"I have always been a minimalist,” insists Sabyasachi Mukherjee, scooping out a spoonful of rose petal ice cream from a crystal dessert bowl. He’s dressed in a plain white Uniqlo shirt, loose-fitting faded jeans, and is barefoot. The walls behind him tell a different story, though. On the left are water pipes painted as if they are palm trees. On the right are shelves crowded with Dutch pottery, French cookie boxes, hot chocolate cans, sauce bottles, and mason jars filled with as many shapes of pasta as you may find in an upscale food store. If you leave the half-glassed outhouse, where we are sitting at a long dining table under the Sunday afternoon sun, you will enter a part of the house that resembles a museum of gorgeous mess.
What’s all this then, I ask, referring to his 7,250 sq.ft home that sits in a quiet lane of south Kolkata. “It’s an extension of my brand,” he replies. “People think I come to work on an elephant.”
That’s Sabyasachi Mukherjee for you.
In a career of over 20 years, Mukherjee has become a global influencer of bridalwear couture. In the process, he has played a crucial role in ensuring the world pays attention to the rich heritage and legacy of Indian design. He has collaborated with a fast-fashion behemoth like H&M to create a paisley-printed sari. He has created jewellery dripping in Indian decadence and displayed it at upmarket places like Bergdorf Goodman. An independent Instagram account that criticises and celebrates Indian fashion, called Diet Sabya (a mellower version of Diet Prada), reflects his cultural significance. Copies of his designs in one of Asia’s biggest mass markets, Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk, are acknowledgement of his popularity. Despite being criticised for fetishising the female body (his collection campaigns have often been called out for showing models in plunging necklines), owning his heavily embellished costumes is the dream come true of today’s bride. Emulating his success is the secret desire of many designers.
What makes the feat extraordinary is that he’s not the first one to marry traditional designs and silhouettes, textiles and embroideries of India and offer them on an international stage. India is full of creators of wedding wear. Even a swimwear brand now makes a couture sari. Everyone wants a slice of the Indian wedding industry, worth over ₹3 trillion. At 48, however, Mukherjee has achieved what perhaps no other Indian designer has.
The Kolkata boy, who once used to hide from his parents the fact that he wanted to become a designer, now occupies a 5,800 sq. ft store on West Village’s 160 Christopher Street in New York. Opened on 16 October, it is his first international flagship address, relating the East-meets-West story narrated in every other Sabyasachi store across India: glass chandeliers, 16th century Mughal miniatures, Qajar dynasty art, vintage photographs, hand-knotted carpets, kilims, Persian rugs. The offering is new, however.
The store houses the New York Edit, a collection Western in silhouette but Sabyasachi’s India at heart. Think embroidered and appliquéd dresses, trench coats, trousers and kaftans in velvets, silks, chiffons, cottons, elevated by traditional craft and hand techniques. Think the flora and fauna of Bengal’s Sundarbans digitally rendered into now classic house prints. It’s a collection available only at this store. “I want to create modern heirlooms,” says Mukherjee.
Will a consumer even be invested in a Sabyasachi coat in a market flooded with brands like Burberry, Chanel or Dior? He believes they would.
Till date, his moves seem to have worked. From starting his journey with three employees in 1999, after graduating from the National Institute of Fashion Technology, Kolkata, he now employs over 1,000 people and works with 3,000-plus karigars (craftspeople), catering to over 2,000 brides a year. He has sold “slow luxury” for over two decades without ever going on sale. His journey is a case study in how to achieve commercial success in selling garments that celebrate the opulence of India. Testimony to its success: Revenue for 2021-22 was ₹230.37 crore, with a “healthy” profit. He has five stores in India, including Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Hyderabad. Recent news reports suggest that he has rented a new store in Mumbai’s Horniman Circle.
A big part of the answer lies in his skills as a sharp businessman who controls the brand story. I am also keen to know whether the “I-am-a-minimalist” claim is really a chosen way of living the life or a myth created to tell the Sabyasachi story better. Edited excerpts from the interview:
What made you pick New York?
It was logical because over 20% of our business comes from America. Even during the pandemic, most of our business came from America. Apart from that, I wanted to set up a business there in 2006-07… a young, arrogant me thought that I could take on the world (New York has always been his favourite city). And then I flopped miserably, but I am also a quick learner. I remember (British journalist and fashion critic) Suzy Menkes telling me that, you know, if you want to be a designer of consequence, you need to be a designer of consequence in your own country.
While I was returning to India, I was thinking of what to do for the India fashion week (autumn/winter 2007). I did a collection called Chandbibi, which was spectacularly Indian, nostalgic, and it had unprecedented sales. I never looked back. I am a businessman first. I understood the optics of the great Indian bridal business and in India, you know, optics and money both must trickle down, they can’t trickle up. If you want to eventually target the big, large, affluent middle class, you have to start at the top and not in the middle.
Isn’t aspiration a bigger part of creating a luxury brand?
