When a Nobel Laureate’s daughter gifted the acclaimed designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee a 1930’s edition of Vogue, he was given an ageless treasure — insight.
Flipping through the magazine, “What struck me was that the only brand that I recognized was Tiffany,” says Mukherjee, the designer media has called the “future of Indian fashion.” “For me, it was the biggest lesson of my life. I do not want the Sabyasachi brand to disappear within my lifetime.”
Mukherjee has pioneered the use of traditional Indian textiles and craftsmanship, such as hand-dyeing, block printing, bandhani tie-dye, and Gota work embroidery, in his elegant fashions and bridal wear, garnering international praise since his launch in 1999, and was awarded Best Indian Designer by several organizations. Bollywood and Hollywood stars gliding down red carpets in his gowns unveils what he learned inside that vintage Vogue.
“Only things that have a solid soul or a solid sense of integrity can stand the test of time generation after generation,” says Mukherjee. “This movement of ‘coming back to roots’ to establish yourself is becoming a very strong sentiment among the millennial consumer.”
“We have a very patronizing attitude towards craft, in our attempt to make it modern. We need to know that rather than teaching [craftsmen], we need to learn from them. I think many designers need to understand that rather than leaving your own design stamp in the world, you can actually preserve somebody else’s which is getting lost.”
Pride for Ancient Culture
The idea that lasting brand integrity and heritage are synonymous comes both from the designer’s own intuition and also directly from his upbringing in an ancient culture.
“India has always celebrated design and exuberance, and being a very sensitive and emotional country, our understanding of luxury is far deeper and far more authentic than [that of ] many people in the West,” he says. “Even in the poorest homes, they might not have the best clothes to wear, but they will always wear a little bit of jewelry.”
This inborn sense of luxury, plus the practical limitation that a ready-to-wear line would require deeper pockets for production, scale and advertising, Mukherjee launched his label with a clear vision — “Start with the crème de la crème,” designing haute couture.
“I wanted to make very beautiful handcrafted clothing which stood for a regional and national identity, because without an identity, a design house can never be original,” he says. “I also wanted to focus on clothing that offered quality and lent women dignity.”
What’s profound is how Mukherjee brings this quality and inner character to life by doing the opposite of what many brands do today.
Today’s society has “a very patronizing attitude towards craft, in our attempt to make it modern,” he says. “However, we need to know that rather than teaching [craftsmen], we need to learn from them. I think many designers need to understand that rather than leaving your own design stamp in the world, you can actually preserve somebody else’s which is getting lost.”
At Sabyasachi, the brand’s identity and foundation are built upon stellar Indian craftsmanship, which not only solidifies the fashion label’s legacy, it preserves India’s as well.
“My brand supports many weaving communities in India which were dying out,” says Mukherjee. “I don’t want to sound like somebody on a social mission, but it gives me the greatest joy and fulfillment when my company contributes to the revival of an entire crafts village.”
Sabyasachi employs 1,100 people — 35,000 more through outsourced jobs — in its mission to support India’s ecosystem of craftsmen, weavers, dyers and printers, which also has a ripple effect on the industry.
When Mukherjee uses a traditional craft or textile in his fashions, the copy market in India quickly follows suit, reviving the craft, employing exponentially more craftsmen.
“A lot of the younger generation who otherwise would have gone into other vocations now realize it can be profitable to stay in this system,” he says.
Khadi, or handspun woven cloth from India, is the “soul and DNA of my brand,” he says, highlighting its transformative nature. “Those who have old money aspire to be like royalty. Royalty means culture. Those who have new money drip diamonds and buy all the big brands — they also aspire for culture. What they need is a point of view. Khadi gives them that.”
“Fashion can be a very unkind world because it makes a living feeding on people’s insecurities. As a brand we try to keep our customer secure by helping them find an identity that is very close to who they are.”
Sabyasachi’s magical touch not only transforms the women wearing the fashions, he’s changing the global market — the Indian designer’s second collaboration with beloved shoemaker Louboutin is testimony to that. Their first collection together in 2015 featured the Christian Louboutin X Sabyasachi shoes, while the second collection has expanded — one would assume along with international demand — to handbags and accessories for brides and fashionistas.
“For an Indian designer to be successful in the West, it is very important to do global clothing with a very strong Indian soul,” he says. “In my own little way, I want to instill a sense of nationalism and indigenous identity within a customer who is grappling with confusion. Fashion can be a very unkind world because it makes a living feeding on people’s insecurities. As a brand, we try to keep our customer secure by helping them find an identity that is very close to who they are.”
And it’s working. Mukherjee recalls one of Bollywood’s most popular actresses Bipasha Basu wearing Sabyasachi and a bindi — the decorative red mark on the forehead — and gajras — fresh flowers — in her hair.
“I think they pay homage to the brand by styling their clothes according to the imagery that we project,” he says, appreciatively. “Normally they adapt things for their own style, but when they wear Sabyasachi, they adapt to the imagery presented by the brand. For me, that is the power of the imagery that the brand creates.”