We cannot help but hoot in support as a designer who first grabbed eyeballs for his debut at a Mumbai fashion week, returns to the city of romantics to launch a flagship fashion address and hawk a new dream
Just shy of 26,000 sq. ft., Sabyasachi’s new retail store’s expansive rooms and long hallways showcase the couturier’s archival couture pieces among a selection of original Indian artworks sharing space with Tang dynasty pottery and rare Canton vases. Picture Courtesy/Bjorn Wallander
There is something sinister about closed double doors. Private cars and taxis snake around the heritage orbit that is Horniman Circle; the stately neo-Gothic St Thomas Cathedral standing witness. The late morning sun is numbing. The potted plants along the sidewalk look like they could do with a sip.
It is just another busy day in the life of South Mumbai’s commercial district until the heavy double door of the grand neoclassical edifice dating back to 1913 opens ajar. The Sabyasachi brass logo is still veiled in tape on the Tuesday that we visit.
We are now inside the yet-to-open flagship store, the largest by couturier Sabyasachi Mukherjee: four floors of retail and office space occupying 25,862 sq. ft. None of the April sunlight gets in. Time takes a turn, slowing down as the gentle scent of rose and frankincense fills the air. The rooms conjure the past with tools of the found and archival material; original Tanjore paintings, age-old Pichhwais, curiosity cabinets, vintage photography, Mughal miniatures, rare bronzes and lithographs, modernist interpretations of Persian Qajar princesses and 19th century Company paintings. It is all super maximalist, rich and ripe; almost as fertile and overabundant as a Henri Rousseau jungle. “As we move further away from the partition [of India], the children of new India will not have a bridge that connects them with old India, except for history books and museums. I wanted to create my own version of a cultural museum,” Mukherjee says, welcoming mid-day for an exclusive walkthrough. This launch comes close on the heels of his store opening at Christopher Street, New York, last October.
The words playing in Sabyasachi’s mind while designing the Bater couture collection in 2015 were dark, dangerous and predatory. The historical references came from the royal hunts and these were then channelised into baroque textures that were shredded, burnt, and layered. All reminiscent of game birds and birds of prey. Pic/Getty Images
He has managed to do it again, create that characteristic Sabyasachi blur; the mind just won’t focus. Overlaying the experience is a living archive currently showcasing couture from the inaugural Sabyasachi x Christian Louboutin collaboration Bater, 2015, and its sequel Firdaus, 2016. “It is a little overwhelming in the beginning,” he admits about the verdant décor that he has personally designed. “In my 25-year career, I have multitasked in roles of visual merchandiser, CFO, CEO, HR, even jamadar.”
This matter-of-fact admission makes the paradox more severe. Mukherjee thinks of himself as a minimalist and talks about quiet living, not luxury, as the future. “My brand is maximalist; I am a minimalist. Right now, I am trying to merge both [aesthetics],” he adds, leading us to the main landing area encasing bridal wear, divided into made-to-measure and ready-to-buy sections.
Sitting near the elevator is a pair of mannequins wearing finery from Aparajito, his first couture collection from 2010. It takes a closer inspection to figure out the identities of the models; in Sabyasachi terms, gender paradigms remain quietly subverted. The first floor is dedicated to high-end jewellery—the pieces he creates for Bergdorf Goodman. The space also holds a discreet corner for “high-value jewellery made from 100-carat emeralds, ruby and Golconda diamonds”. The conversation takes a pause for a spot of tea. Personally, Mukherjee likes Darjeeling but the tea room situated in the hidden den behind silk velvet drapes will offer customers a curated list of tea and coffee blends served alongside ginger biscuits and cakes on gilded trelliswork trays.
“We need a door handle here.”
“The silk shirts need to be better ironed, haan...”
“The music volume is too high.” Mukherjee offers suggestions to his team now and again, but rarely raises his voice. He doesn’t need to. Everyone seems to drop into silence when he enters a room, his Adidas trainers showing a bit of a cheek with mismatched neon green and millennial pink laces. He adjusts the dark-beige Pashmina shawl wrapped around his neck to stem a stuffy nose and sore throat from turning worse as he darts to the third floor that stocks accessories, ready-to-wear and men’s collections. It is as much an attempt to keep up with shifting tracks playing on the speakers—Jagjit Singh’s Hoshwalon ko khabar kya, Asha Bhosle’s Aaiye meherbaan to Billy Joel’s Just the way you are—as it is to match steps with a restless man who drives the conversation from Big Love, a ‘70s Bollywood-inspired line showcased in Mumbai in March 2015, to the taps in the restrooms in a second. We like those, by the way— the retro gold-plated brass parakeet taps are by PE Guerin, Greenwich Village-based New York firm famous for its 18th century French and English hardware designs.
