In conversation with Sabyasachi Mukherjee


In conversation with Sabyasachi Mukherjee

The designer, on his new line and what women want

By Aishwarya Subramanyam  June 5th, 2015

"You can quote me on anything you want. I won’t say anything to you that I don’t want to be quoted on,” says Sabyasachi Mukherjee, his eyes glittering dangerously. We are meeting over Chinese food — apparently this is how I do all my interviews now — and he is talking non-stop. “Eating is such a carnal pleasure, and food is my first true love. If I don’t look 41 (and he really doesn’t), it’s because I eat. The fatter your face, the slower you age,” he declares. I’m not sure how true this theory is, but I’m totally going with it. 

Sabya seems sharper than ever today, knifing through questions and relentlessly pushing the conversation deeper, wider, as if he wants to talk about everything we could possibly talk about, as if he’s in a tearing hurry to impart knowledge, like he has far too much to teach me and not nearly enough time. “People think I’m a gambler because they aren’t aligned to my vision,” he says briskly. “I can see five years into the future; they can’t. So they think, ‘What the fuck is he doing?’ I’m in a constant war with my accounts department. When I wanted to open my Bombay store, they told me I was suicidal. They said no one opens a store this big, this lavish, in this city.” His new flagship in South Mumbai is a sprawling space from another world, a sort of Ali Baba’s cave of opulence and wonder. He says it is ‘pull marketing’, creating something that’s out of people’s reach so that they aspire to it. I feel like I’m talking to an overachieving MBA grad. 

 

His ability to articulate exactly what he is thinking, though, I find enviable. How does he do it? “I spend very little time with people, and a lot of time with myself. My mind is always thinking, rethinking, introspecting. It gives me clarity of thought and clarity of speech.”

He is known to suddenly clam up when he’s in a group, making people uneasy. “They keep asking me, why aren’t you talking, what’s the matter? But I just don’t feel the need to communicate sometimes. Why force yourself to talk when you have nothing to say?”

Happily, this is not the case today. Sabya continues, “I never do what I don’t feel like doing. If my mind or body tells me not to do something, I don’t. When there is so much clutter inside your mind, you can’t think or focus. I’m very happy to be quiet by myself. In the evening you’ll find me sitting by the window or lying in bed, talking to myself in my head. People think I’m mental.”

People think he’s a genius. And you can see why. Those wheels never stop spinning. The launch of his new line, Sabyasachi by Sabyasachi, at Lakmé Fashion Week this season feels like just one more masterstroke in his elaborate plan to clothe the world. “It’s something I flirted with a long time ago, but this felt like the opportune moment,” he says. It bothers him that Sabyasachi is seen as a bridal brand, when that’s not all he wants to be. “When it comes to bridal wear, we catch the customer at the impressionable age of 18 to 23. We are usually the first, most expensive brand that most of these girls buy, so there’s something of a first-love relationship. People want to come back to the brand again and again, but apart from occasion wear, we haven’t been offering them anything else. So I decided to expand our horizons, because a lot of my clients would like to wear Sabya every day, if I gave them something easy, relaxed, affordable.”

The fashion week opening show was held at the Richardson and Cruddas industrial mill (“I loved it, it’s going to be my venue now”) and was an ode to the ’70s: “I wanted to pay homage to Halston; I was very inspired by the Studio 54 days, Donna Summer, Gloria Gaynor, pure disco. I was born in ’74, so that’s an era I relate to well.” On a massive ramp, with drones hovering overhead, walked Sabyasachi’s many different women: in sequinned jumpsuits and belted saris, slinky dresses both long and short, swathes of black and floaty print-on-print. There were narratives within narratives, sub-plots inside stories. He was, inevitably, criticised for trying to be everything to everyone. “You see, the show was about zero demographics. I wanted there to be something for everyone: a big girl, a skinny girl, something for day, something to go clubbing in.” 

He wanted it to be democratic. And he wanted it to be sexy. Slashed-down-to-there necklines, low-cut embellished choli blouses hugging curves that overshadowed the simple saris. “There’s a beautiful, strong line between sexiness and vulgarity. I love sexy. The entire show was about women’s waists. Most Indian women are very apologetic about their waistlines, and they have one common problem: they can never be thin enough. But sexiness is a confidence issue, not a size issue.” 

