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What Sabyasachi x H&M gets wrong and right, almost

The collaboration between the couturier and the fast-fashion chain might have brought global attention to India design but it leaves a lot to be desired

From the Sabyasachi x H&M collaboration, ‘Wanderlust’
From the Sabyasachi x H&M collaboration, ‘Wanderlust’ (Courtesy H&M)

As I write this, almost the entire collection by Sabyasachi Mukherjee for the Swedish fast-fashion brand H&M is sold out. People are hooting and groaning on social media over how they missed out on the only opportunity to ever afford a garment by one of India's top couturiers. 

I, too, was secretly looking forward to breaking my no-shopping-for-a-month promise to a friend just to own a piece. With a name like Sabyasachi, you do expect something outstanding. But the collection, Wanderlust, which went live on 12 August, didn't really speak to me. There's no denying that the collaboration is a big moment for India. H&M has been offering fashion fans a constant stream of designer collaborations since 2004. With this collection, the Indian bridal couturier has joined names like Karl Lagerfeld, Moschino, Giambattista Valli and Madonna. 

When I recently interviewed Maria Gemzell, head of new development at H&M, about the collaboration, she said: “We chose Sabyasachi because he is the undisputed master of Indian couture, with an amazing ability to dictate new silhouettes. We were drawn to how he speaks to the modern woman and man, as much as the craftsmanship and beauty of his designs, which you will be able to see throughout the collection.”

But there seems to be little of that. It's true prêt-à-porter cannot match the level of style seen in couture, but we deserve more than a chintz overkill, regular designs and often-repeated silhouettes. The 9,999 sari, for instance is a lot like something we've all seen before. It's been applauded by some fashionistas, but it's also the subject of comments and memes on social media.

The  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>9,999 sari from the collection looks like something we have all seen before.
The 9,999 sari from the collection looks like something we have all seen before. (Courtesy H&M)

There's another side to the criticism too. A scroll down social media with “Sabyasachi” as the keyword shows people asking different versions of the same question: Why would a label synonymous with slow fashion collaborate with a fast fashion brand known for labour exploitation and environmental damage?

The answer is complex. From a strictly business point of view, the collaboration makes sense. The pandemic has hurt most sectors, including fashion. Having a fashion label is as much about showcasing creativity and sustainability as it is about turning a profit. Further, bringing out this collection does provide work for karigars (artisans) and tailors. And let's not forget that this is an attempt, in some form, to make luxury more democratic.

Is the collection sustainable? I don't think so. Is the shower of praise by otherwise mindful fashion advocates justified? No. Is the outrage on social media okay? Nope. 

If we go by the definition of sustainable, the whole fashion industry should be cancelled, because making even a single garment is now bad for the environment. Is cancelling even possible when the fashion industry is one of India's largest employers? No.

What we need to do instead of calling for a cancel on social media is  to give designers and brands a chance to correct themselves. With the right questions, we can actually bring a change, and perhaps get a collection that celebrates the many colours of India, not just one or two. 

As for me, I'm glad I didn't break my promise.




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