Written by Abhik Choudhury
Sabyasachi already has his place as a game-changing Indian icon of his field. And like every icon. he deserves his share of risks that will redefine the category, sometimes for good, sometimes not so much. But always well meant. The problem right now is that there is a segment of the audience that is hounding him for being ambitious — that’s hypocritical for a country dying to see an Indian label ruling the world stage for decades. Putting him on a pedestal and expecting him to have the objectives of the textile minister of the country is misguided.
H&M started their collaborations with luxury brands way back in 2004 with Karl Lagerfeld shaking the rules of slow fashion forever. Stella McCartney, Roberto Cavalli, Jimmy Choo, Versace, Balmain, Kenzo, H&M since, has done it all… except an Indian designer. And Sabyasachi Mukherjee filled that colossal void in taking our art to the world. But before we deep dive into it, let’s quickly go through two FAQs.
Why couldn’t he stick to authentic Indian handiwork he uses on his wedding collection in place of these cheaper digital prints?
If there were embroidered Pashmina sweaters starting from $1,000, wouldn’t the whole partnership become counterproductive? It is to share the visibility and desirability of each other’s audiences, not to overpower one and other. And you can’t do a sub-layer of limited-limited edition of handmade in an already limited edition retail partnership!
Why weren’t enough stocks created for this limited edition collection?
That’s the entire expected nature of such marketed campaigns, sold out in minutes isn’t a rarity — it is often the norm. Not just in fashion but in any luxury collaborations sold in the premium market.
When Martin Scorsese directed The Irishman for Netflix, did the theater distributors name and shame him for being a sellout? Or in his desire to take his art to a bigger audience, was he wrong in choosing a collaboration that promised him that? Is the Louvre being short-sighted in promoting post impressionism prints to Gen Z on totes and mugs? Should J K Rowling feel guilty for getting the Potterverse turned into a very successful audiobook with Stephen Fry? Which fruit should we become — Apple or Blackberry?
How many Western countries understand Indian designs can be modern, chic and everyday wear beyond that one photo taken in that big fat Indian wedding they went to? Sabyasachi achieved that with this collection releasing in 17 major countries. The problem is he had a genuine catch-22. Create trendy digital prints from a visual storyboard of, say, his childhood in Calcutta and everyone would be saying “he gave up on his artisanal roots the minute he got the chance to penetrate the Western market”. Try to use signature Indian imprints in his collection and “each one is not handmade so he diluted the purity of handiwork”. There was no way he would have won either of the debates, so he should have, like every artist, followed only his heart. The fact that some of us think we have a right over how an artist decides to create and promote their work is absurd to say the least and bullying at worst. By these standards half the modernised and massively popular songs of Coke Studio Pakistan should have never been recorded, if the gharanas where these gems have stemmed from did not directly start getting an influx of live-shows. Some things are done to make art accessible and engaging for a new generation.
And it’s not even something Sabyasachi has done for the first time. From Asian Paints to Pottery Barn, The Sabyasachi Art Foundation has done branded collaborations before. His 2015 partnership with Christian Louboutin was much discussed but not debated, being a luxury meets luxury setup. To come up with a global collection during a pandemic that gets sold out in minutes is actually a matter of pride. The possibility of the world talking about Indian prints and wanting more of it through it, is a reality not a myth. Hopefully with time easing to the idea of spending on more luxurious, handcrafted pieces, beautifully embroidered with love. That’s more than most Indian designers can claim to do globally.
Don’t judge the man known for his exotic luxury palette for not delivering his greatest art for a mass brand’s premium campaign. Especially if your perception is based on only four of the seventy designs that found its way into memes. The greatest composers, authors or designers of all time couldn’t pass this litmus test. Google some other collaborations while you are at it, Crocs x Balenciaga, Adidas X Dior and Apple X Fendi. They all worked for their new audiences and were never to impress the core loyalists.
He is giving a means of livelihood to hundreds of indigenous artists working with him, while making that art more relevant for Gen Z. There is a line between being idealistic and realistic. To think all 8 billion people will turn towards slow fashion on the other side of the 21st century is a good dream but improbable considering the ceaseless rise of the poverty index and price differentiation. Pay these extraordinary artists hidden across India royalty for their skills that will get replicated digitally for the masses, while the luxury segments keep going back to them for that inimitable product exclusivity. Both will grow and neither is in a position to kill the other.
Much like OTT giving work, money and recognition to so many wonderful theater artists long forgotten, similar collaborations will in time do the same for these artisans. The more these will flourish, the more younger brands will take the risk of using our rare traditional designs globally much beyond just Sabyasachi. Don’t judge this as one step, this is but step one.
The writer is chief strategist & founder, Salt and Paper Consulting. He is also a visiting faculty of Marketing Research & Campaign Planning at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi