When I finally decided to check out the new Sabyasachi x H&M collection, I could feel the watchful eyes of Instagram and Twitter critics over my shoulders, judging me when I happened to like any one item, tutting when I briefly considered moving something into my shopping cart. I’m not a particularly big fan of the Kolkata-based couturier, I don’t have the aesthetic — or financial — appetite for his bejewelled lehengas and maximalist bridalwear. Yet I believe it was significant that Sabyasachi Mukherjee was the latest designer to team up with the Swedish fashion giant Hennes & Mauritz AB, following in the footsteps of brands like Versace, Karl Lagerfeld, and Comme des Garçons.
For all the fussing and crying, the social media trolling has only worked as free-marketing for the collection, which was reportedly sold out within minutes of launching this week.
But the noise around the collection titled ‘Wanderlust’ shows how cancel culture has given everyone the authority to have a hot take, even at the cost of pulling down one of India’s biggest talents.
One of the main critiques levelled against designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee has been for teaming up with H&M in the first place — a brand that is now out of favour with many millennials for its glorification of fast fashion. Yes, the same Indian millennials who not so many years ago were queuing up for miles outside newly opened H&M stores in their nearest malls. Is it a bad thing that they now seem to have grown a conscience about the brand’s underpaid and exploited garment workers? Not at all. But the issue with cancel culture is how close-ended its debates end up being.
To be fair, we don’t know if Sabyasachi as a luxury brand was ever truly sustainable or if it promoted fair practices in the first place (the brand, like others, has not necessarily been transparent about its designer-craftsmen sharing model). Neither has it ever stood for affordability. Why are we angry now? Is it because H&M doesn’t fit into our politics of consumption? Because the clothes, even in their fast fashion avatar, are still not affordable to some of us? Because they don’t look expensive enough? Or because we simply don’t like them?
sabyasachi x h&m is so embarrassing ain’t no way it’s gonna cost $70 to look like an Indian bus driver pic.twitter.com/j2BW1Sba38
— neha 🌿 (@nehadantuluri) August 10, 2021
There’s something so quintessentially Indian about the reaction over the collection’s prices — take, for instance, this priceless viral video of an Indian mom comparing a Gucci belt to a ‘DPS School belt’ and almost mockingly hitting her daughter with it when she finds out it’s priced at Rs 35,000. It’s also funny how clothes can spark such outrage – no one really batted an eyelid when Sabyasachi teamed up with Asian Paints to sell wallpaper of up to Rs 19,000 a meter. And if we must get into the conversation about why things are so expensive, we also need to confront the issue of how things get to be so cheap in the first place. High or low, there’s clearly no pleasing everyone.
“sabyasachi so expensive lol.. my mother has a similar sari for Rs. 300 lol”
u mean to say that an indian handloom worker was underpaid and exploited for your mother to be able to afford a sari, while she owns 3 gucci bags, and 5 louis vuitton wallets and can clearly pay more?
— Agatha Srishtie 🌸 (@SrishtyRanjan) August 12, 2021
Cheap or expensive, new fashion isn’t sustainable
Here’s my hot take – producing newer and newer clothes is bad for the planet. Period. If big chains like H&M are to be blamed for green-washing in the face of a global push towards sustainability, even smaller brands can be accused of the same. Indie brands are not exactly transparent about their price points, supply chains, or wages. Turns out that even some circular fashion practices are bad for the planet. “Renting clothes is ‘less green than throwing them away’”, stated a report published in the Finnish scientific journal Environmental Research Letters, which explained how hidden environmental costs of delivery, packaging and dry cleaning had a huge climate impact. The researchers ascertained the best way to consume fashion is to buy fewer items and wear them for as long as possible — similar to Sabyasachi’s position in this rather evasive interview about how he managed to make this collection sustainable.
“The idea is to give people something for a lifetime. This is one of the reasons I wanted to do a sari because it’s the epitome of sustainability,” he told Travel and Leisure India.
At the end of the day, you have to decide for yourself what’s affordable to you, what you will keep in your closet for years to come, and whether you care deeply about the patronage of a certain craft, the environmental outcome of creating clothes, how nifty and carbon-free supply chains are, or whether you simply want clothes that fit and feel good.
Amid all the emotional “You have wreaked your legacy!!!” comments on Sabyasachi’s Instagram, one user calmly commented, “I would really like to know about the supply chain, from sourcing to delivery and sustainability factors involved in the line.” Channelling anger is only productive if we want to push others to give us specific answers, or if we want to demand specific action. Instead of cancelling someone like Sabyasachi, could we ask better questions of how we can have such ‘glocal’ collaborations be a two-way process of profit, design innovation, and cultural exchange for all parties involved.
The collaboration is also hugely symbolic in another way, it’s a platforming of Indian design on a global scale. Not to mention how lucrative these collaborations can be. In 2019, designer Masaba Gupta revealed that she had not spent a penny on marketing in over 10 years of starting her company. Big collaborations (from collections with Nykaa, Ekaya, to designing merchandise for Game of Thrones) was what enabled her to grow her small brand, while also ensuring a significant revenue source. The American designer Halston, one of Sabyasachi’s muses for the collection, and the subject of a recent Netflix show, was also famed for becoming a household name through such collaborations. Agreed, Sabyasachi isn’t exactly a struggling brand anymore, it’s a massively successful business. But for someone who has been hailed the king of couture for years, reaching a wide-consumer base seems like the logical next career challenge.
The collection is reportedly 90 per cent made in India, and features all Indian models (a sight for sore eyes on a site like H&M). And for once, isn’t it nice that it’s actually an Indian designer who is making Indian prints and silhouettes go global?
The outrage machine
Why does dissecting and thinking about such internet outrage even matter? Turns out, woke consumers actually do influence the market. “Nine in ten Generation Z consumers believe companies have a responsibility to address environmental and social issues,” states a report by Business of Fashion and McKinsey. The report also explained why companies should care — “some two-thirds of consumers worldwide say they would switch, avoid, or boycott brands based on their stance on controversial issues.”
This intersection of politics and consumption is not, by any means, a bad thing. If we, as conscious buyers, can push brands and companies to do better, we all benefit. But an outright cancellation of this kind not only makes brands defensive, but often pushes them to make ‘woke’ choices to appease audiences, rather than confront nuanced critique levelled their way.
I hate the idea that instead of finding words of support or encouragement for gaining recognition through this global collaboration, Sabyasachi is waking up to headlines of being “called out”. But on the other hand, I do love the idea that maybe this whole controversy can push us towards demystifying what sustainability and ethics truly mean in India’s fashion and retail landscape, and gets us to ask tougher questions of the brands we love, and of ourselves as consumers.
Fiza Jha is a culture writer and design researcher. Views are personal.