Smita Tripathi, Business Today
17 November 2023
“I don’t care about being No. 1 or No. 2. I don’t care about how much money I’ve made today, or how much money I’m going to make tomorrow. I think you are successful as a business if you last. Because when you’re trying to create a business, what is important is longevity,” says Sabyasachi Mukherjee, arguably the leading fashion designer in the country.
It is a sultry September morning in Kolkata as we interact with a relaxed Mukherjee—dressed in his signature white kurta-pyjamas and self-designed black sleeveless jacket (he made a guest appearance recently on Season 2 of Amazon Prime Video’s Made in Heaven with the same look)—at his beautiful home in Alipore, a tony locality in the City of Joy. The interiors, which ooze his signature baroque style, are an extension of his personality, which is also reflected in every Sabyasachi store. Mukherjee has tastefully decorated his abode with beautiful curios from around the world. Just like in his stores, the interiors of his home exude class and grandeur.
Mukherjee reveals that a few years ago, he was going through the anniversary issue from the 1930s of a leading fashion magazine. “I saw a small ad that said we are now open for business on Bond Street. It was for Tiffany’s. There were other larger ads for bigger brands from that time. But I don’t remember them. I remember Tiffany & Co. because it lasted and the rest of them just evaporated. And I said to myself that I’ll try my best that doesn’t happen to mine,” says the 49-year-old, who has come a long way since setting up his eponymous label in 1999 with a workforce of three, having borrowed Rs 20,000 from his family.
Over the past two decades, Mukherjee (or Sabya, as he is popularly called) has dressed Bollywood royalty (read Deepika Padukone, Anushka Sharma, Priyanka Chopra, Alia Bhatt), heiresses (Isha Ambani), models, and hundreds of brides across the world. Being a ‘Sabyasachi Bride’ has become a cultural phenomenon that has established the brand as a leading design house.
But Mukherjee doesn’t believe in resting on his laurels. It is the next 20 years that he is planning for. “I want to be India’s first global luxury brand.” And he is working towards it slowly and steadily.
Over the past few years, he has launched his jewellery line as well as accessories. The brand now offers ready-to-wear western wear and he recently entered into a collaboration with US luxury eyewear brand Morgenthal Frederics to launch his range of sunglasses. On the cards is a beauty and wellness line that should launch in a few months. Last year, he opened a store in New York; he had a window display of his jewellery at the Bergdorf Goodman store in Manhattan; and his clothes and accessories will be available at top luxury departmental stores like Selfridges and Browns in another couple of years. In March, he opened his largest flagship store, at 25,000 sq. ft, in Mumbai. “I have spent the last five years growing the brand and making it visible. If this country cannot occupy a position of power in the luxury industry, then shame on all of us. Luxury has been a part of our ecosystem,” he says.
Keeping in mind Mukherjee’s two goals—longevity and global growth for the brand—he sold a 51 per cent stake to Aditya Birla Fashion and Retail Ltd (ABFRL) in 2021, reportedly for Rs 398 crore. “Nobody in my family is interested in my business, I don’t have children, and often a mistake that many entrepreneurs make is that they don’t let go of control at a time when they should, so that they can build tomorrow,” says Mukherjee. “But what I want to do—while I’m still in my prime and I still have full control over my company—is to use the next 20 years to [plan for] tomorrow. I want to create my second-in-command; I want to create a succession plan. So that [brand] Sabyasachi does not go down with me; it deserves a much longer shelf life,” says the designer who broke the rules by signing out of fashion weeks in India and launching his collection directly on Instagram in 2016. It’s a practice the brand continues with the latest Autumn-Winter 2023 collection having dropped on Instagram in mid-September. “Why bother with front row politics, when the world can be your front row,” he says.
As he continues to grow, Mukherjee has not forgotten his middle-class roots. His father was the son of a refugee, raised by a single mother. He was a chemical engineer who worked in a jute/wool mill that shut down and he lost his job. “My father gave maths tuitions, my mother taught art and I taught English as a teenager to make ends meet,” he says, adding there was a time when he didn’t want to go to school because he was traumatised with the privilege that his friends enjoyed. “I once saw my father crying while standing next to the kitchen sink. And I realised that’s what money does to you. It brings you to your knees and strips you of your pride. I felt the same helplessness during Covid-19. I was responsible for all these people,” says Mukherjee. However, after a conversation with his CFO, the designer was relieved to know that they could survive for three years and as a result, no one was let go.
Mukherjee says he had been in talks with billionaire Kumar Mangalam Birla, Chairman of the Aditya Birla Group, for a few years before Covid-19 and it was his decision to sell the majority stake to ABFRL. He says he wanted to work with Birla for the way he has treated his children. “I think it takes a very wise parent to be able to allow his children to be what they want to be. I told him I wanted to partner with you because I think that you have a lot of wisdom. And for me, that’s a great value.”
