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From a loan of Rs 20,000 to an annual turnover of $11M — Sabyasachi’s ‘handcrafted’ journey

Varsha Roysam
23rd Feb 2017
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In 2012, Oprah Winfrey visited a newly opened store in Mumbai that belonged to a designer she had heard much about. In fact, she told a pleasantly surprised Sabyasachi Mukherjee that it was through Aishwarya Rai’s appearance on her show that his work had first spoken to her. This was 13 years after Sabya, as he is popularly known, opened his first workshop — a modest 200-sqft room — and immersed himself in the world of textures and patterns.

Image credits: Creative Commons

Almost two decades have passed since this slightly colour-blind designer defied his parents’ wish that he peruse engineering and embarked on his own path at a time when international, or national exposure for that matter, was very limited. He now has an annual turnover of $11 million. Need we say more of this success?

Skilled and passionate from an early age

As a boy, Sabya would cut up his father’s socks to make dresses for his sister’s dolls. His craftsmanship and inspiration was undoubtedly drawn from his mother, who was an artist skilled in handicrafts, and a teacher at Government Arts College. Growing up in Kolkata, he remembers scaling the walls of Saturday Club to see the show of Rohit Khosla, whom he was immensely inspired by. It was when he was dangling from the wall, and watching Mehr Jesia and Arjun Rampal walk the ramp in Khola’s designs, that he knew he wanted to be a designer.

There was, however, a point when he wished to study medicine, a dream that he was immensely dedicated to. His sister recalls an image of a “focused, ardent” boy who was always studying. But as this boy grew, he shed some of his studious serenity but retained the passion. He became more assertive and with his interests now inclined towards a career in designing clothes, he broke the news to his parents that he wanted to study at the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT).

Battle for entrepreneurship

Sabya relentlessly quarrelled with his father regarding this as he wanted him to be an engineer. Now, Sabya had the temperament of a rebellious teenager which he had already exhibited when, at the age of 16, he ran away from home and worked as a waiter in Goa for a short period. So, when his parents refused to give him the money for his NIFT exam, he sold his books, bought the application form with it, wrote the exam, and got through.

By class 12, Sabya had already made his first sari, which he did for his mother. After graduating from NIFT in 1999, instead of applying for jobs, he started his own label with Rs 20,000 borrowed from his sister, and only three employees at hand. He fixed a bed in the workshop and made his work his life. He’d work on his designs through the night sometimes and this trend continued relentlessly for about five years. He never consciously ‘gave up’ a social life as this was his everything. He wanted to do to the fashion world what Satyajit Ray did to cinema with a broken camera.

The sturdy boat of good work ethic

It is Sabya’s awe-inspiring work ethic that has, in all those years, supported the weight of his passions. His sister, who now handles the business of Sabyasachi for Sabyasachi, told Firstpost that “his demand for quality, attention to detail, the time he spends on his product has never changed. He still takes risks, he still works hard to make things work.”

Whenever he has designed for a film, he has ensured that he is involved in the concepts of it. When a scene from Maniratnam’s Ravan was scrapped, he redid the clothes to suit the new scene. “When it comes to work, my brother is patient and painstaking,” she told Firstpost.

But this painstaking attention to details has also made him a difficult person to work with as he confessed to Elle magazine. “I have eyes in the back of my head, I’m a monster. I only see the bad, I will nitpick, point out the small flaws. Because I’m so controlling, most people are too scared to work with me.”

His passion has always had a streak of genius obsession, making it difficult for others to understand it. “People think I’m a gambler because they aren’t aligned to my vision,” he told Elle. “I can see five years into the future; they can’t. So…I’m in a constant war with my accounts department. When I wanted to open my Bombay store, they told me I was suicidal. They said no one opens a store this big, this lavish, in this city,” but Sabya always knew what he was doing.

Technique that was honed

He worshipped his work then, and so, now, his studios are a place for pilgrimage. He is among India’s most sought-after designers because of the originality that he brings to his designs. He pioneered the use of Indian textiles and designs in a modern milieu. Speaking of his technique to The Hindu, he said, “Whether I do Western, Eastern or a combination, I always use Indian handicrafts, and all my clothes are handmade. Traditional textiles block prints, weaves and embroidery are a constant in my collections.”

His mind now works “like a silent camcorder” that records everything around him. “And when I actually sit down to conceive a collection, thoughts that have been stored away in the deepest recesses of my mind keep coming back.” It is no wonder then, that his designs are loved by all, as he presents the world in his canvas of textiles.

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