He’s probably one of the most copied fashion designers in India today. From the crammed markets of Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk to Surat’s wedding boutiques and even glitzy Dubai, you’ll find knockoffs of Sabyasachi Mukherjee’s elaborate lehengas and sarees casually hanging on racks along with bling outfits from the neighbourhood tailor. But that’s something the Kolkata-based designer has learnt to live with. In fact, he says it fuels more business for the traditional arts and crafts. So last year, when Bollywood’s sweetheart, Deepika Padukone, approached the 45-year-old fashion designer for her trousseau, Sabyasachi had an interesting plan. “I told her, ‘Let’s make something very relatable. So relatable it gets furiously copied. Otherwise, what’s the point’,” he says.
That’s how Padukone’s red matka silk lehenga was born, with Sada Saubhagyavati Bhava [‘May you always have good fortune’ in Sanskrit] embroidered along the dupatta. The first Instagram photographs of the lehenga that Padukone posted have more than 4 million likes. And Mukherjee’s prediction came true. Copies of the ‘Deepika lehenga’ are now found from high-end boutiques to lesser-known neighbourhood retailers across the country. “I enjoy that influence. To know that there are thousands of small factories all over the country copying that look and making the ‘Deepika lehenga’ in different versions,” says Mukherjee, founder of Sabyasachi Couture.
At one time every celebrity bride wanted to get married in a Ritu Kumar; today, it’s a Sabyasachi. Last year, Mukherjee didn’t just design for the Deepika Padukone-Ranveer Singh wedding, but also other high-profile weddings including Priyanka Chopra-Nick Jonas and Isha Ambani-Anand Piramal
In the 20 years since he started out, Mukherjee has dressed heiresses, Bollywood actors, models, and hundreds of brides across the world. He is not just the most copied and coveted designer but now almost synonymous with Indian luxury wedding fashion. The Sabyasachi brand is associated with opulent traditional wedding lehengas and sherwanis that start at about ₹1 lakh but can go above ₹10 lakh. Mukherjee may have seen phenomenal success as a designer in the past two decades, but he isn’t done yet. He wants to go beyond being just a wedding apparel designer and create a global luxury lifestyle brand that includes everything from undergarments and perfume to cosmetics and home furnishings.
So what exactly is the Sabyasachi allure? We meet the designer to find out. It’s a late January morning in Kolkata and we are at Mukherjee’s beautiful Alipore home he has decorated himself in his signature baroque style with curios and antiques from around the world, including lamps, vases, vintage photographs, old books, tall candelabras, and massive chandeliers. There is a flurry of activity as the house is being dusted and cleaned. Mukherjee, soft-spoken but chatty, is wearing a churidaar-kurta with a half-jacket and shawl. He settles down on a sofa and for the next two hours talks about his childhood, his journey as a designer, and odd jobs he did to fund his life as an artist, including washing dishes in a Goa shack.
“Fashion for me was not even a dream, it was a fantasy,” says Mukherjee, who had a modest upbringing. His father worked as a chemical engineer in the jute industry, which faced a massive crisis in the 1980s when factories across West Bengal were shut and thousands of workers rendered jobless. Even the subsidised fee at the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) was a lot of money for them at the time.
It hasn’t been an easy journey, but Mukherjee has made it to the top of the crowded couture market. Designers like Manish Malhotra, Tarun Tahiliani, and Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla have big couture businesses, but Mukherjee seems to have made it to a different league altogether. His style is about old-world luxury: Think Sabyasachi and you think rich Benarasi silks and brocades, delicate zardozi, and outfits with traditional Indian prints. Indian handloom and embroidery have been his forte. With his signature look—a marriage of regal and bohemian styles—using traditional fabrics, heritage, and culture, he brought to the fashion scene a renewed sense of Indian opulence. The fashion scene then was heavily influenced by Western sensibilities, particularly in the post-liberalisation period.
Nonita Kalra, editor of Harper’s Bazaar India and former editor-in-chief of Elle India, says the honesty behind the Sabyasachi brand is what’s worked in his favour. “From the first show that he did, it was easy to see that this was a man who found his inspiration in India,” she says. “From the textile to the print, to the surface embellishment, Sabya inverted the typical idea of India, presenting the country in an original way. He didn’t reinterpret it, he changed the way it was presented.”
Today, Mukherjee sells out of five flagship stores across the country, including his first in Kolkata, which was set up in 2009. The stores in Delhi, Hyderabad, and Mumbai are huge and have opulence written all over them. The sprawling 14,000 sq. ft. New Delhi store in the heritage Mehrauli area, for instance, almost looks like a royal museum packed with heritage art like Tanjore paintings, and Portuguese tiles, along with ittar bottles and a grand chandelier.
Business has been good: For the financial year ending March 31, 2019, Sabyasachi Couture is expected to clock approximately ₹250 crore in revenues. The company said the average annual revenue growth rate for the past two years has been approximately 30%, but declined to provide details on profitability. It also has a strong export business and ships garments, accessories, and fine jewellery to countries such as the U.S., the U.K., and Hong Kong.