The designer believes it is this wisdom that makes working with the group easy. “They’re silently trying to build an ecosystem for me without interference, because they know that I do the job the best because I know the domain the best. And they let me lead naturally… When I work with them, I don’t have to be mindfully conscious of the fact that they’re a $57-billion empire. They treat me as an equal partner.”
Harminder Sahni, Founder & MD of consulting firm Wazir Advisors, says that the only way forward for brands like Sabyasachi is to either sell to a corporate or to corporatise. “For growth, you need the backing of a corporate house. Especially if you want to go global as it’s an expensive foray and it is uncharted territory.” As far as expansion into various categories is concerned, Sahni says there is no playbook. While some may expand into larger small-ticket categories to make the brand available to a larger demography, others may stick to their core.
“For any brand to scale globally, it needs to be relevant to consumer audiences that are outside its home market,” says Devangshu Dutta, Chief Executive of consultancy Third Eyesight. For any brand whose products draw heavily from the roots in terms of silhouettes and embellishment techniques, adding products that fit with the ethos and needs of the targeted global markets becomes a must, he adds.
ABFRL and Mukherjee complement each other as the company brings its expertise in understanding consumers at a larger base while the designer is more aware of consumers at the top of the pyramid. “They have a very acute understanding of a consumer that is not mine today but will be mine tomorrow. And I have a very acute understanding of the consumer that they don’t have yet but might get tomorrow.” Mukherjee says he did not take private equity funding earlier because he was not ready. “I’m not here to make money. I’m here to create value. And there’s a huge difference. Value creates money eventually. But money never creates value. With ABFRL, we are very clear about what we want to do.” As for financials, in FY22, Sabyasachi Calcutta (what the company is called post the acquisition) posted a turnover of Rs 229.42 crore, which rose to Rs 343.86 crore in FY23, per ABFRL’s annual report. But profit after tax fell from Rs 27.72 crore in FY22 to Rs 7.96 crore in FY23.
He feels luxury is becoming more abstract and it is about finding value. Moreover, consumers are buying less but better stuff. “People are flirting, but they’re not consuming. It’s like they are channel surfing. What is going to happen is that consumers are going to buy less, but they’re going to buy better. And I’m preparing my brand for that.”
With ABFRL’s backing, the designer is busy strengthening the brand. “We are going to use our core—which is wedding couture—for storytelling, to be able to create different-tiered products at different prices to be able to engage our customers who will slowly and steadily find a ladder to climb up to the core.” However, he plans to make wedding couture very limited and very exclusive. He has already started creating guardrails. Bollywood partnerships have reduced significantly and he is no longer giving his creations for the red carpet. In today’s age of social media, Mukherjee says that everyone believes that they are a celebrity. “For us, our customers are our celebrities. And we are trying to create something that is unique for them. And that’s something that’s not made very visible. But what we are going to make democratically visible are our entry-level products; once we get into beauty that is going to be the most widely distributed. And then it’s going to be accessories.”
Mukherjee says that Indian clothing, which is the heart and soul of the brand, will become more and more exclusive. In clothing, the focus will be on western ready-to-wear. However, that too will be of the best quality. For instance, ready-to-wear starts at Rs 35,000 for a silk shirt with an original artwork, digitally printed. “We are very mindful that we will never dilute the core.” he says.
While currently it is wedding couture that contributes the maximum to revenues, he expects jewellery to surpass that over the next few years. Mukherjee launched his jewellery collection in 2017 and while it was a natural fit, he had an interesting reason for doing so. “When I started looking at people’s selfies, I realised that we occupy the smallest real estate. You see a little bit of the blouse in a wedding picture, you see the garland, the make-up and the jewellery. Where are the clothes? Nowhere. And if the bride decides to wear a bikini blouse, then God save us,” he laughs. “So that’s when I realised that I want more real estate in that picture. And, for me, it was a logical move to start getting into beauty which we’ll eventually get into, and to get into jewellery.”
Accessories is another category he is focussing on as that allows more people to own the brand. Mukherjee is one of the most copied designers in the country. “Today, all top jewellers in the country are copying my jewellery. It happened with my clothes, it’s now happening with my jewellery, so I know we are on the right track,” he says. The same is the case for his accessories. “You go into a copy market and you see LV, Calvin Klein, Gucci and Sabyasachi. I am flattered because that means we have done something right,” he chuckles.
