RUBINA’S RADAR | THE SABYASACHI INTERVIEW

Sabyasachi is India’s most exalted fashion designer, and he knows that. But he’s not lost to his own nous in vanilla vanities and egotism, with the veneration around his fashion métier. Sabyasachi the person, remains grounded, but Sabyasachi the brand, has taken flight, kissing open skies, with the launch of Sabyasachi Jewelry on October 22, 2019 in Mumbai. Sabyasachi Jewelry is his first standalone jewelry store in the country, located three flights up from the Sabyasachi Calcutta clothing store in Kala Ghoda. His bridal collections have played the role of a bride’s confidant for two odd decades, but his jewelry, in his own words, has turned Sabyasachi into a girl’s best friend today. His business smarts have expanded the realms of his brand rather successfully as his couture loyalists can’t quite get enough of the bejeweled lust box he’s opened up. They’re now seeking appointments for couture and carats, both.
gettyimages-1194484606-2048x2048Life-sized giraffes, fresh red roses, vintage artefacts, armoires and furniture in brass and solid wood, glimmering chandeliers, floral carpets, velvet drapes, tchotchke, conversational wall art in Hindi and Arabic alongside his framed jewelry sketches, with Chinese, African and Indian art and design collectibles make up the grandiloquent design speak of the store. In the artistic polarity of it all, the pièce de résistance are the gleaming emeralds, sapphires and rubies that seem to be telling stories of empresses and emperors of sovereign worlds gone by. Lilting American soul plays in the background at Sabyasachi Jewelry, which is in sharp contrast to the melancholic strains of Indian music that waft through his Sabyasachi Calcutta clothing stores across India. Invoking nostalgia is the couturier’s masterstroke, and it works.
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Edging steadily onto the global playing field with heterogeneous collaborations with Christian Louboutin (Paris) in 2015, Pottery Barn (USA) in 2016, L’oreal Paris (France) in 2018 and Thomas Goode (UK) in 2019, Sabyasachi is an insatiable man, who seeks immortality through his work. In a world where commitment is precious luxury, he’s the only Indian designer to have committed fans – a hallowed dominion so far reserved for Bollywood and cricket personalities in India. Sabyasachi can neither play cricket nor act, though at best, he thinks he’s a good mimic. And he is indeed.

Rubina A Khan converses with Bengal’s very own tiger, Sabyasachi Mukherjee, at Sabyasachi Jewelry in Mumbai:

The opening of Sabyasachi Jewelry is a portentous moment in Indian jewelry history. How are you feeling?
I feel relieved as the store is finally done – it took us about eight months to, actually not to do the store, but to collect everything, all the collectibles because I wanted Sabyasachi Jewelry to look like a modern museum…a bit of Indian art and craft, a bit of global craft, furniture from all over the world. We had a 16-foot Ming vase that had to hoisted up into the store through a crane as it couldn’t come through the elevator or the staircase. And I was very worried that it would break. It’s a very fragile, temperamental store. And I’m glad that the grand end worked out.
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What attracted you towards the business of making jewelry in an economy where clothing giants are shutting shop globally due to slack sales?
I have a theory that when the economy is down, people do what is called smart shopping – they don’t shop in depth; they shop in width, which means they buy new things. But they shop in exceptional width, which means they will buy something that is really important and something that is spectacular and I think my jewelry brand, Sabyasachi Jewelry has all of that to offer people.
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Are successful luxury brands like Sabyasachi Calcutta immune to the economical slowdown? Or do you think inherent brain genius and strategic marketing can override anything?
You know when there is a slowdown, like I said, people don’t stop spending money, they’re just careful about how they spend it.  And if you give exceptional value to them, no amount of marketing bullshit is going to help you override a failing economy. But if you give your customer great value and a unique, bespoke product, you will be able to convince them to spend their money.
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What made you invest your mind, and your own money into this opulent jewelry store?
When you sell important things, you have to give your customers respect. I think today, shopping for something that will stay with you probably for the rest of your life, because jewelry is not really perishable, the experience needs to also leave an indelible impression in your mind. It needs to create a beautiful experience, full of wonderment, that you’ll never forget. When you’re shopping for weddings or special occasions, where you shop and how you shop is as important as what you shop.
gettyimages-1194525486-2048x2048Do you have a favourite stone yet for your jewelry?
I love sapphires, yellow sapphires because old Indian jadau jewelry used to made with pukhraj, even white sapphires for that matter. I love rose cut diamonds – I love mutual cuts (old mine cuts) they are not brilliant cuts, so they have a little bit of softness and warmth in them – rounded and beautiful and soft. I don’t like jewelry with too much bling and shine as it takes the personality out of the jewellery. As us Indians have brown skin, I hate diamonds set in white gold because I think Indian people need warmth because it makes your face glow. When you wear diamonds set in white gold it makes your face ashen, but when you wear diamonds, actually mutual diamonds, which are slightly more softer, set in yellow gold, not rose gold… it just gives you that old world, rounded beauty. I think the problem with jewellery and stones in India is that people just want to blindly ape a tradition that has been created by the West and they don’t really buy what looks good on them. So if you ask me, I prefer stones with warmth that’s why I like sapphires. I don’t like the rubies that you find in the market right now, because once you start liking Burmese rubies, not even pigeon blood, the pomegranate color with a slight brown tinge in it, it’s like having good wine. It’s a one-way education and once you get exposed to good things in life, there’s no turning back.
gettyimages-1194495289-2048x2048Do you sketch your pieces like your clothes?
Absolutely. You can’t make mistakes with jewelry, but what I also do is that I keep my sketches in my jewelry very organic. A lot of jewelry is completely dependent on produce. When I make jewelry, I don’t assemble the piece till the last moment because there’s always a little tweaking, which I call the ‘Sabyasachi tweaking’ that I like to do. I’d love to combine emeralds which are expensive with aquamarines and turquoise, same color family, but with a huge difference in prices, or I’d like to put rock crystals and diamonds, which is a little unheard of, with white sapphires, all together because beautiful jewelry is also about audacity and courage. Otherwise you’re just one of the pack and that doesn’t interest me.

What is the most desirable piece of jewellery in the store? And what does this desirable piece of art sell at?
Desirable always doesn’t have to be very expensive. I am not a jewellery person – but it’s something that I would wear – it’s an old pendant, an old mutual cut diamond pendant with a single line of basra pearls and it’s not very expensive – it about INR 9.5 lakh, but it’s just so delicious and evolved. It’s like a character that comes without a pedigree, but someone that you’d love to marry and take back home because it’s just so special.
gettyimages-1194491248-2048x2048Are diamonds still a girl’s best friend?
Rubina, ask the ladies. Many of them tell me Sabya is a girl’s best friend.

How does it feel to be the biggest Indian designer brand, and perhaps the only one to succeed on the global playing field?
I don’t know if I am the most influential or the most popular, but I just know that I am onto something big in my life and I will work very hard till that dream comes true.

If you ever sought outside investment, what would be the reason for you to do so? Strategy. I would never pick up investment for money because I think the business generates enough cash-flow for us to be able to fund ourselves for the next 20 years and grow. But, I am not going to be there forever, so I want to consolidate this business in such a way that it lives far beyond my lifetime. Nandana Sen had given me an issue of Vogue for my birthday, a 1920 issue I think… 150 odd pages and the only name I recognised in it was Tiffany and I realised that in 100 years, so many brands have come and gone, and I don’t want that to happen to my brand. I love the way Chanel has been built beyond Coco Chanel’s lifetime and I think that I’ll find my own Karl Lagerfeld along the way who’s going to take the business from me, to future generations.
gettyimages-1194478437-2048x2048You’ve reached a stage where your creativity is not dependent or driven by money anymore. So what makes you chase the next new collaboration or expand your revenues streams with your creative energies?
I want to grow the business in such a way that it can help consolidate craft and create a lot of employment, and also probably help communities and enable us make the world a better place to live in. The beautiful thing about being in design is the fact that you create tremendous positive inspiration for people; you create hope. Beautiful design makes people happy and there’s a big debate about whether so much is necessary or not, but I think as long as you can create a brand that inspires people to become better versions of themselves, you should keep growing and that’s how I want to grow Sabyasachi Calcutta.