Mukherjee is one of few Indian designers to tie up with top global brands. He has collaborated with global brands such as Christian Louboutin, the French king of luxury footwear, U.S. home furnishings chain Pottery Barn, and Hong Kong-based luxury retail store Lane Crawford. He designed an exclusive shoe collection for Louboutin, created a vintage-inspired line of homeware for Pottery Barn, and also created his first fully white wedding collection [capsule] for Lane Crawford. But he bemoans the fact that Indian designers haven’t been able to build brands in the same fashion as Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Tom Ford, or Tommy Hilfiger, something he aspires to do with the Sabyasachi brand. “I know that this brand in years to come will become the Chanel of India,” he tells Fortune India. “I have laid the foundation so deep that I have this confidence in the brand.”
The designer has set his sights firmly on the endgame: creating a Chanel-like brand complete with jewellery, perfumes, cosmetics, and shoes, with his clothes at the centre of this universe. “We will get into home, beauty, accessories and a line of luxury undergarments for men and women,” he says. To that end, the designer has already started to diversify. In 2017, he launched his jewellery line.
The label has grown slowly but steadily, and he has put most of the money he earned back into the business, instead of outside funding. “All this while, I have ploughed back all my earnings into the business. I didn’t take any promoter money. There were years when I have not taken any salary from the company because I wanted to grow the business.” This year, however, he is looking to raise funding.“We are going to talk to investors. I would want an investor who has a long-term vision and not a short-term one. You are not buying into a business that is skewed only to make money, but at some point of time will become the pride of the country,” says Mukherjee.
Years ago, L Capital (now L Catterton) wanted to back the Kolkata-based luxury fashion house but, for Mukherjee, it was too premature a business for large investors to fund. He feels now is the right time as the business has developed an identity. “I will be in control of the situation,” he declares.
The seeds for a luxury lifestyle brand with many divisions are already sown. The jewellery business already accounts for about 25% of overall revenue and the brand is currently negotiating a deal to open its first Sabyasachi jewellery store in Mumbai. Interestingly, Mukherjee tells us, this is not his first stint with jewellery. The designer used to make plastic jewellery during his college days, which he sold for ₹20 to ₹150 at small street-side shops in Kolkata. His mother was his partner, while the cook in the house helped make the pieces.
“A piece of jewellery by Sabya is not a standalone piece. When you wear something designed by him, it is part of a bigger story. At one level, you are elevated into his world of fabulous beauty, but at another level, each piece is so individual that you can write your own story,” says Kalra.
His constant quest to do something different has seen him venture into different aspects of luxury as he slowly evolves the brand from being just a bridal couture label to one that straddles categories, but at the end of the day, the brand still stands for Indian craftsmanship. “I have a huge sense of adaptability. I know that when we enter China, we will do Indian craftsmanship but with a Chinese sensibility,” says Mukherjee.
Bijou Kurien, the strategy board member at L Catterton Asia, a consumer and retail focused private equity investor and part of the LVMH luxury group, points out that glocalising is both an opportunity and a threat. “And when you move from one category to many, the risk of diluting the distinctive style you are known for, and consequently the brand, is very high,” he says. However, he adds, that there is a yawning gap in this market. “That is where the opportunity lies.”
If Mukherjee is able to follow through with his dream, he will be the first Indian designer to cut across boundaries in the real sense. Barely three decades since the first fashion design school opened in India and two decades since the first fashion week, Indian designers still largely cater to the domestic market, with the Indian diaspora accounting for a large chunk of overseas consumers. Few Indian designers have made a mark in the West. It is uncertain if India will be able to build brands like Chanel or Oscar de la Renta that have outlived their founders. Mukherjee Is unfazed: “For the last 18 years, I didn’t pursue relationships, friendships, didn't party, didn’t socialise. I was single-minded about sowing the seeds of a tree and nurturing and watering it.”
The single-minded determination was evident when Mukherjee supported himself through college by working at various boutiques. Struck by the idea of a career in fashion, he had a vague idea of perhaps working at an export house, the only career option he knew could come out of a degree in design. For a boy who put up little theatre shows in his neighbourhood, charging 10 paise per ticket, to a young man who wandered across Sudder Street (infamous for its cheap hotels) in Kolkata asking foreign tourists if they would take him abroad, Mukherjee’s journey to becoming a fashion designer wasn’t an easy one. Many odd jobs and stints at boutiques later, he was able to launch his eponymous label in 1999.
We are curious about how his maximalist sense of aesthetics will translate into the global market. “If you look at the model of Chanel, there’s nothing minimalistic about the clothes.The clothes are the trophy of their business, but the main money comes from cosmetics, shoe, accessories, and jewellery,” he explains. He says eventually the clothing business will be small while the business will grow into diversified products that people can afford, like cosmetics and perfumes. “It’s a way of going mass. And you go mass without diluting the sensibilities of the brand.”
While Mukherjee transitions from a clothing brand to a lifestyle brand, he is aware of the challenges he’s up against. “For a luxury brand, it is about a 360-degree experience. From the staff that you hire to the packaging and after-sales service, it is a very fragile industry,” he says. “A little chink in the armour and the whole thing can collapse.”
(The story was originally published in Fortune India’s special collector’s edition - Business of Entertainment.)