The entire game of fashion and luxury is about aspiration. And aspiration can be about many things—about unattainable price points…aspiration can be a great product, social positioning. Historically, some of the best products the country has done in terms of luxury have always been with royalty. If you look at the social hierarchy in the context of consumers, No.1 is royalty. No.2 is old money. Then there’s new money, upper-middle class, middle class and so on. And they all look up. You can be the richest in the country but you can only be royalty by birth.
While establishing my brand, when I looked at what was happening in India, with consumers, I realised people associated real heritage with royalty. Everyone looked up to them. And I started from there.
There has been a shift towards minimalism in the luxury space. How do you navigate this, considering your brand is all about maximalism?
India will never be a minimalist country. I say that because when you look at codes of minimalism, it sometimes means someone is trying to just stand apart. Minimalism is necessary because in many ways minimalism is also about…I wouldn’t call it sustainability…it’s about decluttering, which has become such an active part of our life. I am talking about minimalism from a point of view of consumption and not from a product point of view. Like this is a very maximalist house but I am a very minimal person, I have the same white shirts in my wardrobe from Uniqlo. I don’t have Instagram, I don’t have Twitter. I don’t even have a personal email account. I survive on WhatsApp; people who have to find me will find me.
Then why have a house stacked with things?
Let’s put it this way: What you wear is performance. What you think is your real insight. So, in many ways, this is just a performance. This is part of the brand story. I think many people in the world probably think that I ride an elephant to work because of the product I sell. That doesn’t mean that I can’t be a minimal person....
I come from a middle-class family. Growing up, the most expensive thing I owned was a pair of Levi’s. Now Levi’s has changed to Uniqlo, there hasn’t been a very big change between what I used to be 20 years ago and what I am today. I have pretty much been the same person. What I do is a job. It doesn’t have to be me.
Is it that easy for you to detach yourself from work?
I am a very detached person. I used to be ashamed of it but not any more. I don’t watch movies. I don’t listen to radio. I don’t even read a newspaper any more. I am really on my computer. I work in an industry which is quickly changing. I have always been like this from my childhood, I am spiritual but not religious. I am not a consumer of fashion, I create fashion, and I see no shame in that. If you don’t detach yourself, when you are in the game, you can’t strategise. I am never in the game. I am always the outsider who watches the game. I am a Bengali (laughs). So, there’s a whole lot of intelligence and common sense put together.
I have a problem with the education system in India. The problem is, when you are very intelligent, your parents decide your course of life…. I had a mentor actually, a friend called Meeta Ghosh, my neighbour…. She inspired me to get into fashion…. I made some designs, took fabric to the tailor and made clothes for her. My parents were, of course, against the idea but I was persistent.
So you found your calling early on?
I was talking to this man who was sitting next to me on a flight and telling me, “You must be so lucky that all your life, you knew what you wanted to do, look, look at what a grand success you have made out of your life.” At that point, I was 44. I am 48 now. I still don’t know what I want from my life. Just because you are good at something, it doesn’t mean that it’s your calling. I am a person who believes in the journey, not the destination. Even with design, I never sketch, I have not done a single sketch in my life.
Then how do you create your designs?
I just see pieces of textiles and be like, “Oh, my God, this textile will make a great jacket.” It has always been like this. I think it comes from the fact that my mother was a painter and I was very overshadowed by her personality. I was always too embarrassed to paint because I thought I would never be as good as her. I still feel that way. You know, she looks at me, and she thinks I am a hoax.
I have gone through it for a very long period, of suffering from the impostor’s syndrome, because I don’t consider myself to be a good designer. I just consider myself to be someone who’s a great businessman. I went through multiple crises in my personal life.
When you are on a mission to create something beautiful, the first thing that falls apart is your relationship with human beings, because you are only working. I lost my close friends, relationships, because my focus was only on building a brand. I say this with no arrogance, I don’t think any other brand in this country has lasted as long as we have and we continue to grow higher. A quiet confidence comes in you. It takes time. If you look at my copy market, my copy market is about one million times bigger than the size of my business.
Everything associated with the Sabyasachi brand seems controlled, even your campaigns on social media. I had requested a factory tour and was told it’s not allowed. Are you a control freak or is this all part of your marketing strategy?
You cannot create a brand without having control. Because if you are telling a story to somebody, you need to be sure that the narrative of the story is strong. If a director is all over the place, he can’t create a movie, he needs to have his vision tight and controlled to be able to deliver.
And that’s why you chose to stick to the India proud narrative?
The India proud thing started in college.… A big reason for opening the store in New York is also politics. Historically, if you look at fashion, India has been a producing country. I want to alter that. What really angers me is the fact that I don’t even think India is a third world country, I consider India to be a first world country. The reason I think countries like India, Egypt are first world countries is that if you just look at the timelines and civilisations and who came first. A lot of the narrative has shifted through controlled politics, communication and storytelling. When I look at what’s happening in the fashion industry right now, a lot of the bullshit that people propagate in terms of luxury, most of it is made in China. It’s mass produced rather than handmade, and you just give it a luxury tag. The world went gaga when a brand, I won’t name it, made conceptual nylon and polyester….
Right now, newer consumers are pushing change. A lot of the power will shift to the East, and India just happens to be at a very vantage position because of the fact that consumers’ need is changing from what they used to consider luxury to what should have been luxury in the first place. We are the original first world countries that will give you an authentic product, that still follows the codes of luxury.
