Big Bucks,Small Costs

Sabyasachi Mukherjee’s easy and early successes make him a leviathan figure

Written by Namrata Zakaria | Published: September 11, 2013 4:15:37 am

If in the last decade there has barely been a conversation about Indian fashion without a mention about Sabyasachi Mukherjee,the chatter surrounding the Bengali designer is now unarguably inescapable. Heck,it’s only gotten louder. Sabyasachi is also the most scoffed at designer in fashion circles. Ever since he made his Bengali intellectual-style textile-laden debut a decade ago,we love to loathe him. He’s been booed for making “rich Marwari women dress up as the poor”,“doing the same thing over and over again”,“being arrogant”,“a sensationalist” and “a media manipulator”. The list goes on. All of which are true.

But as all clichés ring true,the fashion grapevine is filled with sour pluck. If those in the know are to be believed,this is the year that Sabyasachi will finally touch the magic figure of Rs 100-crore. There is only one other Indian fashion label supposedly close to this number: a ready-to-wear manufacturer and designer Anita Dongre. But oh,the big clincher,Sabyasachi does it without making apparel for mass retail.

How does Mr Unpopular do it? By making goosebump-inducing great clothes of course,but there are several talented powerhouse fashion designers far senior to him. I suspect he does this by remaining unpopular. By being faithful to no one and nothing but his own aesthetic. By being a ruthless marketer. By making his own rules of the game. By turning his jeers into envy. Hey,nobody said a great artist had to be a nice person.

I certainly don’t mean to say Sabya isn’t a nice guy. I’m saying it doesn’t matter. He’s here to make fashion,and money. If that’s his game plan,let nothing get in the way. Sensationalist Sabya dressed Vidya Balan in handloom saris,lehengas with a veil and nathnis,showing what attention-seeking can get you. The foreign press fell in love with him. Balan was adored by Nicole Kidman and Steven Spielberg. And mass-market stores imitated the veil on the black-and-white lehenga galore.

If he has manipulated the media,the fashion press has been a willing victim too. We have all been prey to report his baseless quotes of quitting fashion to make movies,or paint,or cook happily ever after. We have also pulled him down with unabashed arrogance showing our purported superiority,an occupational hazard. And then we have ended up on his front rows wearing his embroidered hairbands.

Much has been said about the designer’s repetitiveness. But the best designers are those that work within a framework they set for themselves. Real art lies in saying the same thing in different ways. The last three months have seen two rather spectacular shows by the designer. The first was the opening show at the PCJ Delhi Couture week,the second was the finale at Lakme Fashion Week,Mumbai,only a few weeks later. The Couture Week show was an all-white melee called Opium,a noir scene from the works of Chekhov,Kafka and Kurosawa,spiced in musk,vetiver and vinegar. His acid-burned zardozi was matched with cleverly used chintz,on maxi dresses and lehenga cholis and his-and-her bridals. The same could be said for his Lakme finale,where his maharanis revisited the Roaring Twenties in sheer saris paired with mini skirt petticoats,quilted sports jackets,and belted lehengas. Both shows were as different as they could possibly be within the umbrella of his signature style: a maximal-meets-vintage traditionalist. F Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that we only write one or two stories during our lives; no matter how many books we write or movies we make,we end up exploring the same themes over and over again. All of these,piecemeal,add up to Rs 100 crore.

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