Why do we always seek validation from the West, asks Sabyasachi Mukherjee, who is in Chennai for twin events that celebrate the textiles of India. We catch up with the design whiz

Ever since he leapt into the fashion circuit with “Frog Princess”, Sabyasachi Mukherjee has created fantasy with traditional crafts and textiles. Engaged with design as an intensive art form, the Kolkata-based designer looks at the old with a new eye to create geography-blurring silhouettes. Whether it's the famed kora, Benares or the silks from the South, the designer updates the classics with a distinct sensibility.

His designs are cheery and colourful, but Sabya is known to be reticent. In a telecon however, ahead of his twin events in Chennai (Handloom Fashion Show featuring his creations by the Ministry of Textiles at Chennai Trade Centre on December 17 and the launch of Vasanthalaxmi, his new line of re-worked silk saris at Evoluzione on December 18 and 19), the designer speaks with spontaneity between check-in and boarding from an airport abroad. Excerpts:

Indian-ness underlines your creations. Are you consciously resisting the bow-to-the-West brand-wagon?

I'm not against Western sensibility. But anything that reflects our moorings excites me. When I started out, I focussed on regional textiles and embroidery. With travel, I widened my horizon and involved myself in reviving different traditional weaves and crafts. Today, most fashion-conscious people think tradition means ‘aunty-like' and ‘old-fashioned.' I want to change that. I take strong offence to such labelling.

This year, you focussed on hand-woven textiles. What was the spur?

It's sad we don't take pride in our rich textiles. If the trend continues, we will lose a valuable part of our heritage. It's shameful we always seek validation from the West. When a foreigner appreciates our fabrics, we follow suit. Otherwise, we turn up our nose and walk away. That's shocking. Why this prejudice against something that's our own? Something that's so unique? Unless we create a demand for hand-woven textiles, the weavers will suffer. Today, children of weavers are looking at white-collar jobs for obvious reasons. And we end up buying Benaresi fabrics from foreign markets!

The very name “Vasanthalaxmi” smacks of tradition. What's your new spin on the multi-yard sari?

Ethnic silks have always fascinated me. For Vasanthalaxmi, I've sourced traditional silk saris directly from retailers and weavers in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Benares. My heart particularly gravitates to the silks from the South. The weaves and the colour palette are stunning. I've embellished them with antique embroidery and other distinct hand-crafts. I've also tried a bit of fusion — like teaming a silk sari from the south with a Benares blouse. There's no pressure to contemporise. What's classic is timeless. What's hand-done never goes out of style.

But hand-crafts are becoming a luxury these days…

People must understand that no two handcrafted items look the same! The innocent irregularities and personalised imperfections make them valuable. They are not coming off an assembly line, so it's the lack of that perfect finish that lends our crafts their uniqueness. It's a big privilege that we are still producing handcrafted textiles.

You like mixing crafts, styles and silhouettes in a single outfit. Yet there's no visual overdrive. How do you strike the balance?

To try a fusion of crafts, styles or silhouettes, you must be aware of the intricacies of each. Being culture-driven helps me mix embroidery traditions in a way they don't mismatch! Design, like craft is about harmony. If you are fully tuned in to what you are doing, you can tell what will work. I do a lot of research and delve into craft history. When you are sensitive, there's synchrony.

Is the sari becoming a special-occasion attire?

I think the onus is on us to convert people. Brands come and go. Fashion fads change with seasons, but the sari has stood the test of time! I'm positive it will survive beautifully. Post-recession, even Young India has begun to look inwards. We went through a phase of externalisation and confusion. Now, the process of internalisation and realisation has set in. I anticipate a revival of all things Indian.

You often take a design detour. From creating bed linen to the most recent jewellery line for “Guzaarish.” Is Sabya getting serious about jewellery?

I feel strongly about jewellery. Small experiments in the past made me realise my strengths. Post “Guzaarish”, I'm serious. My jewellery is now available in many metros. And yes, there's Indian-ness to them as well.

Sabya rip-offs (think Aishwarya's “Raavan” styles) have made inroads into the market. How do you handle copycats?

I just stick to doing what I do best. Copycats usually duplicate successful signature looks — like Chanel's quilted handbags or Christian Louboutin's red sole. There's a market for originals and a parallel one for duplicates! But as the economy looks up, I'm hopeful the patrons of such rip-offs will seek the original. In a way I'm happy the Sabya look travels across markets!

Sonam and Rani walked the ramp for your show in New Delhi recently. Which means Sabya too looks at celebrity endorsements?

Rarely do stars walk the ramp for me. I try and restrict the ramp to models — that too with a pared-down look, so the garments do the talking. Stars are, however, welcome to sit in the first row and enjoy the show. Sometimes, even Bollywood celebrities knowingly or unknowingly wear the rip-offs!

With a burgeoning market, how do you manage volumes — particularly when the emphasis is on hand-crafts?

I'm not greedy about demand and supply. I'd rather grow step by step. I don't want to overgrow overnight and fall flat. I don't run my business like a factory. I don't want to tamper with crafts that have survived centuries.


Threads tell a storyMarch 4, 2011