Sabyasachi Mukherjee, who showed at Lakme India Fashion Week (20-24 October) in Mumbai, is the rising star of Indian fashion with a mission, like Gandhi in the 1930s, to persuade the country’s new and old money elites to abandon their western designer party clothes and to dress instead in exquisitely simple khadi, antique Aligarh pyjamas or old world bridal gowns, but with savvy modern catwalk twists. (Gandhi asked the bourgeoisie to burn their French chiffon saris and wool and worsteds from Lancashire mills for the sake of nationalism.) “I don’t believe in [fashion] fusion any more,” Mukherjee has said. “I wish indo-western was never explored. It almost sounds like a pathetic attempt to woo your insecure Indian woman to try her hand at western clothing. She’s better off in her sari.”
Aside from his 2007 politically charged “Partition” collection to commemorate India’s independence, Sabyasachi’s influences remain Bengali and bohemian literary: the poet Rabindrinath Tagore’s family photo albums; Satyajit Ray’s films, including his classic period film Charulata (The Lonely Wife, 1964), with a little bit of Calcutta’s communist past and some theatre in the mix. The 31-year-old designer is Calcutta-born and from a reasonably wealthy family, but he started out selling his own costume jewellery from roadside stores, before graduating from India’s National Institute of Fashion Technology in 1999. Two years later, he won the Femina British Council/Times of India prize for the most outstanding Indian designer, which led to an internship with Georgina von Etzdorf in London. By 2004, he was the sole Indian designer at Milan Fashion week.
Fashion journalists tend to attach themselves to the exuberant westernised Manish Arora or the queen of Indian couture, Ritu Kumar, while India’s wealthy crave designer gear from Gucci or Versace. But Mukherjee is the man of the moment, not only because of the beauty of his clothes and pride in India’s textile industry but because he wants to resume the “west isn’t best” debate that still has a complicated way to run with India’s educated elite.