KOLKATA, India — Twenty-odd years ago, Sabyasachi Mukherjee could be found in the bustling bylanes of Kolkata peddling a potpourri of semiprecious stones, bones, horns and other accoutrements, packed in plastic tiffin boxes. Today, he is India’s most sought-after bridal designer, chosen by Bollywood superstars and billionaire heiresses — and thousands of others — to dress them on the most important occasion of their lives, and a public statement of their partnership and wealth.
In a wedding-obsessed market like India, this makes Sabyasachi one of the most visible fashion brands in the country. After two decades of hard graft, building his business from scratch, Mukherjee’s label is expected to turnover 250 crores rupees (about $35 million) in 2019, with a year-on-year growth of about 30 percent.
But India’s wedding market — worth between $40 to 50 billion and growing at 25 to 30 percent per year, according to a recent KPMG report — certainly provides significant opportunity for expansion. Mukherjee’s opulent designs have ignited the wedding dreams of a youthful India where 50 percent of the population is below the age of 29. With more than a billion people, that’s a lot of marriage on the mind.
“I learned early that my customers are not really buying into seasonal trends and fleeting fashion moments. They come to me for clothes that they will keep forever or pass down to their children,” Mukherjee says in his 7,250-square-foot Kolkata maximalist mansion, filled with colossal chandeliers, kooky curios and antiques galore. “A Sabyasachi woman believes in consistency and repetition. She celebrates her Indian-ness. This is not just about Indians in India, but the Indian diaspora who thrive on nostalgia for their motherland.”
The designer wasn’t always so laser-focused on conquering this highly specialised corner of the fashion market. His transformation from Kolkata hawker to obscure name on the New York Fashion Week calendar to king of the Indian bridal market has been both unusual and deliberate.
By his own estimate, Mukherjee has dressed more than 50,000 brides — not to mention many of their grooms — ranging from the highest echelons of society to middle-class Indian women who have saved up to be a “Sabyasachi Bride,” now famous thanks to his award-winning reality television show (in its ninth season) “Band Baajaa Bride” in which couples from across India, irrespective of social status, are featured for their unique love stories fraught with struggles and conquests. Those selected are given a “Sabyasachi makeover,” which includes being dressed in designer’s signature clothes and jewellery, hair-styling sessions, dental and dermatologist appointments, dance lessons, spa therapies and more.
“This TV show opened a new world for me,” he says. “Wide reach and access, yes, but more importantly, it made high-fashion more democratic.”
Mukherjee’s business has been growing steadily for years, but thanks to an exceptional run of publicity late last year, he now finds himself dealing with unprecedented levels of personal and professional fame. No longer limited to high society circles, Sabyasachi, or Sabya for short, is now a household name in India.
For Indian actress Deepika Padukone, a veritable goddess to her more than 33.5 million followers on Instagram, there was no one else she would have chosen for her November wedding to fellow Bollywood superstar Ranveer Singh. “I always knew I wanted to be a Sabyasachi bride, even before he became this massive megabrand,” she says.
Padukone, who started her career as a model, walked in the designer’s fashion shows before “he was the Sabyasachi” and before her own film career took off, making her one of India’s biggest stars.
His work was also front and centre at another mega-wedding that caught global attention when Bollywood-turned-Hollywood actress Priyanka Chopra and pop phenomenon Nick Jonas tied the knot at the Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. Her Kanauj-rose lehenga, with intricate embroidery and fine sequin work that took 3,720 man-hours and 110 embroiderers to complete, was a bespoke Sabyasachi creation seen by many of Chopra’s 37.8 million Instagram followers.
And finally, there was the lavish December wedding of Isha Ambani Piramal, daughter of the richest man in India, which was quite literally a traffic-stopping extravaganza. The over-the-top festivities in Mumbai and Rajasthan saw Bollywood stars and tycoons rub shoulders with the likes of Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, and featured a rare private performance by Beyoncé.
“One of Sabya’s most inspiring qualities is of course his creativity, but also his love for Indian art and artisans,” says Ambani Piramal, a Stanford MBA who serves as director of Reliance Retail and Reliance JIO Infocomm Limited. On the day of the wedding reception, the entire Ambani family was decked out in his custom-made ruby-red and amethyst velvet wedding outfits featuring Indian artisanal crafts like zardosi, salma-sitara and dabka.
