Sabyasachi Mukherjee: A feminist hero
Two decades after his runway debut with Kashgaar Bazaar, Sabyasachi Mukherjee returns to it with Christian Louboutin and a question on his lips: why don't we just let women be?
In 2002, Sabyasachi Mukherjee introduced his first womenswear collection called Kashgaar Bazaar at Lakmé India Fashion Week, which was shown on a parade of wan women — some of them oddly whimsical-looking, many of them in geeky glasses carrying books. In the context of catwalk tactics, it was considered a masterstroke. His clothes introduced the idea of secret luxury, voice or feeling, albeit a beautifully embroidered one, that a woman longed for on her body. "That was the collection that made me who I am today," says Mukherjee, 45, followed by a plain-spoken, "You know, I still feel like an outsider in this industry. For lack of a better word, I was born middle class, will always be middle class."
Last night at Mumbai's Grand Hyatt, the designer revisited his debut collection as part of Kashgaar Bazaar — In Retrospect, a show in collaboration with Christian Louboutin. The runway spectacle collaged new and old influences, but with a heart pulsed in the present. "I'm known as a bridal designer, but with this collection of 129 outfits, we explored a different paradigm; a mix of everything and not specifically ready-to-wear, couture or resort. Many industry folks had not seen the  collection, and we didn't keep any archival images or have a social media team [then] to document it. Kashgaar Bazaar remained in my head. The collection is not 2002 anymore; it's 2019."
Louboutin on Kashgaar Bazaar 2019: "Sabyasachi imagined it as a gypsy-ish, nomad-ish caravan travelling all around places I've visited in the past like Turkey, Iran, Persia… While designing the shoes and the bags, I kept in mind all the mood boards he shared with me, but also infused them with a slightly Parisian twist and a lot of references from my own travels through geometric details from Isfahan and Shiraz architecture, ornamental patterns from the Mughal astronomy gardens in Jaipur and Shalimar, that I mixed on richly hand-sequinned leathers and velvets, sometimes accompanied with the traditional Indian-style tassel, latkan."
Mukherjee's fashion, for all savage prettiness and wondrous awkwardness, has firmly offered a strong suffragette viewpoint that's agreeable to even steady skeptics among us. How many designers, for instance, can get away with listing prostitutes beside nomads, gypsies, performing artistes as part of show notes? "India needs to get over sexual hypocrisy. It's a topic that should be spoken of openly. A provocative image of a woman, a woman who is confident and happy about her sexuality and owns it, is hugely disturbing for a lot of people. Why don't we just [let] women be! Their [prostitutes] abandoned way of dressing and fearlessness of mixing colours influenced the mood board for Kashgaar Bazaar in 2002," he adds.
What makes all this even more extraordinary is that while being the most highbrow designer in India, Mukherjee is an extremely successful businessman. A trait he happily credits to his paternal grandfather. "He used to own rice fields. He had both exuberance and a keen sense of commerce." Financial independence, he says, gives you the freedom to express your ideas without restrictions. "I have been quite disciplined about the brand since its inception. But today, I have the freedom to express, whether or not my clothes find a market or not. 'Freedom comes when you learn to let go. Creation comes when you learn to say no'," he says, while humming Madonna's The Power of Good-Bye.
Travel plays muse for the Kashgaar Bazaar collection, with a miscellany of 129 outfits proposing a sepia-toned sort of luxury
Mukherjee on Kashgaar Bazaar 2.0
"I found out quite by accident actually that the debut collection had completed 20 years, while formatting our ledgers and discussing the evolution of the brand. I haven't done a runway show in four-and-a-half years, and this felt right. It's not a retrospective of my work, but of my first collection. It was part of my graduation show at NIFT and later introduced at Lakmé India Fashion Week with few tweaks. It's like redesigning my first collection, all over again. Back then I had neither access nor a budget, nor hands-on knowledge or experience. I made my own batwas and bought shoes from Janpath in New Delhi. Now the shoes and handbags are made by Christian Louboutin; costume trinkets replaced by handcrafted jewellery from my own brand. The collection signifies coming a full circle."
On running a Rs 243cr brand
"It should have been a lot more [than Rs 243cr] honestly. Almost every day we get enquiries about a new collaboration or a franchise deal abroad. I could have accepted offers and easily taken my brand to '450-600cr. But I didn't let it happen. I like the idea of a luxury house that's intimate and monitored. I'd rather nurture the brand than milk it dry, commercially. When I decide to expand, it would be a quantum jump to '2,000cr, not baby steps. We are scouring properties in New York; it'd be either Soho or Upper East Side, to launch our flagship store [hopefully] this September. We are also moving into the perfumes, beauty and accessories category. Very much like the Chanel model, their clothing business is quite small, the rest of it is large."
On the hardest part of the job
"The day-to-day running of a fashion house is similar to sustaining a toothpaste brand, for example. Apart from overseeing a team of HR, lawyers, technicians and accountants, my time is spent meeting dyers, embroiderers, printers, etc. People management is the hardest part. I love it but being a force of inspiration for people who rely on me gets exhausting. I am at the factory at 7 am in the morning, and at times, return home at 2.30 am. There's nothing left for me. I have no social life, because I am socialising at work."
Christian Louboutin and Sabyasachi Mukherjee
On friendship and collaborations
Through collaborations, right from Bater in 2015 to Kashgaar Bazaar in 2019 — with custom-made mojris for Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh's wedding trousseau thrown in the mix — Mukherjee and Louboutin share what they have learned about each other, as friends and designers.
First, the friendship. Sabyasachi, himself. It changes everything when you collaborate with a friend; it brings things to a different level. We share similar creative and ornamental vocabulary, a love for artisanship combined with passion for food, cinema and music. I've learned a lot [from him] on a personal level. He's an incredible person, one of the kindest and the most charming I've met. Working with him allows me to know him better as a man, but also to know myself.
On a professional level, diving into his working process, travelling through his archives and learning about all the artisans and the techniques he introduced me to. Every new show he works on is based on storytelling, where he is nice enough to transport me. Travelling has become part of my lifestyle over the years and it's always nice when a friend offers you to travel with him through a show.
Friendship came first, and we are great friends. We are similar as people but also very different. Christian Louboutin is a very successful brand, but the person behind it is also very rooted; relies on family for strength and inspiration. He's very social, which is a relief because I am quite happy to spend my night with a book while he entertains. He's also very low maintenance [smiles]. I took him to Nizam's in Kolkata, which is not exactly the most beautiful district to eat, and hygiene is an issue. But he enjoyed the experience, and had no compunction about picking up the food that spilled on the table. You can put Christian with A-list movie stars or a common person, and he would treat them equally. I like that about him. What sustains our partnership on many levels is one common theme — we are both independent brands. We take our own decisions, and are not answerable to anybody. There's no room for creative differences, which is a rare thing. We respect each other's sensibility, and it's a 50-50 collaboration.
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