With this meeting, I have surely developed a man crush on Sabyasachi Mukherjee. He is enigmatic, wise, has clarity of thought, is astute in business, longs for the past, and is so much more. There isn’t much about him that wouldn’t stimulate you to be your best. He recalls one of Oprah Winfrey’s inspiration classes, where she famously said: “Always take pride when people say you are full of yourself. When your cup is full and overflowing, only then you can share what you have with others.” He wears that like a mantra on his sleeve and is a powerhouse of talent, effortlessly exhaling energy in all directions.
“I give a lot of myself to people. I go to work around 8 in the morning, I come back home around 12 at night. I work 365 days a year,” he says, as he gets comfortable at an upper wing of his majestic flagship store at One Style Mile, Mehrauli, in Delhi. This floor stocks some of his meticulously-crafted menswear kurtas, fitted jackets and bandhgalas, churidars and pyjamas. Sabya has just finished a gruelling photo shoot for THE MAN, followed by another half hour for the concluding episode of Season 7 of his television show Band Baajaa Bride. Taking off his signature black bandhgala jacket after the shoot, and sitting back, he says, “I’m so relieved. Now, this is the real me. You’re lucky for me. With this interview, I am ending my excruciatingly tight schedule of the last six months. I am all set to take a break in the US.”
Travel, he admits, is the most important source of inspiration for him. His mind is like a camcorder that constantly records things around him. He quotes William Wordsworth’s lines from Daffodils: ‘For oft, when on my couch I lie / In vacant or in pensive mood / They flash upon that inward eye /Which is the bliss of solitude…’ “A similar thing happens to me when I am looking for inspiration, these things that my mind captures subconsciously come back to me. So, I’ll remember the woman I saw in Trafalgar Square or somebody on a winter morning in Paris sipping a cup of coffee and the way her coat swung at her back,” he says, gently shaking a glass of soft drink as if it were a cocktail.
When you are a creative person whose business depends on other people spending money on your opinion, then it is vital to shield yourself from any kind of influence. I call it the preservation of the mind.
He is a great presenter; that, too, of the past. Nostalgia dominates his designs and is a core of his work aesthetic. Why shouldn’t it be? Sabya grew up in the suburbs of Kolkata in the lap of nature. When he came to the city, he found it difficult to adapt to the difference. “I kept remembering my childhood stories. That trait of nostalgia has kind of filtered down to everything I do. I had such a beautiful childhood that whenever I am unhappy, I think of my old friends and my school… Those were the perfect 10 years of my life,” he says with a nostalgic gleam in his eyes as he stretches back in his chair.
What strikes you is his honesty. It is tough to believe that the designer’s foray into fashion was an ‘act of desperation’ and contrary to his parents’ wishes. He didn’t want to become an engineer or a doctor. “So, I opted for NIFT to run away from my situation. There was no real conviction to do fashion.” The most ‘fashionable moment’ in his life, he recalls, was watching Madonna in a lingerie corset in her hot song, Like a Virgin. “I had a Madonna fetish.”
Sabya’s first collection stands out in his memory. He discovered a group called Berozgar Mahila Samiti that made beautiful Bhagalpuri silks. “Since I had no money, one of their dealers took pity on me and gave me about 20 metres of fabric to design a collection for my graduation. That was the first time I touched handloom for work and that sowed the seeds of my brand’s design aesthetics. It’s been quite a linear journey after that.”
A little known fact about Sabya is that he tried his hand at fashion choreography by starting an agency called Creative Media, that lasted for less than two years. “It seemed the thing to do after watching all those Miss India and Miss World beauty pageants. I soon realised, however, that designing clothes was my true calling. I was the top choreographer when I shut this company.”
It has been a busy year for him. He launched his spectacular flagship store in Delhi which, filled with antiques, is nothing short of a museum. He also did the spellbinding finale at the Lakme Fashion Week and is returning to TV with a new season of Band Baajaa Bride. The brand is brimming with announcements in months to come. Despite all the success, one never catches him throwing success bashes or after-show parties. He does not hang out in the hip joints of Delhi or Mumbai. Rather unlike his contemporaries, he is never seen at Page 3 parties, blowing kisses in the air. “I find fashion intellectually challenged. I like to hang out with people I can look up to intellectually because I’d like to learn from them.”
