'My goal is to make Indians aware of our country's resources,' says the enormously successful fashion designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee. Shoba Narayan visits his huge HQ in Kolkata.
The sari warrior
The fashion designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee is sitting on the floor of his sprawling workshop in Kolkata, surrounded by 10 people. All around are piles of fabric. There are rich brocades in pink and purple, hardy indigo-dyed cloth, swatches of airy beige voile, rich Benares silks and nubby cotton. Two men sit on a desk, drawing floral designs that will end up as borders on his saris and skirts. A PR person walks in, stating that a Bollywood star, Priyanka Chopra, is at his Mumbai store and wants to use an outfit for an awards show.
"Sure, let her take it. Why do you need to ask?" says Sabya, as he is universally known. Three assistants surround him with patterns that need approval. Mukherjee, 37, knows his mind. He tells the sari designer that the embroidery needs to start at the waist, where it will catch a woman's curved silhouette; instructs another assistant to flip a pattern so that the richly textured paisley print will come at chest level rather than at the waist; and tells a third that the design needs a complete revamp.
An assistant walks in and announces that he has won the Elle Fashion Designer of the Year award. Mukherjee barely registers the praise. "What happened to the blue khadi sari?" he asks the American Harvard University student who is interning with him.
Mukherjee the label (not the man) operates out of a giant three-storey white building in the outskirts of Kolkata. The lucrative bridal collection occupies the ground floor. Here, mannequins clad in sumptuous, intricately woven lehengas (skirts) that are the mainstay of north Indian weddings stand in the dim light. Gold jewellery lines the glass counters. Rooms are full of weavers, tailors and fabric dyers and sorters.
"I am not just a designer. I am a businessman," saysMukherjee. "One of the biggest challenges that I grapple with is workflow. I have over 600 people who depend on me for their livelihood, not to mention weavers all across India."
Mukherjee is often called the most successful fashion designer operating in India today, with, he says, an annual turnover of US$11 million (Dh40.4m) - small by global standards, but large in terms of the Indian fashion industry, where labels die after a collection or two. After graduating from the National Institute of Fashion Technology in 1999, Mukherjee began his label with three employees and money borrowed from his sister, Payal. She still works with him, as does his father, who takes care of the finances. His mother gave him his creative bent.
"We are four dysfunctional people in a very functional family," he says with a laugh.
With long wavy hair and an easy smile, the designer cuts a slim figure that belies his prodigious talent and ambition. "Sabya is a seminal designer, who, along with Anamika Khanna, took fashion from Kolkata to a higher level," says the Bangalore-based fashion consultant Prasad Bidapa.
After showing at Milan, New York and all across Asia, including the UAE, where he retails, Mukherjee has embarked on an ambitious project: to make fashionable Indians appreciate Indian weaves. He has initiated a project called Save the Sari, where he retails hand-woven Indian saris and donates the entire proceeds to Indian weavers.
"My goal is to make Indians aware of our country's resources," he says. "No machine can replicate what Indian hands can achieve with textiles. The trick is to make consumers take pride in wearing our saris and weaves."
At Mukherjee's beautiful flagship store in Kolkata, he has commissioned weaves from the southern textile capital of Kanjivaram and embellished the saris with his own designs. Each sari sells for close to US$2,000, and rich Kolkata matrons and their Prada-clad daughters are lining up to buy them. Mukherjee stands amid them, giving advice on colours and patterns when needed. He likes to sell. He likes helping women pick out clothes. No reclusive, angst-ridden designer, this.
"You hardly ever come across design individuals in India with such a strong DNA imprint in their work," says Kallol Dutta, a younger fashion designer based in Kolkata. "I was gobsmacked when I saw his collections."
Mukherjee's latest pet peeve is the Hermès sari, which, he says, has been launched by the famed French house for an unseemly price of US$9,200.
"India offers beautifully handwoven and handprinted saris, but the sad thing is that we Indians don't realise their value. This is why a brand like Hermès can dare to come into this country and sell a $9,000 sari here. The sad thing is that Indians will queue up to buy an Hermès sari without realising that they are simply wearing a price tag."
And with that, Mukherjee goes off to help a lovely Indian bride pick a rare Kanjivaram weave for her trousseau.