Monday, 30th October 2017

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Crossover couture

Sabyasachi Mukherjee is gifting the modern bride a global trousseau

By Smita Roy Chowdhury
  • Published 22.07.18
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Wonder of white

When you say white weddings, it’s the image of Maria walking down the aisle in a simple wedding gown to get married to Georg von Trapp, while the seven children look on, that comes to Sabyasachi Mukherjee’s mind. The Sound of Music remains one of his all-time favourites and it’s this scene towards the end of the movie, along with wedding scenes from many other Hollywood films, that inspires Sabya the most to design a white wedding gown. 

The designer whom many Indian girls want to wear on their special day is now out to woo brides beyond borders. With designs on the global bride, Sabyasachi has recently launched White Weddings, a limited line of wedding gowns for Hong Kong high fashion store Lane Crawford. Embellished with his trademark exquisite hand-embroidery on a snowy white palette are these ethereal outfits that we first got a glimpse of on the designer’s Instagram account on June 30. 

Sabya speak: EUROPEAN IN ETHOS, INDIAN AT HEART

In 2004, when I was picked up by Browns (London’s premium fashion store), Mrs B or Joan Burstein, the founder of Browns, told me ‘your hand-work is so good that you should get into the global bridal market’. At that point of time, I did not know if that would be a good idea or if that would be possible because frankly, I was very young, I didn’t have the bandwidth to do these things. But the idea never left my head. 

I did not systematically do it, but for over the last two years what has happened is, a lot of global fashion stores have approached me asking me to stock with them. Last year I did a ready-to-wear as well as a couture collection for Lane Crawford, and we sold for close to 4.5 million Hong Kong dollars in about three weeks. It was quite a revelation. And none of these customers had even heard my name. 

I was very happy because if it’s an Indian customer, they buy because they know the brand; but here these were customers coming from China, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore and they were buying my clothes because they were liking the quality of the clothes. It had nothing to do with who I was. 

This year Lane Crawford was launching their wedding line, they asked me if I could do a collection of wedding gowns for them and it excited me and that’s how I did it.

The cuts and styles are completely European but the clothes remain Indian at heart. I have used traditional Indian techniques of hand-embroidery with European motifs. I have done wedding gowns using Benarasis, brocades and other Indian silks like tanchoi. That’s what differentiates my gowns from those of Western designers. In the West when people do wedding gowns, I don’t think they have the access to the good quality embroidery that we do. So while their gowns are more inspired by fabrics, our gowns are more inspired by embroidery. 

I had never thought of doing a full white collection of wedding gowns but now that I am doing it, a lot of people from all over the world are calling me and saying ‘Hey listen, I never knew that you could do a white wedding’. But my money doesn’t depend on this, so I will let it grow organically, slowly. If I get offers from the right places and the right stores, I will take it there.

The most important thing for me is that I use a lot of handicraft from Bengal and it is my commitment that I am going to keep on creating more and more employment. If I get into the white wedding business, I can give jobs to a lot of people in West Bengal. Because all the zardozi work and pearl work happens here. So like I am doing with my jewellery line, I will be completely able to mobilise the grass root economy of the state. The larger and wider my market becomes, the more sustainable jobs I can create for people.

When I used to study in Chandernagore, I used to go to Bandel Church quite often and I used to see a lot of white weddings, anek bochhor aage, I think I was nine or 10 years old. The good thing about a white wedding is the serenity of it all. Their rituals are very quiet, calm and almost choreographed, very well-orchestrated. I think that inspires me the most. It’s almost spiritual. 

I have been inspired by the wedding of princess Grace of Monaco (actress Grace Kelly’s wedding to Prince Rainier III of Monaco). And of course my big inspiration has been Meghan Markle’s wedding… I was glued to the television when she was getting married because I wanted to see what she was wearing, and I realised that what Givenchy did as a brand was to tell the whole world that it’s time to get toned down and sophisticated.

Sabya on @dietsabya — an Instagram rage that exposes fashion rip-offs 

Diet Sabya brought a smile to my face. There was this conspiracy theory that Karan Johar is Diet Sabya and then Karan came out and said ‘no, no, it’s not me’ (laughs out loud). But we all follow it, from Karan to me. At first I had no idea what Diet Sabya was. So Manav (assistant) came and told me someone has done a trashing website and they’ve put your name on it. He said it was Diet Sabya. So I said, isn’t there a Diet Prada also? So how can that be bad? It’s an honour. But I called my publicist and asked her whether we should send them a legal notice because they had used my name without asking. She said ‘Don’t you think it’s a homage?’ Another friend from the fashion industry said this clearly shows that you have arrived. (Smiles) These guys are pretty good. I have a feeling that they are art history students, or they are design professors. I would really like to know who it is!

