NEW DELHI, India — Sabyasachi Mukherjee has achieved many milestones over the last decade, but 2017 was exceptional — and he has even more planned for this year.
In addition to global collaborations with brands and retailers including Christian Louboutin, Pottery Barn and Lane Crawford in the last nine months, Sabyasachi launched a jewelry line and broke the mold with a new flagship in New Delhi. The 13,500-square-foot store with 57 chandeliers, 112 carpets and more than 300 pieces of art brought in a series of unique concepts in fashion retail. His Kolkata store was relaunched in November.
The Kolkota-based designer’s shows are studded with Bollywood celebrities who swear by him, yet he inspired regular women to return to a “Sabyasachi style” simplicity, which was almost severe in its approach, with a focus on textiles. “I admire the woman who has the guts to come out without heels, and simply be herself,” he said.
Describing himself simply as a “recluse,” and stating matter-of-factly, “I am first a businessman,” Sabyasachi spoke with WWD about his success, the evolving market and the changing Indian consumer.
WWD: As 2018 begins, is it time to take a breath after the numerous collaborations and launches in 2017?
Sabyasachi Mukherjee: At a personal level, 2017 was very exhausting for me — it was physically, emotionally, mentally one of the most challenging spaces that I have been in; I was battling an acute thyroid problem which just went beyond control, and at the same time opportunities started coming one after the other.
There was the incredible collaboration that we did with the elephant family. There was the giant collaboration that we did with Christian [Louboutin], a separate one with Forevermark, with Asian paints, and there was Lane Crawford. We launched jewelry and to top it all, the economy went for a complete toss because of the goods and service tax and demonetization before that. So 2017 is a year that I will remember for a long time to come. But we will announce another big collaboration in March.
WWD: The collaboration with Christian Louboutin took you global in a different way, didn’t it?
S.M.: Yes, this happened all of a sudden when Christian came to visit me post-New Year in 2017, in Kolkata. As a wedding brand, we constantly have to wake up to last-minute bridal pressures, so we always do something extra beyond what we have planned. Each year our archive room just gets bigger.
So when Christian walks in to the archive room and he almost faints as he sees all this embroidery and all these saris. He says, “What are you going to do with all this embroidery?” I say, “I don’t know Christian. But many of them are in very small quantities.” And he says, “Do you mind if I use them to do a line of shoes for myself?”
Until now, I was designing the shoes for my collections and Christian was manufacturing them for me. But now Christian wanted to do his own line of shoes, which were designed by him, but using my line of fabrics. This was going to be his 25th year in business and he said he wanted to do something very special for his customers, and the limited edition worked for this.
He used up the fabrics from my archives, and, you know, the tour went all over the world, including Harrods at London, Bergdorf Goodman in New York, Christian’s own store in Los Angeles, Lane Crawford in Hong Kong, to the Dubai mall.
I feel that the biggest beneficiary of this entire collaboration was the Indian handicraft and the textile sector, because every time Indian handicrafts and textiles have been used for giant collaborations more people are going to come to India to source Indian handicraft.
WWD: The collaboration with Lane Crawford last year also enlarged your Asia focus?
S.M.: The good thing about Lane Crawford was that it was a record-breaking sale, five to six times bigger than what they had expected. Asia is very well tuned and honed to the concept of luxury, and Hong Kong loves luxury, they love decadence, they understand the difference between good and bad quality. We are moving on to our next collaboration with them and they are opening the doors for us to a newer market in China. I think the brand will do very well there and I am very excited about it.
WWD: The Sabyasachi brand is quickly becoming about much more than clothing — where do you see it all headed?
S.M.: Today my brand is not just about clothing, it is about storytelling; it is about the value systems that we stand for, it is about artistry, it is about the entire experience of being a very well-rounded brand. If I were to draw a parallel — without sounding too presumptuous — I think we have a business model that is very similar to Ralph Lauren. You know, we sell the big Indian dream to Indians, like how Ralph Lauren has been selling the big American dream to Americans.
WWD: You seem unafraid to talk about the commerce part of it. A lot of people say design is everything and commerce follows. It’s not a dirty word for you?
S.M.: You know, design cannot exist if commerce is not dynamic. Otherwise design would stagnate. I think it’s very, very important. I’ve never been trained by my parents to be a bull-sh—er. I say it the way it is: I am very hungry for money. Whether I use it for personal use, or whether I use it for philanthropy are two different things. But I think money proves to me that we are doing something right.
I like the fact that bridalwear allows us to hire many villages and people. I have a mandate with my company to increase our hiring by at least 15 to 20 percent every year. We are above that statistic and we are happy that it is happening.
WWD: Is that the kind of growth you expect by the end of this financial year, on March 31?
S.M.: This year I thought I would sink because of the demonetization, but as of today we are at 11.5 growth percent over last year. We also have a lot of weddings in February and March, so when we close I am expecting growth to be at about 20 percent. In the last financial year [March 31, 2016] our turnover was roughly around 1.7 billion rupees [$26.69 million at current exchange]. This year, we expect that with jewelry combined it will be around 2.1 billion rupees [$32.97 million].
