Sabyasachi Mukherjee: Finding beauty in decay

Only Mukherjee, India’s biggest name in fashion, can fill his new home with precious antiques and textiles, then wait for the paint to peel off

February 15, 2019 04:51 pm | Updated February 16, 2019 09:25 am IST

Sabyasachi Mukherjee doesn’t do things by halves. If you need reminding, revisit the details of his bridal lehengas for actors Deepika Padukone and Priyanka Chopra on his Instagram account — crimson red for Chopra, with hand-cut organza flowers and Siam-red crystals, taking 110 embroiderers 3,720 hours to create. So when it comes to his new Kolkata home, a charming mansion in Alipore, there is the intimacy of nostalgia as one would expect from him. But there is also an impossible attention to detail – he has individually washed and layered his walls with rose pink, turquoise and moss green paint to achieve just the right shade of vintage jade green.

Always on the move

While @sabyasachiofficial fires on all cylinders when it comes to sharing details of his clothes, jewellery and collaborations, Mukherjee himself is a very private man. One hardly needs to be persuaded, therefore, to join a few fashion and magazine editors for brunch in his garden, that includes, surprise, several rounds of tambola . The designer, it appears is a past master at the game, and confesses to playing a lot of it in his childhood, together with bridge and mah-jong. There is a steady supply of champagne, grilled meats, roasted portobello mushrooms with camembert, and for some Bengali flavour, fried pumpkin flowers and bekti . But no talk of business. This is Mukherjee’s way of saying ‘thank you’ after 20 years in the fashion industry.

Hotel Kolkata
  • “If I ever had a dream job, I would like to build an eclectic hotel and have an antique store, because I love antiques. I don’t know if I can afford to have a chain of hotels, but if I can’t I will probably buy a property in Calcutta and convert that into a luxury Airbnb property. I feel so much of history is being obliterated from the city. It will be nice to build something where people from all over the world could come and enjoy Calcutta and its pure aesthetic.”

When we speak later over the phone, the designer is in New York, two days away from his New York Fashion Week show. It is a Fashion for Peace initiative that involves Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev and also features Norma Kamali, Mara Hoffman and Mimi Prober. The idea is to raise awareness on dying techniques in Indian textile, and who better than our textile pundit who has been working with 400 counts khadi, the most expensive kind, for years now and who has, in his home, used Varanasi brocade, Bangladeshi nakshi kantha and antique fabrics from the South of France to Afghanistan. “I am a textile person not a fashion designer,” he often likes to correct. In his living room and elsewhere, grain cloth (from burlap sacks used to store grains) has been cut up and turned into cushions. They share space with kilims and carpets from Iran and Iraq, Persia and Afghanistan, and wedding blankets and cushions from Morocco.

Designed for Airbnb?

Mukherjee, 45, had been living in an apartment for years before he decided on the big move. Last year, in an Architectural Digest feature on his new address, he was quoted saying that it was going to change the way he lived and worked. When I bring this up at his brunch, Mukherjee smiles and admits he hasn’t lived in his mansion long enough. With his many projects lined up for the year — a jewellery flagship in Mumbai, an April 6 fashion show in Mumbai with shoe designer and long-time collaborator, Christian Louboutin, an exhibition by the Sabyasachi Art Foundation, and continued work with Pottery Barn, Lane Crawford and others — this doesn’t seem likely to change. Mukherjee half-jokingly says Airbnb’s Luxury Retreats might be an option. But then again, he is “such a private person”, he nods. His parents might also have a say, as they live there too, together with the designer’s adorable cocker spaniels, George, Raghu and Richard.

Shining example
  • Be it the celebrity grooms Mukherjee has outfitted or his new ad campaign for men, jewellery plays a big role. “Men in India [in the past] were the true dandies because they really liked their jewellery and clothing and I don’t see that exuberance in men’s clothing anymore. Somewhere down the line, a lot of that exuberance has evaporated into thin air. There’s such a big revival of exuberant menswear around the world that in my own way I try to bring it within an Indian context,” he says.

In his words, the house is a mish-mash of everything. Dutch colonial pottery, French pottery, Indian, Bengal. There are chandeliers everywhere, all F&C Osler, with one in the bath too. The piece de resistance towers over the “grand dame” teak staircase at the entrance, almost 25 feet high. “They don’t make this size anymore. My dealer, a senior person in the business, said it was from one of the royal families. I had the choice of buying serious art and a chandelier. I don’t think I could have afforded the art I really wanted to buy, because I wanted a (Amrita) Sher-Gil or a (FN) Souza,” he says. I spot exquisite pichhwai paintings and works by Mumbai artist, Dhruvi Acharya.

There are mirrors too, a Portuguese one in the living room, Urdu-etched mirrors from Taherally’s and miniatures in the garden too. Mukherjee says he enjoys collecting old mirrors and the illusion of space they give. The old world Bengali aesthetic is also courtesy a steady diet of old Bengali films, Satyajit Ray’s Charulata and Jalsaghar being his favourites. It helped that his uncle was part of a film club and into Bengali literature, too.

The paint job

As for the walls, he points out that his signature layering works everywhere, not just with clothing, surface treatment and embroidery. “I like the patina of age because it give so much character. It always gives you this little feeling of things getting unravelled,” he begins to explain. Over time, he says, a little bit of the top coat in the living rooms will fade away and the bottom coat will come out. Who would have thought of that? “When you layer things with a little bit of top decay, the inner layers will come out and it gives you many possibilities of depth. I hate paint that is of such good quality that even at 15 years, they don’t weather.”

With a turnover of ₹253 crore and the Sabyasachi company valued at ₹2,400, the designer is clearly moving at a brisk clip. Yet he is said to be a simple man. In the past, he has talked about growing up in a bungalow in Chandannagar, about 50 km from Kolkata, and going to school in a hand-rowed boat. Does this house bring back memories and keep him grounded? “Everyone believes there is a golden period in their lives,” he explains. “This house is my attempt to do that.”

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