Sabyasachi X H&M: Sabyasachi Mukherjee gives us a rare look into what went into the collection
This is H&M's first collaboration with an Indian designer
What can luxury possibly mean to a designer whom many have called a genius, whose name is one of the most iconic in the Indian fashion industry and who, from a 200-square feet workshop in Kolkata, set out to launch an empire with multiple stores across the world in a span of 20 years? “Luxury to me is the ability to be myself,” designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee says simply. “For me, it is the cotton t-shirt and pajamas that I sleep in because that is when I am closest to who I am. I think luxury is being able to celebrate yourself as who you are,” he elaborates.
For someone surrounded by opulence at all hours (the legendary Christian Louboutin called his studio an ‘Ali Baba cave’ in an interview around the time of the duo’s much-talked about collaboration in 2017), this need to keep it simple, to cut out all the fuss and ornamentation makes complete sense.
We’re on a Zoom call with the couturier ahead of the launch of his collection for Swedish high street brand H&M and it is almost surreal to be in conversation with the man who is known to consciously stay away from the media glare, always turning down interviews whenever approached. However, as he admits later on during our meeting, a collaboration such as this is something that he will probably only do once in his life. And when you consider this is fashion history being made, surely, rules can be broken.
“When one of my assistants told me that H&M had written to us asking if we’d like to collaborate I could not believe it. I said, ‘that’s a really sick joke to play, if it isn’t true,’” says Sabyasachi, when asked how it all began, adding, “But as it turned out, he was not joking and what followed was a very interesting journey for all parties concerned.”
The first time we heard of the collaboration was in early 2020 and even as the fashion world geared up for this exciting drop, COVID-19, wreaking havoc across the globe saw the launch being postponed to a ‘safer’ time. It was then scheduled for the summer of this year, but the second wave in India delayed things further and the collection finally saw the light of day this week. So did the designer use the extra time to perfect each piece? “Not really. Sometimes when you do something, every-one and everything is aligned for success. The pandemic I think made the collection stronger... because it was meant to be a travel collection and right now, everybody wants to travel,” says Sabyasachi.
When the 47-year-old Kolkata-based designer was doing the research and attempting to zero in on a theme for the collection, he asked his young team what they’d like to spend their money on, if there was no limit to how much they could spend. “I asked them if they’d like to buy a house, or jewellery or bags or cars. They all came back with the same answer. They said they could invest in real estate and luxury goods later on in life, but right now, they’d all like to travel. And I spend a lot of my money on travel too, because for me it’s a great learning experience. It would be a shame if we left this world without knowing what it looked like. And so ‘travel’ it was. That’s how I decided on the theme,” he recalls.
Christened Wanderlust, the collection, which will be available in 11 stores in India and 17 other countries, of fers a glimpse into Sabyasachi’s signature and vision, beyond his professional persona as a bridal wear designer — from the classic white shirt and the flowing kaftans to the khaki trousers and the summer-friendly hakoba dress. And yes, there’s a saree too. “A lot of people think of me as a wedding designer, but my clothes have always been about travel, workmanship, and Bohemia. And I wanted to use those secret codes of the brand when I was creating the collection,” says Sabyasachi, who was also thrilled to be working on a pret line.
In addition to being the first Indian designer that the Stockholm-based company has worked with (previously they have partnered with names like Versace, Karl Lagerfeld, Giambattista Valli, Madonna, Roberto Cavalli, Lanvin and Jimmy Choo), this is also the first time in the history of the Swedish retailer that an ethnic outfit will be sold in their stores. “When the brand approached me, I told them I had three conditions — one is that it had to be India-inspired, second, a major chunk of production had to be done in India (to generate jobs here) and thirdly, there had to be an Indian garment in the collec- tion,” reveals the designer. Maria Gemzell, Head of New Development at H&M, adds, “We chose Sabyasachi because he is the undisputed master of Indian couture, with an amazing ability to dictate new silhouettes. We were drawn to how he speaks to the modern woman and man, as much as the craftsmanship and the beauty of his designs.”
The garments are detailed with prints, developed by hand at the Sabyasachi Art Foundation and rendered digitally. There are Coromandel chintz prints, Sanganeri prints and other India-inspired motifs, in addition to phulkari work on viscose georgette, cotton and drill. Using denim was particularly exciting for Sabyasachi because it was another first. “It’s a democratic fabric and I enjoyed working with it,” he shares. The luxury label’s instantly recognisable logo, the Bengal tiger, is also a recurring motif and finds place on t-shirts and bags, and so does his favoured palm print. “We sell our Bengal tiger logo belts and bags at high price points and I know that there are lots of people who would like to have it but can’t afford it. With this collection, everyone can have a piece of that in their wardrobes,” he explains. The fabrics were deliberately chosen keeping the theme in mind. Fabrics, as the designer puts it, you can easily pack into a small suitcase and travel with. For Sabyasachi it was also important to keep it classic, with an emphasis on basics that could be mixed and matched. The colour palette had to be neither summer, nor winter, but trans-seasonal. “Because I’m going to be part of this kind of collaboration only once in my life, I didn’t do something that was ‘fashion.’ I chose to do garments that were more classic. And when you think that one may not be able to buy a Sabyasachi again, I realised I wanted people to have the products for a long time and so I kept it as versatile as possible,” he states.