“Like any good businessman, Sabya places his customers at the heart of everything that he does,” adds Ambani Piramal, “What Sabya creates is beyond dresses, he designs the complete look. From choice of colour to fabric to the thoughtfully crafted jewellery and accessories, he effortlessly weaves a person’s dreams, hopes and aspirations into his creations.”
I learned early that my customers... come to me for clothes that they will keep forever or pass down to their children.
For the bride’s father Mukesh Ambani, chairman of the $122 billion Reliance Industries conglomerate, the cost of the wedding was mere pocket change. For Sabyasachi, it was a major marketing coup.
Mukherjee seemed to grasp the power of Instagram to boost his business before many of his peers. For the Padukone-Singh wedding, the designer gifted all of the clothes for the bridal party — the bride, the groom, mothers, sisters and other family members in-between — fully aware that this was an opportunity to get his designs in front of the Indian masses.
“He was so candid and honest about it and he didn’t shy away from it,” recalls Padukone. “He said, ‘I know the benefits for my brand when you wear my clothes.’ A lot of other designers would have treated it like a transaction. He was very generous — also with his own time. He treated it like his own wedding.”
Instagram has become Mukherjee’s main marketing machine. He has done away with fashion shows. Instead, almost every morning, he huddles with his young team to cultivate his feed, which now reaches more than 3.4 million followers. But with instant, social media-fuelled publicity for his wedding ensembles, priced out of reach for most at between $10,000 and $40,000 each, it is no wonder that Mukherjee has also become the most copied designer in India. So much so that a thriving parallel economy of fakes has sprung up around him.
“I don’t worry about it too much,” he shrugs. “While waiting for a flight to New Delhi, I noticed a woman staring at me relentlessly,” he recalls. “I felt quite uncomfortable and I asked: ‘Hey what’s up?’ She promptly jumped to my side and said that in her temple at home, she has a picture of Lakshmi (the Hindu goddess of wealth) and one of me, side by side!” The woman went on to explain that she routinely copied his designs and that her business was thriving. Indeed, every morning at 9am she and her husband scour his Instagram posts and get started on reproducing the key looks. “Her earnestness touched me. I think it’s thrilling that I’m in the epicentre of creating an economy, whether it directly involves me or not,” he says.
In the Right Place at the Wrong Time
Mukherjee is a specific kind of aesthete, a retro revivalist with a connection to his birthplace that he wears like a badge of honour. The symbolism of bygone days in Kolkata is poignantly displayed in each of his stores in India — antique hand-painted chandeliers, time-worn rugs, ittar bottles from the raucous markets of Hyderabad and Lucknow, and block-printed chintz curtains made of 200-thread count khadi.
His motivations for building a business stem from this upbringing. “I came from a humble middle-class home and I saw how the family fell apart when my father lost his job when I was 14 years old. So I wanted to focus on creating a robust, stable business. I was very clear that I wanted to build an empire, create employment for many people and find a sense of purpose and pride,” he says.
“My son surprised me throughout his childhood,” reflects his father, Sukumar Mukherjee.
“One day he wanted to be a singer and went up to a nightclub band, stood on a table and sang. Bad voice, but such confidence. And here we were trying to make him a doctor... That was never going to happen. We could feel him slipping out of our fingers and the normalcy of being middle class. We were frightened, but I knew he would land up somewhere. Where he would go we didn’t know, but I knew he would survive. Some people are born with that tenacity. I just knew it.”
Sabyasachi Mukherjee graduated from the National Institute of Fashion Technology, Kolkata in the summer of 1999. Within months he started his namesake label, and soon he was winning awards and showing collections at home and abroad with quirky names like The Frog Princess and The Nair Sisters. Later, he was picked up by retailers like Selfridges and Browns in the UK.
But developing his international business wasn’t all smooth sailing. By his own admission, his experience at New York Fashion Week between 2006 and 2009 was unsuccessful and made him realise that the time was not right for him. In fact, this stint informed one of his biggest “aha” moments.
“I remember what Suzy Menkes [now editor at Vogue International] told me back then: ‘Why are you even in New York when the biggest opportunity lies in your own country?’” he recalls.