Bohemian rhapsody 

Sunshine and bright skies, colour bursts and bohemian streaks… somewhere in the Canary Islands or in Tuscany you would find Sabya’s new global bride. His new line, Endless Summer, is a “tribute to global brides from all over the world”. 

Sabya speak: ANUSHKA’S PALE PINK LEHNGA WAS THE STARTING POINT

I don’t know how it happened but the brand has truly become global when it comes to Indian girls getting married. Any girl with an Indian connection — whether it’s a foreign girl getting married to an Indian boy, an Indian girl getting married to a foreign boy or an Indian girl getting married to an Indian boy outside India — these brides are all coming to me. Brides are coming to me from places I hadn’t even heard of… like a girl came from a place called Cebu in Philippines, a couple came from Fiji Islands, a lot of girls from Africa, Mozambique, Korea, the Middle East and America. 

So they all want to wear clothes that are a little light. They have not grown up with the culture of wearing heavily-embroidered clothes. They can’t take the weight and it doesn’t suit their culture, especially when an Indian girl is getting married to a European or an American guy, she wants to be Indian but she doesn’t want to look incongruous and doesn’t want it to look like a costume drama. She still wants to make a bridge between the East and the West.

So Endless Summer is all about clothes that are bridal but have a strong pop of colour and are understated and elegant at the same time. So colours like lime green, bright fuchsia, citrine.... So Endless Summer is a tribute to all my global brides from all over the world.

The collection also pays homage to destination weddings. Destination weddings, for us, have become very important. Now Sabyasachi brides are getting married in such exotic locations all over the world. Also, I know a lot of bohemian girls who don’t get married in churches any more… they get married in a bar or a forest maybe. 

Anushka’s (Sharma) pale pink lehnga that she wore for her wedding (in Tuscany last winter) was a big trendsetter and kind of the starting point for the collection. She didn’t really look like an actress; she looked like a girl next door, so fresh-faced. That resonated with people. So my Endless Summer shoot has that kind of a look… if you look at the girls’ faces, they are devoid of make-up.

In India, traditionally weddings meant yellow, orange, rani pinks and reds, but now everybody here is wearing pale pink, mint and ivory, which are very European colours and they are far more accepting of gowns for wedding functions. 

In the West, everything was stark white, but now people are wearing floral prints, bohemian embroidery, they’re wearing multi-colours… so what used to be traditional for India and what used to be traditional for the West, now I think there’s a crossover. 

Vintage threads

Sabya’s pet project at the moment, speaking about which makes his eyes shine with excitement, is called the Curiosity Art and Antiquity Project, which involves restoration of “endangered or antique” textiles. From fragments of old Kashmiri pashmina shawls to patches of antique patola saris, and textiles from Morocco and Islamabad… you would find fabrics as old as 70 to 100 years strewn all over Sabya’s workshop floor and being painstakingly reinforced — fortified with fabric and then re-embroidered. 

Sabya speak: LEHNGAS WITH HEIRLOOM QUALITY

We are taking a lot of antique or very difficult textiles sourced from all over the country and even outside the country restoring them. So these will be mostly one-of-a-kind lehngas. I will never be able to make a second piece. These are almost for people who like being collectors; these are products which are almost like heirloom quality.
These fabrics are re-engineered and re-mastered, so they will never tear… it’s like how you restore art or old buildings. This is what my brand used to do earlier, but I moved away because we grew bigger and bigger. Now I am moving back to it. 
The prices can really go up… as much as a lehnga can go up to Rs 35-40 lakh. I am planning to do a lehnga with Basra pearls, so that might go up to Rs 75 lakh. So when you do these exuberant things, you are always going to get a buyer in the market, because they don’t buy it as clothing, they buy it on art value.
I tell my team that in 15-20 years, these restored pieces of clothing might find a place in museums. I had done such a piece long back as part of the India exhibition in V&A (in London), they took it from me as part of their permanent archives.

Bejewelled 

From star weddings in Bollywood to big business family weddings, if there’s anything that jostle for attention with Sabyasachi’s bridal lehngas, it’s his jewellery. Again, it was Anushka Sharma’s wedding jewellery that was sort of a game changer for the label. 

Sabya speak: I will start doing European jewellery from next year

The jewellery is still growing… I think for a jeweller to become really famous, it takes about two-three years… for people to know you. Till now a lot of people don’t know that I do jewellery, some people ask if it is real… but it is doing well.

When Nita’s (Ambani) son (Akash) got engaged, Nita personally came to me and got Shloka’s jewellery done from me. That was a good validation because Nita Ambani has a very informed eye as she buys a lot of good jewellery from all over the world. She understands quality, she understands price. The fact that somebody like her picks up jewellery from you, you know you are doing something right. So, slowly people from everywhere are coming to buy my jewellery. I will start doing European jewellery from next year because I want to start stocking it with international stores also.