WWD: You dressed the biggest celebrities —cricket marries Bollywood, Virat Kohli and Anushka Sharma’s wedding in December 2017. Have sales been soaring since?
S.M.: These kinds of weddings don’t happen very often. You see the four biggest movers and shakers in India are cricket, Bollywood, politics and religion. Out of those four, if two meet, the dynamics on social media just explode. We rode the wave. But it’s not that it’s going to push our sales to the sky because we have been doing well consistently. Rather that it became a celebration, and like a wish fulfillment for customers and social media.
I think Virat Kohli gave the men’s wear a big boost. He’s a very well-loved guy. When I dressed up Anushka, I was talking to an existing base of customers — fashion and Bollywood are closely linked. But when I dressed up Virat, you know a lot of people who were completely out of my radar [sports people], who had probably not even heard of the brand, were addressed. Our men’s wear is about 13 percent of total sales, but we expect that to go up in the coming year.
The other big benefit was the number of queries from all over the world for my jewelry. Now my page is inundated by jewelers claiming to sell Sabyasachi jewelry lookalikes! The same phenomenon happened when we started bridal — we started getting copied everywhere and it improved the perception of the brand because everywhere the customer would go to they would see a Sabya copy. And maybe that woman was not a customer of the brand but she would get so enamored by the publicity that she would by default think that “one day I will save up enough money to buy the original.” I think this copy market is another thing that will propel us to become the strongest jewelry brand in the country.
WWD: It’s true that there is the “Sabya woman” floating around all over India now, defined by your design. Is that limiting in a way? Do you have to do a lot to fit into your own image now?
S.M.: When I started 13-odd years ago, people used to hail me as the next big thing after the sewing machine. And then I started getting criticized. Then the criticism grew harsher. When I used to do my shows, I used to tell my assistants, don’t bother reading the reviews because they are going to read “same old, same old.” A lot of people would say, “He is a one-trick pony who is never able to get out of a mold.” But an icon is only created out of great repetition; I think, when you tell a story convincingly, you tell it again and again.
WWD: Your New Delhi store, almost a year old now, has broken the mold on retail design, and has both old world charm and a sense of exuberance. Is it worth it, with the high real estate prices?
S.M.: I think this is the right time because people in India are much more ready for a holistic experience in retail than they were ever before. At one time people here were just ready to buy a good product at a great price. But now they have become ever so demanding because the Internet has opened up their minds, so they want a better and bigger customer experience; they want the exuberance of retail.
As customers’ minds open to new possibilities, it is truly going to become the survival of the fittest. This is when brands need to flex their muscles and give a full 360-degree experience to the customers.
WWD: The store seems to have a strong bridal focus, though. Is your focus so much on the wedding market now?
S.M.: Well, it is 95 percent a bridal store. My focus has shifted more to bridalwear in the last three to four years, yes. I have found that being a little bit of everything doesn’t work anymore; you have to be the best at something and I truly want it to be a bridalwear brand that is above everybody else’s in the market. You see, I’m 43 right now. When you’re 33 or 34 there is a lot of urgency to prove a lot of things to yourself. But now I’m finally finding my niche and I’m realizing that whichever way we can tell the India story beautifully is what I want to put my fingers into. I have decided that for clothing, bridalwear is a great segment to be at.
WWD: In all these years, has the customer become more discerning?
S.M.: I always say the biggest mistake we have made time and again is that we have always — always — underestimated our consumer.
If you look at consumer behavior patterns, we are a brand that is for a slightly older customer, or a slightly surer customer. When a man or a woman is growing up, you go through your turbulent times as a teenager — through your blonde-hair-days and your red-hair-days and your frizz-and-spikes — and then you eventually decide that waist-length hair with center parting looks best on you and stick to it for the rest of your life. I think our repeat consumers come to us because they are very sure about who they are, what their look is and they are very happy to carry on the same look for the rest of their life.
WWD: When L Capital, came knocking to invest in you a few years ago, and it was a prestigious thing being funded by an LVMH fund in India, wasn’t that something you wanted to explore?
S.M.: You know, what happened with L Capital was a great learning [experience]. I understood what people were willing to pay for my brand. Arrogance doesn’t set in, but what sets in is self-confidence. What L Capital did was help me understand the importance of the brand and its impact on the Indian economy and what impact it could have in the future.
But I also had one more learning experience. You know, mine is a well-loved brand. I compare my brand with Amul butter. The onus of a well-loved brand lies with the consumer and doesn’t lie with the brand anymore. So when somebody comes in with fast money and wants quick returns in five years, you know you have been able to create a lot of wealth for them, but at the end of it, the core of your business has been sucked dry and when the investor leaves, you will have nothing to offer, because your brand has never had an organic growth. Then would come the big crash.
But now the brand has had a chance to grow organically and I am ready to look at funding from the market, particularly global funding in my jewelry brand, even if it means diluting the brand to 20 percent and growing jewelry and accessories at large.
WWD: So is it about creating the Sabyasachi brand for posterity?
S.M.: I know one thing for sure about Sabyasachi. I know this brand is going to live probably 500 years after I have gone away. I am building a brand that I know somebody else will take over and nurture, like Chanel. I’m not building a brand to just exist in my lifetime and disappear.