Sabyasachi’ Mukherjee’s global collaboration with H&M sold out within minutes, but left behind a long debate on artisan rights, and what it will take for Indian design to be coveted on a global stage.

Kunj Bihari Darbar, 65, a master printer, prints on fabric using wooden blocks at a factory in Sanganer, Jaipur
Image: IN Pictures Ltd / Corbis via Getty Images About 15 km from Jaipur in Rajasthan is the storied town of Sanganer, a busy hub of craftspeople deft in the age-old technique of textile block printing. Each wooden block stamps down an array of delicate, vibrant patterns, a style that is historic, using minimal equipment.

In the middle of August, a version of these block prints found new life in a collection that sold from Sweden to Japan, and indeed, broke the internet—yes, it sold out within minutes, but also polarised sections of its home country, India.

With a much-coveted Bengal Tiger logo across everything from T-shirts to sarees, the collection was a collaboration between Swedish fast fashion brand H&M, and India’s maharaja of ornate bridal wear, Sabyasachi Mukherjee, the man behind the eponymous label. In its top 10 markets (including the US, Germany, the UK, Russia, Sweden, China and other European countries) alone, H&M has a total of 4,913 stores, and e-stores in 53 countries. A Sabyasachi lehenga, on the other hand, is a purchase of pride, a once-in-a-generation investment for many. Where do the twain meet?

“From day 1, we knew the collaboration would be global, and I was keen to maintain a strong visual identity of India. The best way to do that was with prints, which are iconic, and prints that have been part of our heritage and history—something that is easily recognisable as Indian,” says Mukherjee.

“It was a tough battle,” he adds. “The collection would sell in India, and also in Japan, Sweden, Italy, France—very different markets with different tastes. I had to create something that would travel across geographies, yet something that was iconic, and would shed the ‘costumey’ image of Indian fashion.”

Commercially, the online-exclusive collection—the first of its kind for an Indian designer or fashion house—seems to have cracked that code. It sold out, almost instantly, in every market—so much so that the designer himself claims to have been unable to score a pair of denims in his size. But along with the unprecedented traction and quick sales, it also invited criticism from various quarters.
For starters, a consortium of artisan groups wrote the designer an open letter, expressing pain over the “missed opportunity” for Indian artisans. While the collection used the Sanganeri block print style, these prints were created digitally. The letter says: “The publicity material implies that the range is connected with Indian craft. However, the range is not made by Indian artisans and with no visible benefit to them. This was an incredible opportunity to position India’s design and craftsmanship on the global map
to have become the torch-bearers of what regenerative economies can look like. Apart from the many global stores, stalls and shelves boasting ‘Sold Out’ signs, imagine the sheer potential of this story, had it only said, ‘Handmade in India’, supporting millions of jobs, equity and sustainable growth in communities that need it the most. Even if half the collection had been made by artisans, it would have made such an impact at a time of economic crisis like this pandemic.”

If someone like Sabyasachi gave the artisans work, the whole village would be booming,” says Jaya Jaitly, one of the signatories of the letter and founder of Dastkari Haat Samiti, a national association of Indian craftspeople. “I don’t have an objection to digitisation, but saying that he’s helping put India’s heritage on the map is a bit of an exaggeration. If the designer is digitising artisanal work and not multiplying their work, then the least they could do is pay them a royalty on each piece that they sell.”

The outrage against his new collection prompted Mukherjee to release a statement, but it wasn’t entirely unprecedented. “You know, look at the optics: H&M, a fast fashion company; ours, a slow fashion couture brand. I knew that this would polarise a lot of people,” he says. “Different people do things for different reasons, and for me to do this collaboration, I had two reasons, both somewhat selfish. One was that this would be a collection that would, in many ways, break the glass ceiling for designers from India, and I wanted to be the person who got a shot at doing that. My pet peeve was that India has always been recognised as a manufacturing country, never as a country that produces brands.”


He adds that he understands there are different perspectives. “I’ve consistently worked with craftspeople all my life. In fact, when the pandemic happened, I had given about Rs 1.5 crore to the government in the hope that the craftspeople would get some aid. So these accusations don’t bother me, I know I have done my bit; a lot of these prints are in the public domain, and the only way forward in many ways, is to look at the larger picture—some people will opt for a digital version of the culture, others may prefer the authentic style.

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