But you are offering Western silhouettes at the New York store?
I don’t expect somebody from the West to wear a sari because the appropriation flag will be raised quite high. India has a very strong artisanal background; we can create products for the world. In India, because of our patterns of consumption, we have kept our living heritage of art and crafts alive.… There’s a lot China can produce that India can’t because it’s a function of logistics, money and infrastructure. But there’s a lot India can produce that China will never be able to do because China has lost its ability to retrace the past because they have cut their cords with craft. I don’t see it as a surprise that Chanel has Leena Nair as the CEO. Where else can Chanel come to create luxury, artisanal products apart from India? So, a person does not have to put zardozi on a sari; they can put zardozi on a Chanel coat because they know how to.
Besides garments, you are also expanding your accessories’ offering and launching make-up, in a market that’s very overcrowded.
The beauty range would be very distinctly Sabyasachi. I am very aware that it’s a crowded market but we also have a very powerful strategy. For jewellery, the consumption patterns are changing. A very American way of consumption (has) come to India.… People are not realising right now that human craftsmanship is going to become much dearer than anything else.… You have to stay invested in understanding human beings. I travel everywhere, I look at people, I eavesdrop. You need to be socially, culturally, financially and politically aware. You cannot create a product in a vacuum and expect the product to do well. There has to be a logic and a reason for the product to exist.
New York has a world of brands. What makes you believe your store will stand apart?
I am quoting Suzy again here: “Fashion has become so cookie-cutter that there’s no novelty left in fashion any more.” And we come to New York at a great time, when everybody else is rolling back. We are pushing forward because this is post-pandemic. If you look at social evolutions, post war, whether it was the 20s, the greatest stories are written after crises because that’s when people are willing to take a big leap of faith.
I am also a risk taker. What can be worse, you take a risk, something does not work, you pack your bags, you leave, and you start again. I am very confident because I see my job as a businessman not a designer.
What point of view are you trying to sell?
A simple elementary principle of luxury. What is rare is expensive. There’s nothing rarer worldwide than handmade craft.
Do you consider anyone your competitor?
If you want to be No.1, you have to stop looking at No.2. That’s the reason I actually got out of Instagram, because I was too interested in seeing what everybody else was. I was a little gimmicky in the beginning but that gimmick became a solid strategy eventually.
So how do you plan your strategies?
Has that ever resulted in blunders?
I have not made blunders with strategy. I have sometimes just made blunders about not doing things at the right time. But, you know, we have not had one season in 20 years where the brand has not done well.
What do you want your legacy to be?
To become India’s first superbrand. Look at what they have done with Chanel. She only built the first founding steps of the brand, look at what they have taken it to with Karl (Lagerfeld). Now it’s in Virginia Viard’s hand. And it continues to grow. That is how you build a business; you build a business with a very big vision.
Is Coco Chanel your inspiration?
I love that brand because in many ways, she’s similar to me. We came out of nowhere to build luxury brands. In many ways, Chanel was very detached. I think when your confidence comes from who you are, and not what you wear, you dictate to people what they should wear. And that’s a lot of power to have.
Has the deal with the Aditya Birla group helped you get where you are right now?
The deal (selling 51% of the brand stake to the company last year) has helped us move in the direction we want to go. Secondly, I didn’t have a succession plan. Often, what happens is entrepreneurs become selfish and many of them hold on to the business till they completely run it down and then they look for investment. I was very clear that I wanted to sell my business when it was at its best. So, my negotiating terms for my contracts will be stronger. I am not selfish; I don’t think the brand belongs to me any more. I believe that when you have a brand, which has a possibility of creating a massive change in the way people have looked at fashion in India, you can’t be selfish about it.
Do people confuse your clarity for arrogance?
A lot. But it doesn’t bother me. It’s their problem, not my problem.
You do make for a great marketing person.
I have always been. I have struggled with it because marketing in India is considered to be a bad word. It’s almost like you are fooling people. But you cannot be a great designer if you are not a great marketer. They both have to exist side by side for you to be able to build something.
Who is Sabyasachi Mukherjee behind all the layers?
I don’t think I have ever said this to anyone… I am a very funny person. I can’t work without pranking people. And I find humour in everything. I find joy in food, travel. I am very hungry for life in a very real way. And above all, I don’t take myself seriously.
For starters, I don’t understand the word designer. We don’t really build anything of consequence. We don’t build buildings and bridges. We don’t save lives. We live in a hyper exaggerated industry and make clothes. I don’t understand what the hype is about designers. We have almost become as big as movie stars in the country. And I am not complaining. It’s easier to market the brand but I find all this amusing.
And what’s your family’s reaction to your success?
My sister is very proud. But I will be very honest with you, I don’t know if they understand what I do fully. My aunts and cousins keep me grounded. Because for them these are less tailor-made costumes and more stage costumes that they have seen in a play or a musical or a movie. They only ask two questions. For one question, I have the answer. For the second, I don’t.
Who buys your clothes? And where do they go wearing them? The first one is easy to understand. For the other, even I don’t know.