Over the years he has entered into some remarkable collaborations, establishing his brand further. In 2015, he announced his first global one with Christian Louboutin with a collection of limited-edition shoes and handbags, showcasing Sabyasachi’s hallmark embroidery and craft, with Louboutin’s iconic red sole. He also launched the Sabyasachi for Nilaya collection in collaboration with Asian Paints. Other collaborations have included Pottery Barn, H&M, L’Oréal, Strabucks, Thomas Goode, etc. He says he is open to more collaborations but only with brands that are the best in their field and those that allow him to “tell the Indian story without apology”. “I would never do a collaboration, irrespective of how much money was being offered to me, if I was not able to tell the story of who I am and where I come from. I can make more money by selling on my Instagram,” says the designer who went off all social media three years ago to get away from the clutter and the noise. His brand, though, is very active on social media.
Mukherjee can be credited with revolutionising luxury retail in the country. Walk into any Sabyasachi store and you are transported to a world of opulence and luxury rarely seen anywhere else. For instance, at the Mumbai store, over 100 chandeliers, 275 carpets, 3,000 books, and 150 works of art created by the Sabyasachi Art Foundation—which he runs to promote art—are layered among antique Tanjore paintings, vintage photography, rare lithographs, and historical trinkets, some from his own collection.
“When I saw the Ralph Lauren flagship store for the first time, it made me realise how important the soft power of a retail store is to be able to influence a customer because it’s an immersive journey, which tells the length and the breadth of the brand’s story,” says Mukherjee, adding that today it is not just about the product but also the experience of selling the product.
With the opening of the Mumbai flagship store, the total number of Sabyasachi stores in India stands at four, the others being in Kolkata and Delhi, and a jewellery store in Hyderabad. In addition, there is the New York store and an exclusive Sabyasachi Jewellery boutique in Dubai.
Will he look at more expansion? Not immediately, he says. “We are going to build our flagship stores one geography at a time. I first want to expand brand literacy by building our flagship so that the story of what the brand is all about and who we are does not get diluted. We will take our time to understand the geography and then expand later,” he says. However, a part of the business is going to be opened to wholesale again. “Which means that in a couple of years, we are going to start speaking to departmental stores such as Selfridges, Browns, etc.,” These are stores where Mukherjee used to retail at the beginning of his career in 2004-05.
“Right now, I’m charting my own growth, one brick at a time, so that I last those 100 years,” he signs off.
(Published in Business Today)
Faizan Haidar, Economic Times
4 November 2023
Some of the super-luxury brands that have opened stores at the recently inaugurated luxury mall, Jio World Plaza in Mumbai, have put in a condition that at least four top brands – such as Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Cartier, Burberry, Tiffany, Valentino, Bulgari, Zegna, Giorgio Armani and Bottega Veneta – should be present in the same complex, to ensure the position of their brands is not diluted.
ET has seen copies of the agreements between Reliance Industries, the owner of Jio World Centre, and five brands, accessed through data analytic firm CRE Matrix.
Reliance Industries and the brands did not respond to emails seeking comment till press time on Friday. Brands often have an exclusivity clause with the mall where they don’t want competing brands near their stores. However, in the high-end segment, to ensure a similar buyer profile, they want similar stores nearby. Jio World Plaza already meets the condition with several of these super-luxury brands having opened their outlets there.
“If at least four among the mentioned brands are not open within six months of us starting the operation, we should be entitled to a reduction of the licence fee by 25% for the period that this criteria remains unfulfilled,” Christian Dior Trading, which will operate Dior, has said in the agreement.
Dior will pay ₹21.56 lakh in monthly rent for a 3,317 sq ft space in the complex. Gucci has given a list of six luxury brands – Louis Vuitton, Dior, Cartier, Bulgari, Valentino and Burberry – and demanded that at least four have to be represented in the shopping centre.
Louis Vuitton, Cartier and Bulgari have also put in similar conditions. Most of them have kept the right to terminate the agreement after serving the notice for nine to 12 months.
“In the super-luxury segment, most of the brands complement each other and that is why they want the presence of these brands next to each other. Good mall developers also go with zoning of brands and don’t want to mix the super-luxury brands with the premium or mid to premium brands. As more luxury brands are contemplating India entry, we will see more luxury spaces coming up,” said Devangshu Dutta, founder of retail consulting firm Third Eyesight.
India only has a handful of malls that give space exclusively to super-luxury brands.
New Delhi, 23 August 2023
Bindu D. Menon, Financial Express
Tata Group’s Titan Company is not the only one to be bullish on the fine jewellery segment by recently raising its stake in CaratLane from 71.09% to 98.28% for a consideration of Rs 4,621 crore. Other corporate groups as well as private equity firms who have entered this segment are making investments and scaling up.
For instance, recently, Aditya Birla Group entered the gold jewellery market with the launch of Novel Jewels with an estimated investment of Rs 5,000 crore. It also plans to launch large-format jewellery formats and in-house brands.
“The younger generation’s changing style preferences and shopping habits have favoured the growth of jewellery chains and a shift in jewellery designs to lighter, more contemporary styles. This has also facilitated the delinking of the cost and the product price to some extent,” said Devangshu Dutta, Founder, Third Eyesight.
Analysts following the sector said that lighter weight jewellery have been a game changer for the industry. Moving away from the traditional 22 carats jewellery line, younger consumers are opting for 12, 14 and 18 carat jewellery in minimalist designs; a trend largely mimicked from the western markets.
From the companies’ perspective gross margins are invariably higher in design enhanced jewellery as compared to traditional designs.
Leading silver jewellery brand Giva jewellery too had recently bagged a Rs 200 crore funding led by Premji Invest to expand its product line. The round also saw participation from existing investors such as Aditya Birla Ventures, Alteria Capital and A91 Partners. Giva reportedly launches 250 new designs every month, as per the company’s disclosure.
“We look forward to leveraging Premji Invest’s playbook on omnichannel across several consumer brands and retail businesses to strengthen our leadership position and establish our pan India presence,” said Ishendra Agarwal, founder and CEO, Giva.
Giva plans to use the capital for inventory management and expanding its offline presence in India. The company has secured Rs 130 crore funding till date, excluding the current funding.
Fine jewellery in India are priced between Rs 5,000 to Rs 50,000. Major players in the segment include Caratlane, Tanishq, Bluestone among others.
(Published in Financial Express)
Viveat Susan Pinto, Financial Express
August 18, 2023
Retail activity in the country is set to increase with some 20 foreign brands likely to enter India in the next 6-8 months, according to retail consultants and experts. This is double the number of about 10 foreign brands that would enter India annually in the pre-pandemic period.
An attractive retail market and growing affluence and consumer tastes are among the key reasons for the interest shown by foreign brands in India, said experts. Also, large groups such as Reliance and Aditya Birla are open to partnerships with foreign brands, with Reliance Brands, part of Reliance Retail, in particular, being the most aggressive of the lot.
“Global markets are witnessing slowdown and recessionary concerns, which is hurting retail sentiment. In contrast, retail sentiment in India is upbeat despite food inflationary pressures. Spending across non-essential categories will also grow as the festive season nears,” said Abhinav Joshi, head of research, India, Middle East & North Africa at consultancy CBRE.
The consultancy on Thursday released a report which said that retail leasing activity in India had grown 24% year-on-year in the first half of CY2023, led by foreign and domestic brands. The second half of the year was also expected to see a strong double-digit rate of growth in terms of leasing activity, with overall retail leasing likely to touch 5.5-6 million sq. ft. at the end of the CY2023, second only to the peak of 6.8 million sq. ft. seen in CY2019.
Of the names eyeing an India-entry in the next few quarters include labels such as Italian luxury fashion brand Roberto Cavalli, American sportswear and footwear brand Foot Locker, Armani Caffe, the luxury cafe brand of Armani, British luxury brand Dunhill, Dubai’s Brands for Less, Old Navy and Banana Republic from Gap, Chinese brand Shein, Maison De Couture from Valentino, Spanish luxury brand Balenciaga, EL&N, a UK-based boutique cafe, Galleries Lafayette from Paris, Kiabi, Mavi, Damat, Dufy, Tudba Deri, Avva, Boohooman and Miss Poem, all apparel brands from Turkey and Europe, say industry sources.
Barring Galleries Lafayette which has tied up with Aditya Birla Fashion and Retail for its India entry, most other names are either talking to Reliance Brands (part of Reliance Retail) or have tied up with the company, persons in the know said. For instance, Balenciaga, EL&N, Shein, Gap’s Old Navy and Banana Republic, Armani Caffe, Maison de Couture from Valentino have tied up with Reliance Brands for their India entry. Executives at Reliance Brands were not immediately available for comment.
Most of these brands are eyeing a presence in cities such as Mumbai, Delhi-NCR, Bengaluru and Hyderabad in the first phase of launch, before expanding their presence to other cities such as Pune, Ahmedabad, Chennai and Kolkata.
“The India retail opportunity is a compelling one, which most foreign retailers don’t want to miss,” says Devangshu Dutta, chief executive officer at Gurugram-based consultancy Third Eyesight.
“Some of the brands who’ve come earlier have also tasted success especially in the fast fashion category. This is an indication that brand awareness is growing and that people are ready to spend on global products as discretionary incomes grow,” he says.
On Wednesday, Japanese fast fashion retailer Uniqlo said that it was setting up two new stores in Mumbai in October, after launching 10 stores in the north over the last four years. The company’s chief executive officer Tomohiko Sei indicated that the retailer was open to new markets and store openings, but would focus on Mumbai for now.
CBRE says that Mumbai has seen retail leasing grow by 14.6% year-on-year in the first half of CY2023 on the back of a push by foreign brands to acquire space in the city. Delhi-NCR, meanwhile, reported a higher 65% year-on-year growth in retail leasing in the first half of the year, led by retail activity by both foreign and domestic brands.
(Published in Financial Express)