“It was difficult breaking into the New York fashion scene,” he continues. “I wasn’t based there and I certainly didn’t have the kind of money that is required to thrive there. I was hungry to do more but I had to change my career trajectory. I decided to retreat and come back [only] when I was ready and on my own terms.”
Why are you even in New York when the biggest opportunity lies in your own country?
Mukherjee’s New York return came full circle on February 13 of this year, when he found himself back in the city, showing as part of Fashion for Peace, a group presentation of conscious design in association with the Isha Foundation.
“In fact, just a few months back I was entertaining Linda Fargo [senior vice president] of Bergdorf Goodman at home in Kolkata, and she didn’t even know I showed in New York [before]!” Today he is one of her favourites. “Sabyasachi, to my mind, is perhaps the essence of the best of India. All the centuries of craft and design seem to come through him,” says Fargo, remembering the time she followed him through “the warren of his workshops” and the “familial warmth and respect” he enjoyed with his team.
Over the years, he has employed close to 4,500 artisans across India — in West Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Kashmir — to make exquisite handicrafts with artisanal techniques the legacy of his brand. In his design factory in New Delhi, apart from 475 regular staff, Sabyasachi has an in-house team of 900 artisans in a sprawling 70,000 square feet of factory space, with jaw-dropping mounds of vintage fabrics and antique textiles dotting the floors. “I don’t see myself as a fashion designer. I am more of a textile designer,” says Mukherjee. “I stick to my core value: quality craftsmanship.”
Looking to Future Growth
So far, it has been Mukherjee’s steely focus that has kept the business on track. Looking ahead, however, he has a shrewd expansion plan. The key is to identify categories that complement the needs and desires of his existing customer base, without losing focus of his core product. It can be a delicate balance — which is why his near-term focus is on fine jewellery.
Jewellery is an essential part of every Indian wedding. About 50 percent of India’s demand for gold is linked to weddings. Indeed, more than 400 tonnes of gold is exchanged at weddings in the country each year. This makes the metal the single largest component of the Indian wedding market, worth around $25 billion a year, or about 60 percent of the total market.
Sabyasachi launched fine jewellery in 2017 via Instagram and it’s possible that the range could one day become even more lucrative than his bridal business. According to a report by the India Brand Equity Foundation, the country’s gem and jewellery sector is one of the largest in the world, driving 29 percent of global consumption. And with 140 million households expected to move up into the middle-class bracket in the coming decade, demand for gold is expected to increase significantly.
“I waited and nurtured the brand without doing any diffusion brands or products. That would be cheating the spirit of the core brand identity. But now with our [fundraising] plans, we will get into other verticals — shoes, perfume, a sustainable beauty brand and maybe even lingerie,” he says. But Sabyasachi couture will remain untouched. “My plan is to have a similar strategy as Chanel.”
I’m more optimistic about foreign investors who understand that nurturing a luxury brand is a long-term commitment.
Having reinvested every penny he earned back into the brand, Mukherjee is very proud of his organic growth. “A few years ago, we had a preliminary conversation with L Capital, [LVMH’s private equity arm]. But at that point the brand wasn’t mature enough to take on outside investment.”
Now, with the much higher working capital costs associated with jewellery and a clear vision for the future, he is actively shopping for investors. “I’m more optimistic about foreign investors who understand that nurturing a luxury brand is a long-term commitment. I have little patience for short-term gains,” he adds.
The next big step in his growth strategy is to have a flagship in New York, since 40 percent of business now comes from America, which means that Mukherjee will be better poised than ever to cater to the wedding demands of the affluent Indian diaspora — some 30 million persons of Indian origin live abroad.
Expanding his retail footprint stateside is the kind of development that Mukherjee seems to relish. “His success comes from his willingness to take risks. He’s not afraid,” says Padukone. “He’s never been afraid to fail.”
Besides his appetite for risk, there is another lesson to be drawn from Mukherjee’s entrepreneurial journey: to base your business on principles of empowerment and patience.
“It’s important you are in a position of authority, not in a position of subjugation,” he advises. “Raise funds when you are in the position to be able to dictate your own terms. And don’t sell out.”