Apart from the focus on basics, a feature that he paid attention to was gender fluidity. One is reminded of his 2005 collection, The Nair Sisters, based on a trio of sisters in his neighbourhood, who often dressed in their father’s clothes because they had lost their mother and did not have anyone to teach them how to dress conventionally.
There was also the question of sustainability that needed to be addressed in Wanderlust, and Sabyasachi says, “Sustainability has nothing to do with price. It has to do with usage. It is not fast fashion, but an affordable fashion collection.” But what adjustments did he have to make to fit into the H&M price points? “I don’t like compromises. It’s all about the input. For instance, look at print.. you can get the same print done for USD 5 or USD 50. The design will be the same, it will look the same. It all depends on how you treat it. So when you see the collection, it might be lower in terms of price points, but it is not lower in terms of design output, because I’ve done beautiful basic Sabyasachi white shirts, I’ve done khaki trousers, but they all have a little bit of underlining, signature logos, or some other detailing that sets them apart,” he shares.
Some of the pieces that the couturier would like to highlight from the collection include the Sabyasachi logo t-shirt, the saree, the photographer’s jacket, the hakoba dress, the denim trousers and the jewellery. “I love the Sabyasachi logo t-shirt, because a lot of people want the logo, you know they’ve seen it on my handbags, they’ve seen it in my jewellery, in my clothing, so that’s an entry level product that I think a lot of youngsters would want to buy,” elaborates the designer who, in January this year, made headlines for entering into a partnership with Aditya Birla Fashion and Retail Limited.
The launch of Wanderlust was preceded by the unveiling of his latest jewellery collection, Tropic of Calcutta, boasting VVS diamonds, African emeralds, Burmese rubies, natural pearls interspersed with jade tourmaline, amethyst quartz and a lot more, all reflecting the brand’s Bohemian DNA. But what else is on the agenda for this legendary designer? “Right now we are working on two global col-laborations. I have NDAs, I can’t talk about them. We are also working on setting up our new Dubai jewellery store and we are working on our winter collection. Our large flagship store is hopefully going to be opening its doors in New York in January so we’re gearing up for that too,” he tells us, before drawing our conversation to a close.
Born and raised in Kankinara, West Bengal, it is common knowledge that the designer would ride a boat to get to school, that he had to sell some of his books to apply to NIFT, because his parents refused to give him the money to apply to a course they didn’t approve of and that he had a very middle class upbringing. He has always embraced his humble roots, so his answer is not surprising when we broach the subject of his decision to launch his collections on social media, something he’s been doing for years now. “Social media is great, because, you see, everybody feels included. I am middle class, I know what it feels like to be excluded. For the first 25 years of my life, I couldn’t even buy myself a Pepsi or Coke without having to think if I could afford it again the next week,” he states. “Your economic situation might change, but the good thing about being born middle class in India is that you will never lose those values. It teaches you tolerance and democracy and I like to use those principles in everything I do,” adds the designer whose Royal Bengal Mangalsutra, his take on the traditional mangalsutra, famously worn by Priyanka Chopra Jonas, is truly the most gorgeous one ever made. The necklace features brilliant cut diamonds, rose cut diamonds, Zambian emeralds and rubies set in 18k gold, with the Bengal tiger pendant at the centre.
His values of tolerance are evident in his campaigns where issues such as body positivity, colourism and women’s sexual liberation are all given equal importance. “A lot of our consumers do not conform to modelling standards. And we did not want it to become an unhealthy practice where people felt like they needed to be somebody else. As a man who has always had issues with body confidence, because I never fit into the conventional standard of beauty, I realised that sometimes it is very difficult for someone to gain confidence by looking at an image and trying to be like that. I consider myself a reasonably intelligent man with a sense of self, so I escaped it. Sometimes, image-making becomes such a big part of how you can drive the narrative of confidence and mental health, and I just wanted to make sure that we were a little responsible about it. We talk about many topics such as prejudices, women’s sexual liberation, because I think a true brand should always reflect modern free society,” he shares.
FUTURE OF LUXURY
“A lot of luxury fashion we see right now is branded luxury. They take a product and elevate it through marketing. Marketing alone can not be enough to create sophisticated high fashion. Because people want authenticity. You cannot take any product made in a sweatshop somewhere and brand it high fashion because people have become a lot more discerning. So luxury will become more about craftsmanship and rarity,” Sabyasachi explains.