March of the millennials

Driven by purity, reality and connectivity, millennials are redefining luxury and how

Torchbearer of traditions: Sabyasachi Mukherjee with models sporting his latest creations.

One thing that defines millennials is courage. They are mostly seen as this privileged lot who have everything at their doorstep. However, to have everything from the time you grow up is also a big problem because then you have to fight harder to prove your identity and mark your territory. So, somewhere, millennials have this sense of insecurity about their being, their culture—about who they are, where did they come from and what do they stand for. They have this aggressive passion to discover their country.

There was this girl shopping at my store in Delhi—a shiny, bright looking kid, dressed in a denim shirt tucked into denim trousers with a belt, sports sneakers and hair tied up in a ponytail. She was accompanied by her mother, who was wearing salwar kameez with a cardigan, orthopaedic shoes and was carrying a small bag. The daughter wanted to buy something iconic India and traditional—a red banarasi or a kanjeevaram sari. I chatted with her and found out that she was into policy making in the US and was coming back to India. I looked at her mother, sitting forlorn in a corner and probably intimidated to be in a luxury store. She reminded me of my mother who was always wary of walking into designer stores because she could not converse in English. The lady reminded me of my mother and an entire generation of women who could be her. I asked her what she wanted to wear and if we could show her something, but she gently refused. Then she asked me who I was and gradually opened up. “Can you make an odhni for me?” she asked. When I inquired if she wanted to pair it with a lehenga, she reluctantly revealed that she wanted to wear it with her designer gown at the daughter’s wedding. My entire world exploded, and I was like, “Really?” She went on to explain how the designer refused to make an odhni with the gown, and she could not do without one because she had to cover her head while receiving the groom.

For better or for worse, millennials are seeking out an identity deeply rooted in Indian culture, and this is important for the global market ecosystem.

I looked at the woman and her daughter, and then the penny dropped. My mother used to wear saris all her life, and now she has switched to kurtis with jeggings. For her, it is a matter of comfort and practicality as she moves around food halls, pushing her cart of vegetables up and down the escalators. This is an experience of the new world for her. When we go on holidays, she wants to see skyscrapers and steel buildings. She does not want to look at old architecture, because she has seen that all her life in Kolkata. She tells me, “Don’t talk about vintage, it is in my backyard.” She likes being driven around in a sedan than an Ambassador, and prefers New York over Prague any day. So, for her, that is the new aspiration. The human mind always seeks what it does not have. So, with this girl looking to buy a banarasi, it was probably about buying clothes that lend a strong cultural identity in a global milieu. She wants to come back to India and embrace everything Indian, while her mother, who has always lived in India, wants to shop for branded clothing and adopt alien cultures. And, there is nothing wrong with both.

For new millennials, the real luxury is connectivity with people rather than digital connectivity. A lot of them are leaving big businesses abroad to get into startups in India. They want to invest time in educating rural India and help communities. A lot of us now live in a world surrounded by likes. You put up a picture on Instagram and you get 800 likes. All these likes are as addictive as drugs. But when you step out of this virtual world, you get a reality check and it hits your self-esteem. Some millennials are intelligent enough to retract from the artificial world and seek real connectivity with humans.

Floral flair: Deepika Padukone in a Sabyasachi sari, with a wallpaper from Nilaya by Asian Paints and Sabyasachi in the background.

If I talk about what luxury means to the millennials, I would say it is about the essence of purity. They do not want hybrid things or fusion food. They enjoy ghee, gur (jaggery) and roti, they want to wear handloom and they want to go to organic health retreats. Earlier the buzzword was global, then it became national and then gradually the focus shifted to the local. Now the buzzwords are remote and tribal. Everybody is trying to make a journey within rather than the outside. An entire group of millennials right now is not guided by big brands anymore. They believe in sustainable products that help communities and the craft ecosystem. They are keen on knowing if a product is telling the story of our lives, land, forefathers and traditions. All this is far more important to them than the logos. The logo business is not going to be sustainable for very long.

What drives the new generation in terms of luxury is purity, reality and connectivity. Recently, I have noticed that when a lady walks into my store with her mother and grandmother to buy a bridal outfit, she invariably consults the grandmother about the choice of clothing. The millennials believe their grandparents’ generation had a more purist lifestyle than their parents, and that they know much more about culture than anybody else. So it is almost like a cyclical metamorphosis; the third generation is rebuilding what the previous generation lost out on. For better or for worse, millennials are seeking out an identity deeply rooted in Indian culture, and this is important for the global market ecosystem.

On a Platter: Sabyasachi’s Trinket Tray collection for Pottery Barn.

My job as a businessman is to present a lot of things from the Indian ethos unaltered to the new millennials because they do not have access to these things. I am the ferryman between the past and the present. A lot of women from my mother’s generation sold off their banarasis and other beautiful saris to buy stainless steel utensils. I bought back all those saris for my first patchwork collection. We brought back the tales of tradition for the new generation by restoring those saris. I feel it is my duty to bring back the archival glories of India and present them in a tangible form for the millennials to enjoy.

The Sabyasachi Art Foundation, which is a homage to my mother, serves this purpose. We started with two, and now we have 47 artists with the foundation. We pay them handsome salaries and just ask them to do good work. A lot of them are doing phenomenal work. They have done wallpapers for Asian Paints and projects for Pottery Barn. It takes a lot of money to incubate them, but I know these are the talents the new generation will seek out.

Sometime ago, Louis Vuitton came up with this advertisement where a suitcase is being hauled up to a tree house. Now, anyone who carries an LV trunk flies private jets and is super rich to be staying in tree houses. However, what the ad wanted to convey was this new hunger for things never done before. So, be it beauty, wellness, music, films, clothing or choice of holidays, everything is all about distinct experiences today. The days of big city holidays and Disneyland vacations are over. The millennials want to go for things like Agrotourismo—the buzzword in Italy—and get their hands dirty in the soil. I have friends who own large IT companies in the US who take cycling holidays in third world countries and get their children to stay with the locals. They want to have knowledge which is much more well-rounded than regular education. That is the new luxury.

As told to Neha S. Bajpai

Sabyasachi is an award-winning fashion designer.