More and more, though, he says, he sees women becoming confident in their sexuality. Only, rather than dressing for men, women are now dressing for other women. “It’s come to India late, but it’s building like a tornado. Whether from a political, religious or social point of view, men have long dictated clothing choices. But women are taking that back now, and men are becoming marginalised.” I suggest that men don’t understand fashion any more. No, he says, men don’t understand women any more: “Fashion has managed to alienate heterosexual men from heterosexual women.”

The show was also where the world laid eyes on his new line of accessories: belts and old-style “conductor bags”, all emblazoned with his so-far underused logo, the tiger. “I wanted to do bags that are simple, easy, basic. They are well-finished, made of beautiful leather and well-priced,” he says. His belts have been received particularly well, too: “We’ve had very large women coming for the saris with belts; we offer belts in sizes up to a UK 18.”

Democratic, then. More than anything, though, Sabyasachi by Sabyasachi is about appealing to a younger audience. “I don’t want to say that the line will be anti-fashion, because that’s a rebellious word and I’m too old to become rebellious. I want to do relatable and easy clothes, which are free from the pressures of fashion.” Because the quieter line tends to get lost in the drama of wedding clothes in his stores, Sabya plans to launch a slew of  new stores to stock the line in six months’ time. “I also want to create my own online experience — online everywhere looks too greedy. I want to do something that’s a bit more dignified,” he says cheekily. 

That’s not all. The new business he has in mind (which he will only allude to now) comes with big plans. A hint? He has just heard that Gap is opening in India, and confesses that it’s one of his dream brands. “I would love to own Gap. I like its spirit, I like the brand history, I like that over the years so much has changed but Gap has remained so true to its core. 

I love the advertising. Gap for me is like Tata Steel. I want to start a company in India which is all Indian wear, but like Gap.” There you go. 

 

This just ties into Sabya’s obsession with youth. “I keep feeling insecure and depressed that I'm not good enough; it happens to everyone. So I surround myself with youth. I don’t socialise or go out anywhere, I see the world through their eyes.” He adds, “The country’s becoming younger, the customer is becoming younger, and if you don’t listen to them, you’re going to be out of business very quickly. Today, the young decide what the old will wear. Daughters are choosing for mothers. It was the other way around about five years ago. If you don’t catch the younger customer today, you will lose the older customer as well.” 

In the same breath, he bemoans the preponderance of fast fashion, multiple yearly fashion seasons, and that old shtick: the death of style. “We used to have decades of style: the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s. From the ’90s onwards, there are only minutes of style, next there will be seconds of style. Every brand keeps telling you to buy more, more, more. But this customer will pass through the cycle of frenzied new-money shopping and move into a quieter zone. That’s why brands like Hermès and Chanel have stayed true to who they are; they know that eventually, the refined consumer will return to them.”

Sabya insists that few people have a sense of style, because it’s about consistent dressing. “Our actresses are just role-playing with style. One day I’m sati savitri, tomorrow I’m the slut, the day after I’m a corporate dominatrix, then I’m plain Jane.” He maintains that he won’t ever have Bollywood showstoppers in his shows because he won’t compromise the look of the brand. But the coming together of the two worlds can be enormously beneficial to both, he agrees. At his Lakmé show, the frow boasted Deepika Padukone, Kalki Koechlin, Sridevi and Rani Mukherji. “I’ll be forever indebted to Rani. Before her, I was just a designer, but she made me a household name overnight. When I started dressing Vidya, at that point of time it was as important for her as it was for me. It’s a 50-50 partnership that works best. Look at the Sonam Kapoor-Anamika Khanna relationship, for example, it worked equally for both of them.”

Autonomy really is crucial to Sabya. He sponsors his own shows, and still designs everything. “I’ve realised that I’m a bloody difficult person to work with. I have eyes in the back of my head, I’m a monster. I only see the bad, I will nitpick, point out the small flaws. Because I’m so controlling, most people are too scared to work with me, and with Calcutta being such a hellhole, you just can’t find people who are great at their craft. It’s a city where people’s minds have not yet expanded. At one point we could pass it off as artsy, intellectual bullshit, but that doesn’t work any more.” 

At the end of the day, he says, he’s just like me. “I do exactly what you do, I’m an editor. I know every single thing that goes into my magazine, but it is other people who execute the work. They make the spare parts, and I put the whole thing together because I’m the only one who can. The day they figure out how to do my job, I will be very worried.”

