Can Sabyasachi speak about the charms of the sari anymore?

The designer must realise fashion is about innovation and design and not who can or can’t drape saris. And as comedian Tanmay Bhat says, “Sabya women can’t wear a sari as you sell one for Rs 80,000”

Why does fashion designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee have the undying adulation of millions of brides-to-be? Is it his penchant for an unkempt beard, which gives him that intellectual edge, or is it his calm, controlled exterior that masks his rather stormy interior. Or does the answer lie in the kind of designer he has chosen to become?

I have known Sabya since he was a boy not from the ranks of the posh Tollygunge Club elite, but rather from the hoi polloi. He was a thinking individual, who wanted to change the way women dressed.

He was probably inspired by what the Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo achieved with her label Comme des Garcons (like boys). Or with what Yohji Yamamoto did in the 1970s, as he reversed set notions of beauty and put women in all black over sized, androgynous ensembles, opening guerrilla stores that refused to keep mirrors as they believed that ‘clothes are all about how they make you feel, not how you look’.

That was the Sabyasachi the fashion-watching world bowed-down to in the early 2000s when he dressed women in large glasses and removed embroidered clutches from their hands and gave them books as accessories (even as Fendi was hectically doing everything India-inspired, including the mirror work baguette from Gujarat).

However, in the past two decades, Sabya seems to have realised that intellect should take a backseat to moolah. Maybe that’s why his high collared tops have been replaced by cleavage flaunting, sequin emblazoned numbers that are only meant for the glitterati (and really uncomfortable stilettos designed by his buddy, Christian Louboutin, with red soles).

Back in the day, he took the fashion industry by surprise, and none of his contemporaries like Tarun Tahiliani, Suneet Varma and Rohit Bal liked his steady rise to success. But soon, there was that accelerating demand for a trademark Sabyasachi lehenga that hung in his vintage looking decadent stores ( many have opened up from Hyderabad to Kolkata and Delhi).

So, when Sabya spoke about how women should be ashamed if they can’t wear a sari – he said this at the 15th anniversary of the India Conference 2018 hosted by Harvard University – he revealed himself. And if you read his open letter (there are Parts 1, 2 and 3 to it) carefully, he bared his soul, heart and mind.

“It is humiliating to have to defend yourself in public, but sometimes a bitter medicine needs to be swallowed to drive home a hidden truth,” he wrote. However, if he didn’t do anything wrong, why was there a need to defend himself?

The 44-year-old Sabya of today is quite different from the dishevelled-haired and crumpled-kurta wearing person I knew in 1999. What happened to the Bengali love for simplicity and the written word?

In his open letter he added: “My intent was to call out those women, who proudly proclaim that they don’t wear saris and simultaneously shame others who wear saris by saying it makes them look older, backward, or culturally repressed.”

But I’d like to tell Sabya there has been a strong revival of the sari with the entry of Anavila, the eponymous label of the Mumbai-based textile guru, or Raw Mango by Sanjay Garg, that has changed the way women today look at the six-yard drape.

It is not just about a sari revival, but more about how it has metamorphosed into something drapey and smooth. And the sari is now accompanied by a top that is armed with trumpet sleeves or ruffles or a punk leather blouse with elongated sleeves. And not the usual, boring ones. So, when Sabyasachi insinuated that the sari makes women look older, he is totally incorrect in his assessment as bloggers and connoisseurs of style have adopted it swiftly.

“Tomorrow, you can shame me further on twitter, make provocative headlines out of this letter, or choose to blacklist us as consumers. It is absolutely fair and understandable because it is your prerogative. For us, for better or for worse, it will be business as usual,” Sabya wrote, donning the role of victim. But read more carefully, and it will be apparent that ‘business as usual’ is the operative phrase, as that’s what it has become the man once called Kolkata’s wonder boy!

Sabya recently beat Manish Malhotra in the race to dress Bollywood celebrities as actress Anushka Sharma chose the former over Malhotra for her dream wedding in Italy with Indian cricket captain Virat Kohli.

Which brings us to the moot point: Is it that the sari was considered the fit garment for auntyjis (no pun intended) till a few years ago? Fashion has been dominated by Hervé Léger-bandage-dress-wearing-socialites wanting to look half their age.
Perhaps this is the undeniable truth. We live in a world where what you see is what you tend to believe without any investigation into the real truth.

Does a style guru who now makes tight cholis and posterior flaunting pants have the right to talk about the beauty or the grace of a sari ? As philologist Friedrich Nietzsche said, “There are no facts, only interpretations.”

(Asmita Aggarwal has been writing on fashion for the last 25 years. She is currently Consulting Editor, Luxury at the Patriot)
Photo courtesy: Architectural Digest

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