The Indian designer talks about bringing his saris and accessories to New York’s luxury retailer and breaks his silence about the Aditya Birla Fashion partnership
Most people may not even have bought new calendars yet, but Sabyasachi Mukherjee has already had a busy five weeks. The brand and designer entered a 51% strategic partnership with Aditya Birla Fashion and Retail Limited (ABFRL), and fulfilled one of his oldest dreams to sell a full collection at Bergdorf Goodman. His pop-up store at New York’s pre-eminent luxury department store runs between February 18 and March 20.
Previously having designed collections for Pottery Barn, Thomas Goode & Co, Christian Louboutin and the yet-to-be-released (and under embargo) H&M, he’s no stranger to international fascination. He is arguably India’s biggest fashion and design success story at present and this would be his second innings at Bergdorf Goodman. Last year, in the middle of the pandemic, Mukherjee launched his jewellery line at the New York store. It was a regal fest, as far as the designs are concerned. None of those diffusion or prêt adjustments to suit an international audience. The 65-piece Haute Joaillerie collection featured three edits — Chowringhee, The Sudder and Bengal Royale — made in uncut diamonds, rubies, pearls, emeralds, sapphires and amethysts in a boho-luxe style.
“My new line for Bergdorf is a historic moment. Not only are they acknowledging an Indian designer, but they are acknowledging the Indian consumer.” This, because for the first time, Bergdorf Goodman will be selling Indian clothes (saris, lehengas among others) right next to international luxury brands. It is the first time an Indian designer has been invited to sell Indian clothes and not just its sensibility via “western silhouettes”. It is Indian clothes for Indian people in America. The timing is particularly sweet to him, as “US Vice President Kamala Harris just broke the glass ceiling, and there are so many Indians on US President Joe Biden’s cabinet”.
On a personal note, this is his wish-fulfilment; having returned disillusioned from NYC as a young designer (“everybody wanted a piece of India as long as it wasn’t too Indian”), he promised himself that he would return to the city only on his own terms. Bergdorf is the biggest seal of approval for any designer. The store has dressed several first ladies of America, counts the Lennons as its clients and did more for the careers of Michael Kors and Halston than any other store. “Even [Rihanna’s] Fenty launched there!” he adds. While his own NYC store launches in 2022, this move is a strong opening statement.
Sabyasachi at Bergdorf Goodman
Blue hair and silk trench coats
The collection and campaign imagery are in his signature palette and is one of his youngest and breeziest iterations yet. The clothes could easily be gender agnostic (he echoes this generation’s voice — conversations on sexuality and gender are no longer debates and should be beyond controversy). One of the models sports blue hair, a departure from his preference towards slicked back hair or big bouffant styles for the bridal campaigns.
In a true celebration of Indian crafts and heritage, quilted silk trench coats in solid colours and loungewear (approx ₹48,000 to ₹1.77 lakh), his signature hyper, mix-media printed kaftans, pashmina scarves (approx ₹73,000 to ₹6.99 lakh) and 24K gold Benarsi saris (₹3.97 lakh) make the collection. That’s right. You are going to see saris front and centre at Bergdorf Goodman, and over 177 pieces in bags and other accessories alone (₹17,000 to ₹1.3 lakh). There is also a new fine jewellery edit (₹3.61 lakh to ₹2.5 crore). Not bad, keeping in mind that he turned the collection around in a record 60 days. Bergdorf’s will also mark the global launch of the Sabyasachi handbag collection, with special bags, featuring embroidery and unique motifs, ranging from approximately ₹17,000 to ₹1.3 lakh.
Enough with the memes
What does he have to say about ABFRL’s acquisition in the Sabyaschi brand, reportedly worth ₹398 crores? “A lot of designers enter partnerships as distress sales. Our brand is a profit-making company,” is his response. Mukherjee, who turns 47 this month, wants to use the next decade or so to build the company and choose a successor to last beyond his years. He’s well aware of the rumours and jokes though. “People have been asking if I am going to be available at Pantaloons now.” He makes it clear he’s a couture brand and that partnerships are back-end strategies to grow businesses, not front-end design decisions. “Mr Birla and I have immense respect for how the other has built their business; we are clear on wanting to grow the brand together from strength to strength. Value systems cannot be replaced by money.” He feels responsible for people who have worked with him for years and their families — in part, why he entered the strategic partnership with ABFRL.
An inclusive manifesto
While Mukherjee is known to be an astute businessman, he is also sentimental. “The brand belongs to the people now,” he says, hoping to secure the future of his teams that have been devoted to his vision. And of course, there are plans to introduce more products with accessible price points within accessories, and venture into beauty and wellness.
His on-hold H&M collection would have been that thought in motion. “As a middle-class boy, I could never go to a disco or visit malls. I couldn’t afford it. I know what it feels to be excluded. H&M was my great moment of joy, to be able to engage with a larger audience.” He’s under an NDA, but hints that the collection will come back.
- Mukherjee, who has a lovely home with a wild garden in Kolkata, started gardening during the pandemic.
- He says he finally took up cooking and candidly shares that he couldn’t even boil eggs before.
- Apart from this, his parents moved in with him and he finally had the time to spend with them.
But first, India
“It’s time for the world to realise that India is not only a back-end service centre for global luxury brands,” Mukherjee observes, adding that it irks when people say India cannot deliver quality. “The only thing India hasn’t been able to do is stand up for itself and market itself well!” The pandemic has shifted our value systems, that is evident. The focus is on karigari, and products that carry history. To a discerning shopper who can look beyond marketed luxury, India is at the forefront.
For brand Sabyasachi though, an India-first manifesto has been its north star from the beginning. Beyond the glam campaigns and shows, his clothes are simple. There’s a sherwani or bundi jacket for a man, and a lehenga, a sari or salwar kameez for the woman; no unrealistic trails or power shoulders. The clothes don’t confuse you, and they’ll last you a lifetime — that is his true gift to India, and now the world.