In January 2021, the Aditya Birla Fashion and Retail group (ABFRL) acquired 51 per cent of the Sabyasachi Couture company. Today, the brand’s net worth stands close to R400 crore, according to Mukherjee, and has become a kind of corporate apeirogon—a shape with infinite sides—extending into accessories, jewellery and tablewear. The endless stream of “Sabyasachi x …” collaborations include Starbucks, Asian Paints and Thomas Goode & Co. “There is another global but upmarket collaboration coming up in August. Some day we will get into hotels and hospitality, too. There is beauty, perfumes and home coming up soon. My current ready-to-wear includes my accessible jewellery, belts and bags, and we plan to bring in shoes too. Right now, the world is my oyster.” Mukherjee says he is paying close to a crore to rent out the entire building; the grand doors open on April 18 for the public.
The designer turns 50 next year. Is he ready to admit that Sabyasachi is a super-brand? “In India, yes. Outside, no. Internationally, we have just
begun. It will take me little less than a decade to get there but I will. I am relentless. When I put ambition into place, and back it with hard work, I know I will get there.”
‘Bombay is the OG of all metropolitan cities’
It is still ‘Bombay’ for me, a city of dreamers. Calcutta is a city of thinkers. I like to create in Calcutta and sell in Bombay because Bombay, like New York, is magical; anything can happen. I have returned to Bombay at different stages in my career trying to sell a new dream.
‘A saree defines India’
My core customer buys my sarees. It is a living garment; bridal wear is more indulgent. People buy a saree knowing that they can wear and rewear it through life. I am very proud of the saree business that we have built.
‘There is so much more to Sabya than a lehenga’
Anybody who walks into my store for the first time buys Sabya bridal wear; it is the face of my brand. I had never planned to build a narrative around bridal wear, it happened unwittingly when we designed for a couple of Bollywood celebrity weddings back-to-back. I think bridal wear has been given so much of undue importance in this country; it is a category as big and loud as Bollywood. They both sell. It is a time when everybody wants to feel important, be a star; the most important person on social media is the bride. But what goes up must come down; this is not going to sustain itself. With the H&M collaboration, people said, ‘hey, there is more to Sabya than lehengas’. This was because the noise around brand H&M was bigger than Bollywood. That is also when I first realised, why run after top five celebrities, when you can dress the world?
‘You can be a bride in a khadi saree or cotton kurta’
Our bridal lehengas start at about Rs 4,95,000 and go up to Rs 30 lakh. Having said that, it all depends on what kind of bride you want to be; you can wear a R75,000 printed organza saree with a brocade border and a silk blouse and still be a bride. Today there are so many ways of redefining the sartorial idea of the bride. If there is one thing bigger than our bridal wear, it is the Tiger logo. I go out to small shops for a market perspective and I find fake belts selling for Rs 500, with Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Sabya logos.
‘Such a glamorous life!’
I treat fashion like a business, not an indulgence. I don’t have time to waste air-kissing at parties. There is so much to do. While this store was coming up, I would be here from 7 am to 12 midnight with no air-conditioning. This is my life. Some days, I don’t even have time to clip my nails or trim my beard; my moustache eats more food than I do.
The suede, spike-embellished Dandelion with a Paradise flycatcher bird embroidered with Parsi gara was part of the inaugural collaboration between Sabyasachi and Christian Louboutin unveiled during Bater couture show in 2015
‘My customers like me. They like the product more’
I am the internet troll’s favourite. I am not even on Instagram so I don’t know how they can possibly rattle me. I have developed the skin of rhino after spending close to two decades in the industry. I know it is disruptive, but after being on top of the game for so long, my approach is to not take criticism personally. Only my parents can rattle me, and it happens every day.
What Instagram did for me however was give me a chance to reach out to my customer directly, and my brand became a complete D2C business. But now, the direct line of communication is not even via Instagram. It is via the stores. When a customer is compelled to come to the doorstep of my store and buy something from me, the conversation is between them and me alone. So, people can say what they like, criticise, but my customer and I are developing an unshakeable bond.
Chandeliers, 275 carpets, 3,000 leather-bound books and 150 artworks created by the Sabyasachi Foundation celebrate the slow authentic luxury