t see that anymore.” Fair enough.

The futurist

Lately, Sabyasachi has also forayed into the world of accessories, an attempt that’s driven by long-term strategy. He says any global brand — Chanel, for instance — might have started off with clothing but eventually graduated to costume jewellery, handbags, makeup and so on. Similarly, everyone will be able to find something in the brand Sabyasachi, which may not necessarily be the core product but something else.

Speaking of Chanel, one wonders how important West’s vote of confidence is for him. Sabyasachi is clear that it’s no marker of success but a sign of under confidence. “You get more respect from the West if you hold on to who you are. You might change the perception of who you are in your country through such recognition, but you cannot change your perception outside the country if you don’t stand for who you are.”

The fantasist

Once, Sabya had shaved off his moustache and walked the ramp dressed as Madonna because a model pulled out of the show at the last minute. The Sabya seated in front of us is far simpler and sober. Does he miss that fun, edgy side of him? He pauses to think before saying, “I would just call it early mid-life crisis that happens to a lot of creative people. I love maximalism for my business, but inside, I am a minimalist. One of the reasons why I have always had perspective about the business is because I recognised it as one, and kept that away from who I really am. I know what to do right for the business and it doesn’t necessarily have to do with something I like.”

As we sign off, personal curiosity takes over and we prod him on the thousands of bottles that populate his home and stores, hoping there could be a story there that offers a glimpse into who Sabya really is. “I like static things in repetition because they create visual harmony. But there is no sentimental value or anything. I collect a lot of things without acquiring them so you can call me a segmented collector. I collect things because they are beautiful but I don’t have an emotional need to retain them. I collect them more for business and for the pleasure of other people,” he says. “If I were to look at myself as someone who was not Sabya, the brand, I don’t think I would’ve collected anything at all. I may be a hoarder but I don’t like to possess anything. I don’t have Instagram, I have never taken selfies. In fact, during all my travels, I’ve never taken a photo. My walls are empty, and I like it that way.”

Sadiq Saleem is a UAE-based entertainment writer. He can be contacted on his Instagram @sadiqidas

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