Sabyasachi x H&M Fashion

Judge Sabyasachi on the basis of his core strength: business

Sabyasachi x H&M   | Photo Credit: Frida Marklund

Barely a week into designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee’s global collaboration with fashion retail giant H&M, everything that could go wrong has done so. The ‘crashed apps and stubborn carts’ as he called them on an Instagram post, problems with fits and not enough size inclusivity, the alleged return period of a single day that left many disgruntled, and that very bad word: viscose. Not to mention a collective open letter from the country’s craft communities that has gone viral. Plus, a total of nine Indian magazines that allowed Sabyasachi to literally give them their digital covers, which quickly became the butt of jokes about how print media has sold the remainder of its soul. This could be a two-pronged masterclass in how not to do a fashion collaboration and yet, having done it, how to market it to the high heavens.

Magazine covers

Magazine covers   | Photo Credit: @sabyasachiofficial

In the midst of all this, I feel we have forgotten something crucial about Sabyasachi the designer. That he is, foremost, a businessman. He has made no secret of it ever since he started doing interviews, which was pretty much from his debut on the ramp at the then Lakmé India Fashion Week at the turn of the millennium. And I, for one, do not see a problem with that.

Also read | ‘Sabyasachi x H&M: a wake-up call to the design fraternity’

For over 20 years, Sabyasachi has evolved into a brand that has pushed a craft-oriented narrative in his bridal wear, creating a tribe of moneyed loyalists across the world. He has become a household name for even those who can only dream of owning a handkerchief with the Bengal Tiger logo. Why, then, is a collaboration that makes his designs — he never promised his craft — available to a global, aspirational audience, being judged through the lens of socialist morals when it is clearly a capitalist business exercise?

Designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee

Designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee  

Highlighting our hypocrisy

The questions being put forward to him now make me laugh because, while the board is the same, he’s playing checkers and we’re stuck in the arcana of chess. Example: ‘He’s known as a champion of the crafts of India. Why did he not ensure that even a percentage of this collection features Indian crafts?’ Why should he? It’s a collaboration with H&M!

About the customers: the same people who were happy to queue outside H&M stores when their Balmain line launched in 2015 — with the worst blended wool military coats and ill-cut trousers — are questioning why something Sabyasachi already sells for lakhs isn’t suddenly available for thousands while also being mass produced for a global launch? No designer or creative person on this planet owes us affordability. That they choose to do so through such collaborations is, well, their business. The choice to buy into it, literally or figuratively, remains firmly with us.

Newly-launched heritage womenswear and menswear

Newly-launched heritage womenswear and menswear   | Photo Credit: @sabyasachiofficial

Which leads me to this: behind the criticism that Sabyasachi today faces lies a denial of our own hypocrisy. We love the idea of such fashion collaborations as great levellers as long as they’re done with international designer names. Yet we are also the ones who are quick to suggest a lighter odhani or a border or two fewer when that couture wedding lehenga is just out of budget. Let’s admit it, it was never about Sabyasachi or the craftspeople. It’s about us not getting what we want for cheaper; about the fact that here, at home, we are coddled by designers who are happy to oblige because they produce fewer SKUs of higher value as part of their business strategy. And that’s OK, because it is our unique ecosystem. Sabyasachi, I’m told, is one of the few Indian designers who does not entertain such requests.

Also read | Sabyasachi brings the sari to H&M

So how is a global fashion collaboration, the very premise of which is to sell in numbers, being held responsible for ringing the ‘death knell’ on the future of artisans and craft communities of India? When did one designer become so powerful? When did a choice to collaborate with a fast-fashion retailer become a zero sum game? The artisans of India do not rely solely on Sabyasachi giving them work, do they? Many designers before him have made exquisite saris and lehengas, and continue to do so. One of his greatest innovations is creating a system of line production when it was almost unheard of in India, giving him an edge over his competition. Just like Salvatore Ferragamo did for handmade shoes in Italy and changed the game.

Designs from ‘Wanderlust’, the Sabyasachi x H&M collection

Designs from ‘Wanderlust’, the Sabyasachi x H&M collection   | Photo Credit: Frida Marklund

Putting business first

So why are we so disappointed in this one-of-a-kind global design collaboration that, according to Sabyasachi Mukherjee, has shown the world that India can also be a hub of design, and not just cheap, skilled labour? And what real possibility ever existed for India’s artisans to actually be a part of this collaboration without prices shooting up even beyond the (gasp!) ₹9,999, digitally-printed sari featuring (allegedly) culturally-appropriated Sanganeri block print motifs?

Few designers across the world have a head for business. Sabyasachi is one of them. If he is to be judged as a designer, then this conversation is pointless. Let us judge him on the basis of his core strength, which is business.

The questions we should be asking are: has he created a global furore like H&M’s previous collections with Karl Lagerfeld and Balmain did? Yes. Does this range make his design signature available to people who otherwise cannot afford his couture? Yes. Does it crack the door open for other talented Indian designers to explore planet-wide design collaborations? Yes.

And perhaps the most relevant question of all: did it ever have anything to do with our artisanal legacy beyond informing the visual aesthetics of the collection? The answer, as has been proved with every resounding ka-ching of the till, is no.

Varun Rana is a fashion commentator.

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Printable version | Oct 21, 2021 2:51:34 AM |

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