You’re the dream couture designer, definitely in India. Having seen so many blushing brides and grooms, do you know what the color of love is? Or what it even feels like?
Well, they say that the color of love is Sabaysachi red but I am just being arrogant! But I’ll you, I am personally touched by love every day of my life because I am a very positive person. Love does not have to come from one person. It can come from everything that you touch and everything you do and everything that I imbibe around me. I am a very loved person is all I’ll say.
gettyimages-1194480317-2048x2048Would you describe yourself as a ruthless businessman who loves the arts but is uninhibited and unabashed about stating and claiming his creative price?
I don’t know if I would call myself ruthless, but I would probably call myself exacting. And when you call yourself exacting, a lot of people label you ruthless. I wouldn’t have it any other way actually, because for me, if I have to do something I have to do it well or I wouldn’t do it at all. There’s no price to my creativity – I would do something for you if I was inspired enough to do it. Money is inconsequential for me, but of course, the money that we charge, if it helps us create something that can build a larger community or create bigger businesses that employ more and more people, it’s very exciting. For a lot of people who think that because I make such lavish clothing and jewels, truth be told, I wear a lot of simple clothes. A lot of my clothes actually come from Uniqlo. Money is just a number for me and it feels great to make money, because in many ways it is a marker of success. But I don’t do things for money. I do things for growth – tangible and intangible. And intangible growth is far more important to me.
gettyimages-1194477822-2048x2048Given your heart and soul are not for sale by what you just said, what would you sell your brain for?
I’d sell my brain for a minority stake at Apple or a majority stake at Amazon!

Disclaimer: Any part of the content on the rubinaakhan.com website cannot be reproduced without prior permission and crediting the website and the author.

©Rubina A Khan 2019

RUBINA’S RADAR | NAME AND FAME SHAMING IN INDIA

RUBINA’S RADAR

India’s Minister of State for External Affairs MJ Akbar, a former political journalist and editor of The Asian Age, is currently in Nigeria, Africa on a business strip, I mean trip. Akbar’s editorial chamber of sexual secrets has flooded the news belts, which ironically, he once controlled. That he tormented women beyond human comprehension, an unabated abuse of his power and gender, in and out of his newsroom for decades, has been brought to light and recounted by journalists Priya Ramani and Ghazala Wahab and many others who are coming forward with their sexual predation stories at work. It hasn’t shocked the men (because they always know) as much as it has the women reading these bone-chilling accounts of sexual perversions and life-altering acts. The Indian government hasn’t yet issued an official statement on Akbar or on the very pertinent and pressing issue of women (and men) being sexually harassed in the work place since the stories broke.

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MJ Akbar | Credit Unknown

A deafening silence is rather typical in our country wherein conditioned, controlled and cautious responses to things that really matter are the norm. Akbar’s grave transgressions as an editor were definitely not a secret when he was appointed minister, but yet he was given governmental charge. Akbar’s editorial harem stories are restricted to making headlines for now but I sincerely hope they don’t get relegated to just that. Corrective, legal action must be taken by the Indian government. An exposé of Akbar’s encounters of the sordid kind is not going to be enough – what happens after by means of unbiased investigations is what will set the tone for all Indians in the future. This is what’s wrong with our Indian sensibilities – we get all amped up about an issue and join conversations online and offline, but then, the momentum peters out. Why? Sexually harassing and tormenting women, or men or anyone, of any gender, race, caste, colour and religion at work or play is NOT OK and this has to stop now.

It is equally disturbing to think that we live in an India that allows a famous figure, a Bollywood one at that, with a well-entrenched public imagery based on celluloid histrionics, far removed from reality, to vilify a man’s believability in a trice. On October 10, 2018, the Bombay High Court quashed the charges levelled against industrialist Ness Wadia by Bollywood actor Preity Zinta with an in-chamber hearing before a division bench of Justice Ranjit More and Justice Bharati Dangre in Mumbai.

