About a week ago, Sabyasachi Mukherjee, the go-to-designer for Bollywood brides, announced a collaboration between him and Swedish multinational ready-to-wear clothing giant H&M. The collaboration catapulted Mukherjee into the same league as that of Karl Lagerfeld, Giambattista Valli, Jimmy Choo and Versace who had collaborations with the clothing behemoth, making their designs accessible to millions at a fraction of their couture cost.
Mukherjee’s collaboration with H&M, called ‘Wanderlust’, features Bohemian kaftans, trousers, t-shirts, dresses and a sari. The collection took inspiration from Rajasthan’s sanganeri prints among other Indian crafts traditions. When it went online on August 12, it was sold out within minutes. While many saw this as a triumph for Indian design globally, the Indian artisan community saw the collaboration as an antithesis to Sabyasachi’s ethos.
In an open letter to the designer, textile revivalist Laila Tyabji, Jaya Jaitly, founder of artisanal collective Dastkari Haat Samiti, The Crafts Council of India, and Calico Printers Cooperative Society Ltd., Sanganer among others, shared their worry about the H&M collaboration, and what it means for the artisan community. “… We are… deeply pained by the missed opportunity that ‘Wanderlust’ has been for artisan livelihoods. 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…,” they write in the letter.
Kolkata-based Mukherjee responded to the letter by posting a story on his Instagram page, explaining that the H&M capsule collection was different from his ‘usual repertoire’. “… The H&M was part of a different mission, a mission to put Indian design on the international map. While this is undoubtedly a big win for me and my brand, I also understand this is a big win for India…”
“It focuses too much on him as a name, as a brand. All of us, the artisans and karigars, think of the community, the art form and the livelihood. What he has done is ‘digitisation’. Even though he is calling it a hybrid design, it’s a hybrid of existing designs. Our karigars are so skilled and innovative, they will create what you want. You don’t have to present a hotch-potch of it. What we teach all the young people, who aspire to work in the craft sector is, ‘to go directly to the craftsperson, understand their skill’. But if you reduce their work to being a ‘hybrid’, and then they have no ownership. You have destroyed their pride and skill,” said Jaitly, terming the designer’s explanation as “disappointing”.
The signatories of the open letter have responded to Mukherjee’s Instagram story with another rejoinder. “Indian aesthetics and craft traditions have been in global memory for more than 5,000 years — long before H&M! Many designers do turn to Indian artisan techniques for their luxury lines — an approach followed by the West towards the handcrafted. In India and our traditions, craft has always been inclusive, culturally significant, and linked to millions of livelihoods. And the exquisite and the high street have always comfortably co-existed with each other. Craft Haats & Bazaars stand out as a symbol of that coexistence alongside designer boutiques, export firms and Government emporia….” wrote Meera Goradia, network anchor, Creative Dignity, a collaboration of organisations, which came together to help artisans survive the Covid Pandemic, on behalf of all the signatories of the open letter.
“His (Sabyasachi’s) stand that crafts and such can only be luxury denies our entire crafts tradition. Those traditions have existed on many levels, the crafts bazaars are all high street — same as to what he is calling H&M. The H&M collab was a missed opportunity. He could have done perhaps one-fourth of the collection, at a time when the whole world is talking about sustainable fashion. Sabyasachi as a brand was associated with craft and handiwork. People are not getting that this ‘Sabyasachi’ collection is digitally printed, it’s not the original thing. No artisan has benefitted from it” says Goradia.
Tyabji, founder of crafts collective Dastkar added that the problem is not limited to Mukherjee alone. “This is addressed to hundreds of global brands, who tweak and modify the ‘Indian motifs and crafts. This is the core of the discussion, and this goes beyond Sabyasachi,” said Goradia.
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