Photographs: Manasi Sawant; Creative Director: Prashish More; Styling: Neha Salvi; Production: Parul Menezes; Location Courtesy: Mozaic, Bandra

"You can quote me on anything you want. I won’t say anything to you that I don’t want to be quoted on,” says Sabyasachi Mukherjee, his eyes glittering dangerously. We are meeting over Chinese food — apparently this is how I do all my interviews now — and he is talking non-stop. “Eating is such a carnal pleasure, and food is my first true love. If I don’t look 41 (and he really doesn’t), it’s because I eat. The fatter your face, the slower you age,” he declares. I’m not sure how true this theory is, but I’m totally going with it. 

Sabya seems sharper than ever today, knifing through questions and relentlessly pushing the conversation deeper, wider, as if he wants to talk about everything we could possibly talk about, as if he’s in a tearing hurry to impart knowledge, like he has far too much to teach me and not nearly enough time. “People think I’m a gambler because they aren’t aligned to my vision,” he says briskly. “I can see five years into the future; they can’t. So they think, ‘What the fuck is he doing?’ I’m in a constant war with my accounts department. When I wanted to open my Bombay store, they told me I was suicidal. They said no one opens a store this big, this lavish, in this city.” His new flagship in South Mumbai is a sprawling space from another world, a sort of Ali Baba’s cave of opulence and wonder. He says it is ‘pull marketing’, creating something that’s out of people’s reach so that they aspire to it. I feel like I’m talking to an overachieving MBA grad. 

 

His ability to articulate exactly what he is thinking, though, I find enviable. How does he do it? “I spend very little time with people, and a lot of time with myself. My mind is always thinking, rethinking, introspecting. It gives me clarity of thought and clarity of speech.”

He is known to suddenly clam up when he’s in a group, making people uneasy. “They keep asking me, why aren’t you talking, what’s the matter? But I just don’t feel the need to communicate sometimes. Why force yourself to talk when you have nothing to say?”

Happily, this is not the case today. Sabya continues, “I never do what I don’t feel like doing. If my mind or body tells me not to do something, I don’t. When there is so much clutter inside your mind, you can’t think or focus. I’m very happy to be quiet by myself. In the evening you’ll find me sitting by the window or lying in bed, talking to myself in my head. People think I’m mental.”

People think he’s a genius. And you can see why. Those wheels never stop spinning. The launch of his new line, Sabyasachi by Sabyasachi, at Lakmé Fashion Week this season feels like just one more masterstroke in his elaborate plan to clothe the world. “It’s something I flirted with a long time ago, but this felt like the opportune moment,” he says. It bothers him that Sabyasachi is seen as a bridal brand, when that’s not all he wants to be. “When it comes to bridal wear, we catch the customer at the impressionable age of 18 to 23. We are usually the first, most expensive brand that most of these girls buy, so there’s something of a first-love relationship. People want to come back to the brand again and again, but apart from occasion wear, we haven’t been offering them anything else. So I decided to expand our horizons, because a lot of my clients would like to wear Sabya every day, if I gave them something easy, relaxed, affordable.”

The fashion week opening show was held at the Richardson and Cruddas industrial mill (“I loved it, it’s going to be my venue now”) and was an ode to the ’70s: “I wanted to pay homage to Halston; I was very inspired by the Studio 54 days, Donna Summer, Gloria Gaynor, pure disco. I was born in ’74, so that’s an era I relate to well.” On a massive ramp, with drones hovering overhead, walked Sabyasachi’s many different women: in sequinned jumpsuits and belted saris, slinky dresses both long and short, swathes of black and floaty print-on-print. There were narratives within narratives, sub-plots inside stories. He was, inevitably, criticised for trying to be everything to everyone. “You see, the show was about zero demographics. I wanted there to be something for everyone: a big girl, a skinny girl, something for day, something to go clubbing in.” 

He wanted it to be democratic. And he wanted it to be sexy. Slashed-down-to-there necklines, low-cut embellished choli blouses hugging curves that overshadowed the simple saris. “There’s a beautiful, strong line between sexiness and vulgarity. I love sexy. The entire show was about women’s waists. Most Indian women are very apologetic about their waistlines, and they have one common problem: they can never be thin enough. But sexiness is a confidence issue, not a size issue.” 