He meditates, practises vipassana and seeks solitude. Privacy is essential to ‘preserving’ creativity. “When you are a creative person whose business depends on other people spending money on your opinion, then it is vital to shield yourself from any kind of influence. I call it the preservation of the mind. Which is why I don’t read too many books or watch films because there is so much good work out there in the world that it’s very easy to get influenced.”
‘I want to direct films’
Sabya has done costumes for select Bollywood films (Black, Guzaarish, Raavan, etc), but the environment at film sets has put him off. He’s done being a ‘spot boy’ waiting for actresses to get out of their vanity vans. He has, nevertheless, fallen in love with film-making and plans to take up direction. The script has been ready for four years. “It’s an urban love story and has nothing to do with fashion,” he reveals. It will be a mix English, Hindi and Bengali, “the way it is in Kolkata.” Wouldn’t film-making be too technical for him? Pat comes the reply. “I’m very lucky I’m not trained in films. I don’t think I’m a good designer simply because I’ve been trained in fashion. When you get into something with a virginal mind and with a sense of self, you do far better.” He has designed a luxury hotel, and even his own stores, without knowing a thing about architecture.
In his growing years, cinema acted as a great source of inspiration. He learnt sophistication from Satyajit Ray; Ritwik Ghatak taught him to be organic; and he is impressed by Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Govind Nihalani and the early works of Mahesh Bhatt. “I watch Iranian films, too. I’m a big fan of Majid Majidi. I don’t think Disney films are meant for children, they’re meant for us romantic adults. There’s a DVD parlour in Kolkata called Raja Electronics that has the most amazing section of world cinema.”
‘I’m a slave to food’
Apart from films, he derives immense pleasure from local platters. It’s another matter that he can’t cook to save his life. He’s happy eating and being a ‘slave to finger-licking food’. When he discovers an eating joint, he frequents it a million times. “Right now, it’s Yeti-The Himalayan Kitchen at GK II in Delhi. They’ve got amazing mutton momos. In Kolkata, there’s Rahmania for cheap biryani. The outlet looks unhygienic, but their food is awesome. I make it a point to grab a table there and enjoy my meals. In Chennai, there’s Amravathi. You should try their organic rice served with melted ghee and mud crabs.”
My biggest fear is that my body will not be able to catch up with my mind. That creates a big conflict.
A smart businessman
This shy designer-turned-camera-savvy anchor for the television show Band Baajaa Bride is a savvy businessman, too. “It makes great business sense for me (being on TV). Ten years of good fashion couldn’t do for me what three years of this show did. I think our brand has managed to communicate effortlessly with remote audiences through television.” Despite the fact that he didn’t know about Instagram until a year ago, his is one of the most successful Instagram handles in the country at present. He is the second designer to stage a fashion show on the social media platform (the first being Masaba Gupta). “Our turnover has increased by 37 per cent in the last year, and I think Instagram has had a very huge part to play in it.” Sabya believes in ‘common sense’ to hone his already astute sense for business, as well as for other walks of life.
I don’t think I’m a good designer simply because I’ve been trained in fashion. When you get into something with a virginal mind and with a sense of self, you do far better.
RAPID FIRE WITH SABYASACHI MUKHERJEE
Who do you think is the most stylish man in India?
Saif Ali Khan.
What makes one look sexy?
Dignified men will always look very handsome. Case in point, George Clooney, or the new craze Fawad Khan. Dignity draws a thin barrier of accessibility and is the creator of aspiration.
Are you a feminist?
No. Men and women are equal. I think by saying that you’re feminist, you are actually bringing a woman down. A woman does not need to fight to be equal to a man.
One designer you really envy?
Dries van Noten. He has been effortlessly successful and without having to rave about his brand. I wish I had just one tenth of his elegance; I would be very happy.
What is your biggest fear?
I think my biggest fear is that my body will not be able to catch up with my mind. That creates a big conflict.
Brands you love to shop?
Currently, it’s Canali. I don’t shop from anywhere else. I like their textiles and their strong conservative approach.
Delhi or Bombay?
Never ask a Calcuttan that question.
PHOTOS CHANDRASHEKHAR ❖ ASSISTANTS TO THE PHOTOGRAPHER KUNAL KANOJIA & JALAJ KISHOR ❖ STYLING & OUTFITS SABYASACHI MUKHERJEE ❖ HAIR & MAKE-UP ** NATASHA GUPTA** ❖ TEXT & CO-ORDINATION KARAN BHARDWAJ