When Oprah Winfrey made a flying visit to India's Jaipur Literary Festival this month, she couldn't resist a stylish pit stop in Mumbai.
"It was one of the most unexpected surprises I've ever had in my life," says India's foremost fashion designer, Sabyasachi Mukherjee. "Considering she had such a busy schedule, we were completely dumbfounded when she came into the store unannounced."
From her end, Winfrey's visit to the new Sabyasachi boutique in Kala Ghoda was anything but impromptu. She was keen to meet the 37-year-old designer who, having launched his highly acclaimed eponymous label in 1999, is now considered to be one of the most influential Indians in Asia, regularly dressing Hindi screen icons such as Kareena Kapoor.
Despite being given a warm subcontinental welcome, the talk show queen didn't leave Mukherjee's boutique laden down with designer freebies.
"Oprah doesn't like accepting any gifts, so whatever she got from the store, she bought," he says.
"She bought a few dresses and a couple more for her godchild. She also bought a lot of accessories: stacks of organic bangles, jewelled headbands she wanted to wear and some Indian perfume."
Attracting such high-profile international attention is fast becoming the norm for Mukherjee. Despite his ateliers and four flagship stores being based in India, his career was intentionally global from the outset.
It started after his graduation from India's National Institute of Fashion Technology in 2001, when winning the Femina British Council's outstanding young designer of India award afforded him an internship with the designer Georgina von Etzdorf in England. A year later he made his debut at India's Lakme Fashion Week and went on to scoop the top award at Mercedes New Asia Fashion Week in Singapore just a year after that.
It wasn't long before Mukherjee set his sights on Europe. In 2004 he became the only Indian designer to be invited to showcase at Milan Fashion Week. His pioneering use of hand-dyeing, block printing and penchant for traditional methods such as gota-work (metal embroidery) won him countless industry accolades. The designer then went on to become the first Indian designer to show at three leading global fashion weeks, after adding New York and London to his calendar.
With the Middle East also a key market to tap, fashionistas in Dubai will get the chance to see his latest collection of prêt-à-porter wear and bridal designs at an exclusive annual trunk show being held at Raffles Dubai hotel today and tomorrow.
Jetting in especially for the occasion, Mukherjee will be on hand to talk prospective clients through his range of rich velvet, high-neck blouses, bandgalas (jodhpur trousers) and Banarasi silk saris fashioned into belts.
"The collection is called Peeli Kothi, which is basically the revival of hand-woven textiles," he says. "It had a lot of influence from India's heritage and this kind of revival has almost become a political movement."
With the handiwork of his country's artisans so integral to his brand, Mukherjee calls himself "a revivalist, an anthropologist" in his mission to preserve the traditions and fabrics of the past.
"I think when you have a social voice, it is very important to revive that which has been neglected, but is of supreme quality," he says. "I am talking about hand-dyed fabrics for example - I am happy to use them rather than create something new just for the sake of creativity. I'm creating a platform."
For all his travels and international A-list clientele, Mukherjee's creations have always remained true to his roots in West Bengal.
"I think what you see around you primarily influences you," he says. "So for me, that would be the art history and the social culture of Calcutta. It's my hometown and it comes out in my designs all the time.
"As for my design philosophy, it shifts from year to year, but there's one thing that has remained constant - it's the concept of the personalised imperfection of the human hand. Rather than designing 'cookie-cutter' clothes, I'm interested in more personal, handmade ones with a distinctive flavour that cannot be repeated."
Ready-to-wear and couture lines aside, Mukherjee has found creative freedom in designing costumes for Bollywood films for the past seven years. His designs for the director Sanjay Leela Bhansali's film Black in 2005 earned him a National Film Award for best costume design. His favourite range of clothing belonged to the cast of 2010's blockbuster Hindi film Guzaarish, starring Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. Although she is regularly seen wearing his designs on the red carpet - he insists the publicity is something he's never courted.
"You know, I don't really believe in celebrity endorsements," he says. "But sitting front row of my shows are normally friends, actresses, politicians and fashion editors. I am not a very big fan of socialites coming - for me, the shows are more about the press because they are the people who take my collections forward."
The latest project demanding Mukherjee's attention to detail is a contemporary childrenswear line.
"It's something I started because I think there's a total lack of cultural clothing for children in India," he says. "It will be available at my new store in Mumbai and it's not a mass-market line. It's a very evolved, niche line for people who would like to see their children in a beautiful revival of colourful clothing."
Winfrey's recent visit could prove a big boost to sales, if the past "Oprah effect" on brands she endorses, wears or even talks about being elevated into the stratosphere is anything to go by. Mukherjee is not fazed at the prospect of his stores being besieged in the coming months.
"Well, I hope people come to buy my clothes because every time you buy a Sabyasachi garment, you are supporting India's handicrafts and fragile ecosystem. So if Oprah gives me more customers I am more than happy.
"What I think she will do is open up avenues for the rest of the world to find me in India."
- Sabyasachi's annual trunk show will be presented at Raffles Hotel, Dubai from 10am-8pm tomorrow and from 2-8pm on Friday. For more information, visit Rivaage Boutique, Sunset Mall, Dubai, or call 055 546 1530
- To view a video of the designer's creations, visit www.thenational.ae/multimedia
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