In Defense of Sabyasachi | Indian express
Sabyasachi already has his place as a revolutionary Indian icon in his field. And like all icons. it deserves its share of risks that will redefine the category, sometimes for good, sometimes less. But still well intentioned. The problem right now is that there is a segment of the public harassing him for his ambition – it’s hypocritical for a country that is dying to see an Indian label dominate the world stage for decades. Putting him on a pedestal and expecting him to have the goals of the country’s textile minister is a mistake.
H&M began its collaborations with luxury brands in 2004 with Karl Lagerfeld forever shaking the rules of slow fashion. Stella McCartney, Roberto Cavalli, Jimmy Choo, Versace, Balmain, Kenzo, H&M since then, has done everything… except an Indian designer. And Sabyasachi Mukherjee filled that colossal void by bringing our art to the world. But before we dive into the details, let’s quickly go over two FAQs.
Why couldn’t he stick with the authentic Indian crafts that he uses in his wedding collection in place of those cheaper digital prints?
If there were embroidered pashmina sweaters starting at $ 1,000, wouldn’t the whole partnership become counterproductive? It is about sharing the visibility and desirability of each other’s audiences, not dominating each other. And you can’t make a limited edition underlay by hand in an already limited retail partnership!
Why haven’t enough stocks been created for this limited edition collection?
This is the expected nature of such marketing campaigns, being sold in minutes is not a rarity – it is often the norm. Not just in fashion, but in all the luxury collaborations sold in the high end market.
When Martin Scorsese directed The Irishman for Netflix, did theatrical distributors name him and shame him for being sold out? Or in his desire to introduce his art to a wider audience, was he wrong in choosing a collaboration that promised him? Is the Louvre myopia in promoting post-impressionist prints to Gen Z on bags and mugs? Should JK Rowling feel guilty for turning the Potterverse into a very successful audiobook starring Stephen Fry? Which fruit should we become – Apple or Blackberry?
How many western countries understand that Indian designs can be modern, chic, and everyday worn beyond that photo taken at that grand Indian wedding they went to? Sabyasachi achieved this with the release of this collection in 17 major countries. The problem is, he had a real catch-22. Create trendy digital prints from a visual storyboard of, say, his childhood in Calcutta and everyone would say “he gave up his craft roots the minute he got the chance to enter the western market”. Try to use iconic Indian prints in his collection and “not each one is handmade, so he has diluted the purity of manual work”. He would in no case have won either of the debates, so he, like any artist, should have followed only his heart. The fact that some of us think we have a right to how an artist decides to create and promote their work is absurd to say the least and intimidating at worst. By these standards, half of Coke Studio Pakistan’s modernized and massively popular songs should never have been recorded, if the gharanas from which these gems originate had not directly started receiving an influx of live performances. Some things are done to make art accessible and engaging for a new generation.
And that’s not even something Sabyasachi did for the first time. From Asian paintings to Pottery Barn, the Sabyasachi Art Foundation has collaborated with brands before. Its 2015 partnership with Christian Louboutin has been much discussed but not debated, being a luxury and deluxe setup. Providing a global collection during a pandemic that sells out in minutes is actually a matter of pride. The possibility that the world is talking about and wanting more Indian prints through them is a reality, not a myth. Hopefully, over time, the idea of spending on more luxurious and handcrafted pieces, beautifully embroidered with love, fades. This is more than most Indian designers can claim to do in the world.
Don’t judge the man known for his exotic luxury palette for failing to deliver his greatest art for a mass brand’s premium campaign. Especially if your perception is based on just four of the seventy designs that found their way into memes. The greatest composers, songwriters or designers of all time could not pass this litmus test. Google other collaborations while you’re at it, Crocs x Balenciaga, Adidas X Dior, and Apple X Fendi. They were all working for their new audience and were never supposed to impress the grassroots devotees.
He provides a livelihood for the hundreds of Indigenous artists who work with him, while also making the art more relevant to Generation Z. There is a line between being idealistic and realist. To think that the 8 billion people will turn to slow fashion on the other side of the 21st century is a beautiful dream but unlikely given the relentless rise in the poverty index and price differentiation. Pay these extraordinary artists hidden in Indian royalty for their skills that will be digitally reproduced for the masses, as the luxury segments continue to come back to them for that inimitable product exclusivity. Both will grow up and neither is able to kill the other.
Just like OTT giving work, money, and recognition to so many wonderful, long-forgotten theater artists, similar collaborations will over time do the same for these artisans. The more these prosper, the more young brands will take the risk of using our traditional designs that are rare in the world far beyond Sabyasachi. Don’t judge this as a step, it is only a step.
The author is chief strategist and founder of Salt and Paper Consulting. He is also a Visiting Professor of Marketing Research and Campaign Planning at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi.