When Indian designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee announced he was teaming up with the Swedish fashion giant Hennes & Mauritz AB, more commonly known as H&M, there was a feeling of triumph felt across the South Asian community, both in the homeland and diaspora. The richness and vibrancy of our culture showcased in our intricate patterns and luxurious fabrics was finally going to be celebrated across the world. It was a feat, or so we thought.
When the renowned couturier released his “Wanderlust” collection on August 12, the excitement quickly turned to disappointment. Regardless of that disappointment, the collection sold out in minutes. Many people were unable to get their hands on a single product. I was one of those individuals. The reason of disappointment varies person to person. For some, the high market price for something that usually costs 500 Indian Rupees in the markets of New Delhi was the issue. For others, it was the “common” looking designs that killed the excitement for this collaboration.
For me, it was a combination of it all, plus some. Fast fashion is problematic. I may not be the best spokesperson for it, but there is a sense of social responsibility in acknowledging this fact. I understood the motivation Mr. Mukherjee had in releasing “Wanderlust” with H&M. The brand carries the weight needed to amplify certain styles and fashion across the world. It’s global and growing presence coupled with its impressive marketing technique would be a guaranteed way for any designer to successfully reach a high exposure potential, which would be monumental for a South Asian brand. From a business perspective, it makes sense. From a social perspective, not so much.
Many of us who were born and raised in the South Asian diaspora have a somewhat troubled relationship with our cultural style. We didn’t wear our cultural outfits to school or hang outs with friends, resulting from the fear of being out-casted or bullied for being different. Our cultural garb was reserved for South Asian specific events. The reasons for this are complicated and copious, which is a conversation for another time. There is, however, one overriding common emotion in this situation- having a dual identity while growing up was difficult, especially when one side of you was not properly represented in media and fashion. For this reason alone, I was extremely ecstatic a South Asian fashion mogul like Sabyasachi was teaming up with H&M. I looked back to my childhood and thought. “finally! no more little girls will be bullied for wearing lehngas as skirts.” This was supposed to be a win for not just Mr. Mukherjee and his personal brand but for South Asians everywhere.
To simply put it, I expected more. Sabyasachi Mukherjee carries a monumental brand presence in South Asia, having dressed South Asia’s best from Deepika Padukone to Priyanka Chopra. His designs have been revolutionary, starting trends left and right. I was hoping he’d bring that same caliber to his designs in the “Wanderlust” collection. I wanted to be wowed. I was anticipating something different that would start trends and change the direction of street style. I could not wait to see people everywhere donning our exquisite patterns and colors. What we got was the complete opposite of that. Don’t get me wrong, I respect and value the simplicity of those designs. They carry the stories of our ancestors and are the products of the very talented artisans of our country. But for Sabyasachi to use these designs, that were in no means original to his brand aesthetic, is extremely hypocritical.
In India, the elite, which makes up the majority of the clientele of high end designers like Sabyasachi, would be the first to ridicule such simple and outdated designs. So the outrage coming from supporters of Sabyasachi as a result of all the social media trolling is beyond me because these are the same people who would mock these designs in the markets of India. The hypocrisy is what outrages me about these designs and the consumers purchasing these designs.
Why is it justifiable to buy such designs when it comes from a name like Sabyasachi, but you will look down on the 500 INR block print cotton kurta at the markets of India?
The artisan community in India is suffering, in fact has been suffering for a very long time. Imagine if we were to shop with the same vigor at the modest stores of these artisans? The economic struggles these artisans face would be highly alleviated. His collection is a direct threat to the livelihood of these artisans. The jobs and sustainable growth needed in their community will suffer greatly with the rise of online shopping of their designs via big names like Sabyasachi and H&M. It would be one thing if these artisans were credited and incentivized for these designs and their craftmanship. It would have been even better if they were contracted to manufacture this collection. Neither of these actions happened. The gross exploitation of the craftmanship of these artisans furthers the struggles of this community, which has been exploited since the times of the British Raj.
Mr. Mukherjee claimed that the impetus for this “Wanderlust” collection was to highlight the designs of India and show the world that there is more to India than just manufacturing. He wanted to elevate the “Made in India” tag on a global front. The execution of this idea has clearly proven to be a missed opportunity by this so-called socially responsible designer. The implications of this collaboration are damaging not only in South Asia but across the globe. There is a very fine line in between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. Sabyasachi is currently hanging on by a thread on that fine line. Furthermore, this collection will further deepen the class divide of South Asia, especially between the artisan communities and the elite fashion industry. Mr. Mukherjee had the opportunity of a lifetime to elevate the artisan community and celebrate their craftmanship on a global front. By not acknowledging the efforts of South Asian artisans and not crediting them for these designs, he has failed his country.