Exclusive: In conversation with Sabyasachi Mukherjee and Christian Louboutin
by Simran Bhalla
When I enter Christian Louboutin’s suite at the Imperial in Delhi — the city’s most assiduously elegant hotel — neither he nor Sabyasachi Mukherjee is there. Instead, I see women in a swirl of solid-coloured calf-length skirts, with those heels, those impossible six-inch beauties, clicking away beneath them. It was, in fact, their almost sexual flash of crimson, and their steep curves, that attracted Sabyasachi too. Louboutin later tells me that Sabyasachi had said he wanted to bring “a strong sexual element” to his collection for Amazon India Couture Week last month. He also insisted that the heels be high, high, high, despite Louboutin’s fears that the models, dressed in heavily embroidered gowns, would topple over. The heels remained vertiginous, and they too, are beautifully embroidered, with silver and bronze stitchwork on black, and leg-lengthening nude. They seem to be the perfect marriage between the two designers’ styles. How did they arrive at the final design? Was there a lot of back and forth? Not quite. “The entire collaboration got done over one lunch at the Louvre,” says Sabyasachi. “We sat there and mostly discussed food. There were no ego clashes, not one conflict. When I came back, I said, ‘That’s it?’” says Sabyasachi. “Christian and I, I don’t think we understand the word compromise.” Here, Louboutin nods, and says, simply, “No.”
The two have found kindred spirits in each other. They both come from cities with strong personalities — Kolkata and Paris — and have an identical approach to work: both value brand longevity and customer happiness over the opinions of the fashion literati. Sabyasachi explains this through food, a lens I now assume he uses to explain most things. He says, “We were having a conversation about food, and Christian said something which made me smile, he said, ‘Do you know who a true Parisian is? Someone who does not know what the newest restaurant in Paris is, because he only knows three or four restaurants that he goes to every time, and he finds the food good enough to not want to explore new territory.’ A Bengali is exactly like that. In Calcutta, I know those same three or four places that I’ll go to year after year, decade after decade, to eat the same food over and over again. I love it, and I don’t want to vary just for the sake of it.”
Both designers believe in consistency, and if editors or buyers see a change in their aesthetic, it’s always one that works within the larger image of their brands. Louboutin says, “I sort of don’t believe in trends. I know that they exist, but what is important at the end of the day is to remain independent.” Sabyasachi tells me he has received negative feedback from some editors for his couture collection, which took a darker, sexier, slinkier turn than previous lines. The show, which opened couture week, was titled ‘Bater,’ after a bird of prey. Ominous music boomed as models with severe centre-parted hair, wine-stained lips and Marilyn Manson eyes stormed the runway. The embroidery was so dense as to be leaden; on black and ecru, it looked like something Sansa Stark might’ve worn to an execution. This is not to suggest it wasn’t beautiful: it was, and remained true to a strong concept.
Sabyasachi doesn’t see the line as much of a departure. “I would never work outside the DNA of the brand, but within that, there’s enough flexibility to interpret yourself in many different ways.” He believes the press is too committed to conceptual ideas of fashion, without considering the bottom line: “A lot of the press said, ‘It was a beautiful show, but we didn’t think it was you.’ They look at everything from a visual perspective, they don’t understand business and where the brand is heading. And that’s okay, as long as the customer comes back.” Sabyasachi makes it clear that his collection is not “vulgar”, as one journalist commented. “There’s a difference between erotica and vulgarity. I am conservative about the way women dress. But I like the idea of unravelling. If I do very sheer dresses, they are completely covered. There is a very quintessential Sabyasachi silhouette, it’s just that here, the clothes were not lined.” Louboutin agrees, “I thought this was a very Sabyasachi show. A little bit of reveal on some parts of the body, but just a suggestion. A woman in my store in Paris once looked at a pump with a lot of toe cleavage and said, ‘Oh my god, this is disgusting, I feel naked.’ I said, when you’re wearing a sandal, all your toes are exposed. Do you feel naked then? She said, ‘Funnily enough, no.’”
It turns out that two strong (and stubborn) personalities can work together without dispute, even if both head highly visible brands that can’t afford missteps (though perhaps, at this point, they’re also too big to fail). Louboutin has a surprising, but very favourable, comparison for their partnership. “When you collaborate with someone who has the same sensibility, it’s super simple. I once worked with [American film-maker] David Lynch. I had in mind some really fetishist shoes, super-super-high heels that you couldn’t wear. I wanted them photographed, but not by a fashion photographer. I wanted someone to whom I wouldn’t have to give any direction. He trusted me in my design, I trusted him with what he was going to do with my design. When Sabya and I started to work together, it reminded me of my collaboration with David.”
Louboutin employs an artful metaphor to describe his attitude towards working with others, whether craftspeople, cobblers or collaborators: “My father was a carpenter. He showed me a piece of wood and said, when you’re working with wood, you have to go in the direction of the grain. If you go against the grain, you end up with splinters. When people are good at something, don’t try to impose another direction on them.” Louboutin’s heels for Sabyasachi aren’t exactly fetishist; six inches is now de rigueur. The fine zardosi work, coupled with studded backs and suede fringe, manage to honour indigenous Indian design while simultaneously telegraphing a sense of opulent European style.
Of the two, Sabyasachi is the one who is perceived to have taken a more adventurous turn (for better or worse, depending on who you ask). But he doesn’t foresee radical change in the future. “Fashion has a little bit of a master-slave relationship,” he tells me. “People who are engrossed by fashion are people who are basically subservient. But people who are stylish are the masters. And they’re repetitive. When you know what works for you, why would you want to break the mould?”
Photographs: Dwaipayan Mazumdar; Styling: Devika Wahal