Sabyasachi Responds to Craft Sector Open Letter on Collaboration with H&M

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About a week ago Sabyasachi Mukherjee, the must-have designer of Bollywood brides, has announced a collaboration between him and Swedish ready-to-wear giant H&M. The collaboration catapulted Mukherjee into the same league as that of Karl Lagerfeld, Giambattista Valli, Jimmy Choo and Versace who collaborated with the clothing giant, making their designs accessible to millions of people at a fraction of their tailoring cost.

Mukherjee’s collaboration with H&M, called “Wanderlust,” includes bohemian caftans, pants, t-shirts, dresses and a saree. The collection was inspired by sanganeri prints from Rajasthan among other Indian craft traditions. When it went live on August 12, it sold out within minutes. While many viewed this as a triumph for Indian design around the world, the Indian craft community viewed this collaboration as an antithesis to Sabyasachi’s ethics.

In an open letter to the designer, textile revivalist Laila Tyabji, Jaya Jaitly, founder of craft collective Dastkari Haat Samiti, The Crafts Council of India and Calico Printers Cooperative Society Ltd., Sanganer, among others, expressed concern about the H&M collaboration, and what it means for the craft community. “… We are… deeply saddened by the missed opportunity that ‘Wanderlust’ has been for the livelihoods of artisans. The advertising material implies that the range is related to Indian craftsmanship. However, the range is not made by Indian artisans and without any visible benefit to them. It has been an incredible opportunity to position India’s design and craftsmanship on the world map, to have become the torchbearers of what regenerative economies can look like. Besides the many shops, stalls and shelves around the world displaying ‘Sold Out’ signs, imagine the potential of this story if it had only said ‘Handcrafted in India’, supporting millions of jobs, fairness. and sustainable growth in the communities that need it most. Even if half of the collection had been made by craftsmen, it would have had such an impact in times of economic crisis like this pandemic… ”, they write in the letter.

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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.” “… H&M was part of a different mission, a mission to put Indian design on the international map. While this is definitely a big win for me and my brand, I also understand that it is a big win for India… ”

Sabyasachi, designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee, news Sabyasachi Mukherjee, collaboration of Mukherjee with H&M, community of Indian craftsmen, Indian news express Photo: Instagram / @ sabyasachiofficial

“It focuses too much on him as a name, as a brand. All of us, artisans and karigars, think about the community, the art form and the livelihood. What he has done is “digitization”. Even though he calls it a hybrid design, it is a hybrid of existing designs. Our karigars are so skilled and innovative that they will create what you want. You don’t have to present a plume of it. What we teach all young people who aspire to work in the craft industry is “to go directly to the craftsman, to understand his know-how”. But if you reduce their work to being a “hybrid,” then they have no property. You’ve destroyed their pride and skill, ”Jaitly said, calling the designer’s explanation“ disappointing ”.

Sabyasachi, designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee, news Sabyasachi Mukherjee, collaboration of Mukherjee with H&M, community of Indian craftsmen, Indian news express Photo: Instagram / @ sabyasachiofficial

The signers of the open letter responded to Mukherjee’s Instagram story with another line. “Indian aesthetics and craft traditions have been in the memory of the world for over 5,000 years, long before H&M! Many designers are turning to Indian craft techniques for their luxury lines – an approach taken by the West towards craftsmanship. In India and in our traditions, crafts have always been inclusive, culturally important and linked to millions of livelihoods. And the exquisite and the main street have always coexisted comfortably with each other. Craft Haats & Bazaars stands out as a symbol of this coexistence alongside designer boutiques, export companies and government companies…. Wrote Meera Goradia, network anchor, Creative Dignity, a collaboration of organizations, who came together to help artisans survive the Covid pandemic, on behalf of all signatories of the open letter.

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“His (Sabyasachi’s) position that craftsmanship and the like can only be luxury denies our entire tradition of craftsmanship. These traditions have existed on many levels, the craft bazaars are all department stores, like what he calls H&M. The H&M collaboration was a missed opportunity. He could have done maybe a quarter of the collection, at a time when the whole world is talking about sustainable fashion. Sabyasachi as a brand was associated with crafts and manual labor. People do not understand that this ‘Sabyasachi’ collection is digitally printed, it is not the original. No craftsman has benefited from it, ”says Goradia.

Tyabji, founder of the Dastkar craft collective added that the problem is not limited to Mukherjee alone. “This is for hundreds of global brands, who are polishing and modifying ‘Indian patterns and crafts. This is the heart of the discussion, and it goes beyond Sabyasachi, ”Goradia said.

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