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Ness Wadia | Photo: Rubina A Khan

The case involved an altercation the former lovers had at Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium whilst their co-owned IPL team, Kings XI Punjab was at play on May 30, 2014. Visits to the Marine Drive police station by Zinta to lodge an FIR against Wadia, a letter to the then police commissioner of Mumbai, Rakesh Maria, stating: “I (Zinta) just want him (Wadia) to be kept away from me so I can live in peace, otherwise one unfortunate day, in a fit of rage, he will kill me and that really scares me,” Facebook posts by her made for sensational headlines, believed all too easy by the country’s populace that vicariously feeds off Bollywood stars’ lives. After such a strongly worded statement to the Mumbai police, one would think Zinta would seek the fastest exit from such a “scary” situation with a court verdict on the case, but it dragged on for four years, and not because of the oft-criticised speed of the Indian judicial system most definitely. Since 2014, it was a case-in-progress, during which Wadia was judged in public for alleged charges that never got off the media carousel, till he was cleared by the Bombay High Court on Wednesday. Can the public defamation, mockery and well-documented humiliation endured during this period ever be quantified in the same measure? I would think not as the internet lives on forever. Not to undermine anyone’s truth here, but does a more visible celebrity’s truth make it the absolute truth?

The current climate in the world is all about speaking your truth, but I fear that’s turning into a dangerous social media sport, an extreme one at that – a name and fame shaming game. The face and voice of India’s Me Too movement, Bollywood actor Tanushree Dutta’s claims of sexual harassment by a senior actor, Nana Patekar in 2008 are being questioned just because she’s vociferously speaking up about it a decade later. Not that she hadn’t reported it to the authorities in 2008 to no avail. As is writer and director Vinta Nanda’s horrific account of being brutalised by actor Alok Nath on Facebook being mocked for her intentions, which is shocking to say the least. Patekar is more famous than Dutta as is Nath versus Nanda and that is where lies the real perpetrator – the fame scale. The blinding imagery of the bigger celebrity in such situations dominates the conversation, even to the extent of determining its outcome, undermining the reality of the lesser famous person in the fray, which is what is happening to Dutta, Nanda and everyone who is outing their perpetrators. It is their choice to speak when, how and about what they want; it’s a fundamental human right. There’s nothing extra about that.

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Tanushree Dutta | Instagram

Why is Dutta’s authenticity of being sexually harassed by men at her work place – a film set – the very means to her livelihood and chosen career path, questionable but Zinta’s stadium fracas with Wadia and her subsequent allegations against him in 2014 are not? Could it be because Dutta’s celebrity is less than Zinta’s, not that Zinta holds any ranking in Bollywood’s top order today? Or that Dutta speaks firmly and consistently, without intimidating media persons? Or because Zinta’s verbosity was more entertaining than Wadia’s passive quietude? Not that Dutta’s case is anywhere similar to Zinta’s, but it does make the visible fame game very questionable, albeit not the issues raised. Dutta lost her career because of Patekar’s gender power play at work and had to reluctantly move to the United States. As author and columnist Shobhaa De rightly said, “I believe Tanushree. She’s not a commodity that comes with an expiry date. There is no expiry date to speak your mind. It is her individual right to speak up, as it is everyone’s else’s too. And I truly think everyone, be it a famous person who has a platform or not, can and should condemn assault.”

How does a version of what happens, or happened to a person, become the holy truth, or not, that defies all legalese and the laws of the land against the other? Elementally, anyone can “post a truth” at any time and take anyone down in this digitally-powered world today and that is not comforting at all. And, if you’re in the million-plus followers club, paid or unpaid, it is a digital assassination of the person that is being mentioned in the post, the repercussions of which are irrevocably damaging and fatal. Worse still, if the person mentioned is not on social media, then they’re damned before they even have a chance to grasp the situation and speak in their defence. And that’s wretchedly unfair. They should be heard, and not vilified instantaneously by one-dimensional versions on social feeds. But that’s tragically lost in the cacophonous web of “whoever is the loudest and more visible face wins”.

To relay and report voices in the media is as important as the material those very voices choose to put out on social platforms, without any investigations on anyone’s part, including the authorities, save the lone voice letting it all out. By the time investigations come about, it’s already too late to do any kind of damage control for the other person, given everyone loves a story more than the truth today. Access to social media should not turn it into an armed weapon of human destruction by the user or make it an accomplice in their digital crimes and vendettas. That is so very wrong for victims who have but that voice to help them speak up, which is what is happening today. It’s not just about the Me Too movement worldwide, but all aspects of a tell-all in today’s digital era spiralling out of control, leaving an irreversible trail of hashtag insta-deaths. In a world that’s still struggling to drink responsibly, is it too much to tell our truths honourably?

Disclaimer: Any part of the content on the rubinaakhan.com website cannot be reproduced without prior permission and crediting the website and the author.

©Rubina A Khan 2018