More and more, though, he says, he sees women becoming confident in their sexuality. Only, rather than dressing for men, women are now dressing for other women. “It’s come to India late, but it’s building like a tornado. Whether from a political, religious or social point of view, men have long dictated clothing choices. But women are taking that back now, and men are becoming marginalised.” I suggest that men don’t understand fashion any more. No, he says, men don’t understand women any more: “Fashion has managed to alienate heterosexual men from heterosexual women.”

The show was also where the world laid eyes on his new line of accessories: belts and old-style “conductor bags”, all emblazoned with his so-far underused logo, the tiger. “I wanted to do bags that are simple, easy, basic. They are well-finished, made of beautiful leather and well-priced,” he says. His belts have been received particularly well, too: “We’ve had very large women coming for the saris with belts; we offer belts in sizes up to a UK 18.”

Democratic, then. More than anything, though, Sabyasachi by Sabyasachi is about appealing to a younger audience. “I don’t want to say that the line will be anti-fashion, because that’s a rebellious word and I’m too old to become rebellious. I want to do relatable and easy clothes, which are free from the pressures of fashion.” Because the quieter line tends to get lost in the drama of wedding clothes in his stores, Sabya plans to launch a slew of  new stores to stock the line in six months’ time. “I also want to create my own online experience — online everywhere looks too greedy. I want to do something that’s a bit more dignified,” he says cheekily. 

That’s not all. The new business he has in mind (which he will only allude to now) comes with big plans. A hint? He has just heard that Gap is opening in India, and confesses that it’s one of his dream brands. “I would love to own Gap. I like its spirit, I like the brand history, I like that over the years so much has changed but Gap has remained so true to its core. 

I love the advertising. Gap for me is like Tata Steel. I want to start a company in India which is all Indian wear, but like Gap.” There you go. 

 

This just ties into Sabya’s obsession with youth. “I keep feeling insecure and depressed that I'm not good enough; it happens to everyone. So I surround myself with youth. I don’t socialise or go out anywhere, I see the world through their eyes.” He adds, “The country’s becoming younger, the customer is becoming younger, and if you don’t listen to them, you’re going to be out of business very quickly. Today, the young decide what the old will wear. Daughters are choosing for mothers. It was the other way around about five years ago. If you don’t catch the younger customer today, you will lose the older customer as well.” 

In the same breath, he bemoans the preponderance of fast fashion, multiple yearly fashion seasons, and that old shtick: the death of style. “We used to have decades of style: the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s. From the ’90s onwards, there are only minutes of style, next there will be seconds of style. Every brand keeps telling you to buy more, more, more. But this customer will pass through the cycle of frenzied new-money shopping and move into a quieter zone. That’s why brands like Hermès and Chanel have stayed true to who they are; they know that eventually, the refined consumer will return to them.”

Sabya insists that few people have a sense of style, because it’s about consistent dressing. “Our actresses are just role-playing with style. One day I’m sati savitri, tomorrow I’m the slut, the day after I’m a corporate dominatrix, then I’m plain Jane.” He maintains that he won’t ever have Bollywood showstoppers in his shows because he won’t compromise the look of the brand. But the coming together of the two worlds can be enormously beneficial to both, he agrees. At his Lakmé show, the frow boasted Deepika Padukone, Kalki Koechlin, Sridevi and Rani Mukherji. “I’ll be forever indebted to Rani. Before her, I was just a designer, but she made me a household name overnight. When I started dressing Vidya, at that point of time it was as important for her as it was for me. It’s a 50-50 partnership that works best. Look at the Sonam Kapoor-Anamika Khanna relationship, for example, it worked equally for both of them.”

Autonomy really is crucial to Sabya. He sponsors his own shows, and still designs everything. “I’ve realised that I’m a bloody difficult person to work with. I have eyes in the back of my head, I’m a monster. I only see the bad, I will nitpick, point out the small flaws. Because I’m so controlling, most people are too scared to work with me, and with Calcutta being such a hellhole, you just can’t find people who are great at their craft. It’s a city where people’s minds have not yet expanded. At one point we could pass it off as artsy, intellectual bullshit, but that doesn’t work any more.” 

At the end of the day, he says, he’s just like me. “I do exactly what you do, I’m an editor. I know every single thing that goes into my magazine, but it is other people who execute the work. They make the spare parts, and I put the whole thing together because I’m the only one who can. The day they figure out how to do my job, I will be very worried.”

Photographs: Manasi Sawant; Creative Director: Prashish More; Styling: Neha Salvi; Production: Parul Menezes; Location Courtesy: Mozaic, Bandra