How Sabyasachi Made the Sari Haute

At age 12, Sabyasachi was certain he was born to be “bloody famous.” He just wasn’t sure what he’d be famous for. Middle-class people didn’t talk like that in pastoral Chandernagore, a small town in West Bengal, about 30 miles from Kolkata. His father was a chemical engineer at a wool factory, his mother an artist who taught cooking. She told him to stop saying such things or else the neighbors might think he was crazy.

When he was 14, he moved into a small room at his paternal grandmother’s house in the chaotic post-colonial city of Kolkata so he could attend a good high school. He had always gotten 100s — which, in India, means inevitably being tracked into science. “I thought that the education system in India was like an arranged marriage, where they push you into a system and they ask you to discover love,” he said. “Yet at the same time, I knew that if I didn’t drop out, I would end up becoming an engineer or doctor, which I didn’t want.” As Sabyasachi tells it, he became certain he had to kill himself and took a handful of sleeping pills that he’d slowly collected from pharmacists around town. The last six or seven seconds before he fell asleep, he frantically tried to claw his way back. His mother, traumatized, slapped him and forced him to throw up. After this, he dyed his hair orange, and his father, who had been very strict, softened up and took him to the restaurant Trincas, where Sabyasachi stood on the stage badly belting out Madonna songs. But without a sense of direction, he remained depressed and dropped out of school three years in a row.

One of the few bright spots in Sabyasachi’s life at the time was his cosmopolitan neighbor, the 26-year-old Meeta Ghose. Bold and fashionable, she wore short skirts, stilettos and blue eyeliner. (This was the 1990s, when trends washed through India about a decade late.) Never mind that she was married and he was only 15 — they were kindred spirits, interested in life beyond their immediate surroundings. When Ogaan — one of India’s chicest multidesigner Indian boutiques — opened down the street from where they lived, Sabyasachi was captivated. Studying the clothes, he decided he wanted to be a designer. He sketched a portfolio for Ghose, including a neon pink cropped jacket and a turquoise miniskirt inspired by his idol, Madonna, and Ghose told him he would become famous. Sabyasachi haunted Ogaan until a salesperson finally reviewed his sketches. They were nice, the salesperson said, but he needed more experience.

While his mother was buying paint at an art-supply store, Sabyasachi spied cheap Indian beads — gold, wooden, shell — catching the afternoon light and decided to design his own costume jewelry collection. This started his romance with Indian materials. There was something so beautiful and joyous in the common Indian embellishments, with their intricacy and imperfections. He found a hawker to sell his necklaces and earrings in plastic tiffin boxes on a street full of cheap-jewelry sellers. When Sabyasachi checked in the next day, everything had sold. A doctor who bought a necklace-and-earring set with painted wooden beads for 165 rupees (roughly $2) said his work should be in Bergdorf Goodman. It was the first time he ever heard of the store.

When Sabyasachi told his family that he intended to apply to design school, they were scared and upset. How could their brilliant boy become a lowly tailor? Ghose sent her husband to explain that a designer was different from a tailor and that Sabyasachi had unusual talent. Still, Sabyasachi’s parents wouldn’t pay for his entrance exam, so he sold his science and math textbooks to cover the fee.