Ace fashion designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee on how the fashion industry is changing
And what lies ahead
Sustainability, diversity, digital shows, e-commerce and a lot more—we reached out to ace designer and fashion insider Sabyasachi Mukherjee for his thoughts on how the industry is changing and what the future holds for fashion in particular. Here’s what he had to say:
ELLE: Digital films, season-less collections and larger investments in e-commerce – how do you see this sudden shift in the fashion industry? Do you think the Indian fashion industry is gearing up for a reboot?
SABYASACHI MUKHERJEE: It’s not just the fashion industry that’s experiencing this kind of reckoning; nearly every industry has had to rethink the way they operate and how they reach consumers. And while fashion was navigating a dramatically shifting landscape before the pandemic, the changes we’re seeing have certainly accelerated as a result of the current crisis. The most forward-thinking companies will plan beyond stop-gap measures like switching to e-commerce. Of course, e-commerce will be an increasingly important channel to invest in, but the real change happening is a change in the consumer’s attitude. It feels a bit like an awakening. Suddenly, we’ve all been reminded of the finitude of our time and energy; of those things that give us joy, and those that do not. I believe this will all distil down, in the consumer’s mind, to one notion: value. Instead of “does this outfit look good on me?,” I believe the question will be “of what value is this outfit (or product) to me?”. Consumers are getting smarter. Savvier. And now more than ever, brands will need to defend their pricing and value proposition against the scrutiny of a more mindful and informed consumer.
ELLE: Inclusivity and diversity in all forms (gender, skin colour and body types) in fashion is one of the crucial factors to look into and while some designers are taking the right steps, we still have a long way to go. Your recent campaigns reflect this change of attitude in some way. How do you see this change coming about?
SM: In many ways, fashion exists as a microcosm of society at large. Within the trends, the marketing and the storytelling, one begins to see broader narratives playing out. The issues of body image, skin tone and archaic gender norms exist in India, and because of that, they too exist within the microcosm of fashion. Fortunately, power and influence are not unidirectional. In fashion, we have the reach to influence society as much as – if not more than – society influences us. I envision an India that is more tolerant, more celebratory of what makes us different, and more aware of what binds us together. This is the future of India, and this is the future of fashion. The only thing standing between where we are now and where we could be is, perhaps, a lack of imagination.
ELLE: In the last couple of months, social media has completely changed the fashion landscape, giving visibility and a voice to communities the fashion world would have otherwise ignored. How do you see this trend evolving, both on a domestic and international level?
SM: Social media has changed the game. It’s a disruptive force that can’t be fully controlled –– only manoeuvred. Yes, there are evils within it, but there is good as well. It has democratised information and given a voice to people who would otherwise have gone unheard. In the past, brands had to win first the audience then the approval of behemoth fashion gatekeepers. Magazines, editors, buyers— they decided if a brand would be successful. Now, social media has allowed brands to communicate directly to potential consumers with no such barriers to entry. I don’t see this trend changing any time soon. If anything, we’ll see the influence of fashion gatekeepers wane even further as brands become more adept at interacting directly with the public.
ELLE: Over the years you have actively worked to protect the grassroots ecosystem of artisans and weavers and this massive shift in the industry has hit them the worst. What are the active steps that brand Sabyasachi has been taking to safeguard their interests and what is the way forward?
SM: Building a brand is never easy. Those who approach business with a short-term, purely pro t-driven strategy never enjoy the success and staying-power of brands who’ve been built by long- term thinkers. While the former strategy may leave the promoter with a nice payday, the latter leaves a legacy. My brand’s ecosystem of craftspeople and employees are the engine to which I attribute our success, and they are what will sustain my legacy long after I depart. That is why I have always, and will always, centre their livelihoods and well-being— especially in times of crisis and insecurity. I am proud to say that, after eight months of this pandemic, we have retained every one of our employees—from kaarigar to cleaner, accountant to artist; resolutely remained closed to the public (to protect the health of staff and customers); and reduced our order capacity so that we can maintain social distancing in our factories. Even for our contract labourers (who are not on our payroll), we have provided monthly voluntary hardship allowances to help them tide over the pandemic. Short-term strategists would look at our continued expenditures and reduced revenue with terror. I do not. There is nothing more integral to our long-term success than our people, and I am, as always, intent on investing our resources in the future.