“Sabyasachi Mukherjee: A Design Showcase” presented by The Hindu in Hyderabad and Chennai showed how good design can transport you to a fantasy world where style is sumptuous. T. Krithika Reddy reports

“Fashion is 95 per cent hard work and five per cent glamour,” says a composed Sabyasachi Mukherjee as he readies for his show at the imperial, scorpion-shaped Taj Falaknuma Palace in Hyderabad. As models sashay in and out of the famed dining hall with the world’s longest dining table (108 ft), the designer checks out every detail — from lighting and sound to camera angles and anchor’s speech. It’s the second rehearsal, and in minutes, the guests will arrive. The designer is unfazed. “Give a gap of three seconds before Bombay Jayashri starts,” he suggests to his dynamic choreographer Anu Ahuja.

As I remain seated on one of the 100 ornate wooden chairs imagining if that was the one which the Nizam’s royal guests — probably Tsar Nicholas II or King George V — had occupied during their sojourn in India, Sabyasachi chips in, “It took me three months to conceive of this line. But all this effort will dissolve in five minutes. People come, watch shows and leave. All the hard work is easily forgotten.”

Soon, it’s show time. The guests are seated, and gradually the spotlight glows on Bombay Jayashri and her team of musicians. Powerful alaaps follow and the towering models walk around the table that’s tastefully decked with resplendent roses, candles and exquisite crockery. As lights dim and glow in a range of hues from bright sunrise to deep crimson enhancing the beauty of the gilded reliefs and fresco ceiling, Sabyasachi’s Opium line leaves an indelible mark on the cognoscenti of Hyderabad. “Sheer magic!” they exclaim in unison.

On September 26, the action shifts to Chennai. The grand ballroom of the Leela Palace is packed with fashion aficionados. The three-dozen models are back on the ramp displaying the same line. Coming from a designer who believes in raising the bar with every collection and show, Opium, inspired by the 1920s, is all about cut, craft, fit, fabric, drape and drama. It shows how a deft hand can conceal painstaking skills with effortless grace. From the complicated aari tari that he wishes to revive to the tilla work of Kashmir, the designer uses a bouquet of beautiful crafts to add zing to Opium. Old-fashioned crewel embroidery, appliqué, zardosi and tara work (a cartload of hand-cut gold, silver and copper sequins!) have been used to give the line its regal edge.

As a throwback to the days of the maharajas, the impeccably crafted and tailored sherwani- and Nehru jacket-wearing male models finish the look with shawls and bejewelled turbans. The heavy work on each garment is offset by a simplistic palette that ranges from ivory and white to nude, peach and champagne. With tradition ruling the ramp, the silhouettes seem familiar. Plenty of saris, ensembles and lehengas. Adding an interesting dimension to the collection are the versatile short skirts, bandhgalas and flapper jackets for that androgynous touch to femininity. As for the fabric, while the little master displays his penchant for net, he also uses khadi, velvet and yards of veil tulle from France.

With this collection, it’s apparent that Sabyasachi is open to creative departures. For some of his loyalists who have come expecting to see colourful drapes, traditional weaves and distinct borders, this one is a surprise. But they willingly give in to Opium as Bombay Jayashri’s voice reaches a reverberating crescendo.

Glamour and giving came together at the twin events that included silent auctions of Sabyasachi’s saris. The proceeds will go to The Mahesh Memorial Paediatric Oncology Centre set up by the Mahesh Memorial Trust at the Adyar Cancer Institute in Chennai. Started in memory of music director Mahesh, who succumbed to cancer in 2002, the centre takes care of the treatment, nutritional needs, upkeep and counselling of its young patients. The trust is in the process of setting up a state-of-the art intensive care unit and is keen on reaching out to rural areas.

Interview with Sabyasachi Mukherjee

CREATIVE DEPARTURE

Yes, this one is a complete departure from my previous collections. In India, designers don’t like to change their signature styles too often because they feel the client will get confused! When they discover and feel comfortable in a style, they don’t give it up easily. But it’s been 12 years, I need to change my trajectory. The 1920s have been a big source of inspiration. I wanted to do this for a long time. Recently, I watched The Great Gatsby, and it spurred me to come up with this line that smacks of decadence with a liquid gold look. The more I started reading about the 1920s, the more I was inspired. I did some research, looked up old photographs and pieces of fabric at a vintage store in New York.

BEYOND BORDERS

When people think Sabyasachi, the mind instantly conjures up images of colourful borders. Once, after a fashion show, ace photographer Raghu Rai looked at my clothes and suggested I create without borders for a change. I was sceptic, but tried, and I’m pleased with the result. So I went border-less with most of the creations.

FEMININE MEETS MASCULINE

The silhouettes are down-right fluid and feminine. But this line is also about the Maharani who played polo. That’s why the structured jackets. Think Gayatri Devi in chiffons one moment, and in polo jackets, the next. It’s about grandeur and detail, like the Falaknuma Palace that showcases eclectic architectural styles in perfect synchrony. The eclecticism is in my line too. Think French lace and Indian silhouettes! It’s a heavily detailed line, but it doesn’t get sugary!

ROMANCE OF THE PAST

My love of the past comes from the fact that I have never been a part of the ‘photo-shop’ industry. I don’t believe in a pastiche of the past. It’s a total commitment. This line too has the aari tari and another old-fashioned embroidery technique in which the basic stitch is simple, but the repetitive layers lend the designs a complexity. The past is a time when people worked on crafts out of passion and for the sheer beauty of it. Now, we backward-integrate everything to create more money! The idealism, integrity and pure aesthetics of the past will always be special to me.

CHALLENGE OF CREATION

It’s not a difficult task to come up with something new every time. I hardly hit a creative plateau. If I do, I simply skip fashion weeks and tweak or update my successful collections for the retail business. I don’t believe in trends. Like Steve Jobs, I believe designers must decide what the customer wants and give it to them. Besides, I don’t want someone sitting in New York to decide why lime green will not work for me or our Indian seasons. If you do something that’s you, the world will accept it. Traditional or modern, if you are a purist, you can convert people. One of the reasons we stuck to an Indian aesthetic is because we knew Western brands would eventually make inroads, and we can’t beat them in their styles. They also come with stronger marketing budgets. I want to be a go-to brand for Indian wear.

FUTURE PERFECT

Today, designers are totally confident of themselves. Clients too are well-informed and make a strong choice. It’s a great time to be in fashion. It’s highly competitive and I like this survival-of-the-fittest business. We are strengthening our girdles and making sure the fashion firmament shines.

OTHER FORAYS

I’m all set for the third season of Band Baajaa Bride. It’s been exciting to be on television though it’s time-consuming. It’s nice to reach out to a large audience and familiarise them about our weddings and our ethos.

Then, of course, there’s my jewellery brand Chota Sabya, and now, I want to get into interiors as well. The suite that I designed for the Taj hotel in London has got rave reviews. I would love to design public spaces where culture comes alive.