I had an impression of Sabyasachi Mukherjee in my mind from my meeting with him last year. So, last week, when I saw the man dressed in cargo pants and matching shirt, long hair and raggedy beard standing in the middle of the room at Raffles Hotel, preparing for his exhibition, it took a few seconds to recognise him. As the evening progressed I realised, it wasn't just his looks that had changed in the last year. The shy and modest man that I'd met then had slowly slipped away too.
Mukherjee was bringing his collection, Peeli Kothi, another revival series, to Dubai and explained how revival has become the signature of the brand. "Every brand has a DNA and, for us, it's moving fashion into more traditional and textile-based design," he explained. "Even Chanel, for the longest time, have been doing tweeds and the black and whites. So it's important that with so many players in the market today it's very important for the brand to be synonymous with something."
Indian clothing is becoming more popular by the day in the western world, what with Hollywood stars adopting it as formal wear — even Oprah Winfrey wore Indian clothes when visiting India earlier this month. What did Mukherjee think was the reason for it?
"To some extent it's true that Indian fashion is bright colours and bold patterns. But when a country like India has so much colour to celebrate, I don't think it needs to homogenise itself. When the cultural history of India automatically has so much to offer to create an identity of your own, why do you need to be apologetic? What I've seen is that the Western world is now wearing colours whereas we are getting into blacks and I think it comes from a deep sense of shame as a lot of Indians still tend to carry the baggage that as Indians we don't always get accepted — the colonial hangover. So I tell the Indians bring on your fuschias and oranges and just be yourself."
Mukherjee prefers women to be a little conservative in their dressing. Talking of Pakistani silhouettes, he explained that he loves them because "there's a lot of dignity in the drape, the style and the way they carry it and is very feminine and sensuous".
I turn to Oprah Winfrey and her visiting his store in Mumbai. Mukherjee said it was Winfrey who sought him out. Her god-daughter and some of Winfrey's entourage had visited the store and told her about it.
"When I first met Oprah, I'd joked that my sari travelled to her show but not me. Aishwarya [Rai Bachchan] had worn my sari when she was on The Oprah Show and she'd [Oprah] really liked it," he said.
Designer to the stars, 38-year-old Mukherjee is constantly surrounded by beautiful women but we've never heard of a Mrs Sabyasachi or a girlfriend...
"You probably don't see my girlfriends — sorry girlfriend — because they are tucked away in Kolkata. How would I define my private life? Boring as hell. I don't watch a lot of television. I never party. I watch few movies in the cinema but I love having street food. I just go for a quiet walk on the roads after 10pm. That's my life and I'm very happy. And when I'm really depressed I go into a park and talk to the trees. So I don't have a very colourful life. Just because you are in fashion, it does not mean it has to be glamour, sex, dope and girls all the way. I don't think I have the fashion DNA in me. I was going to go into medicine. I don't consider myself a designer. I just say I make pretty clothes."
So what inspires him to create fashion?
"For me inspiration is very tactile. I don't sketch too much, but prefer to work on a live dress form and my inspiration comes from anything — from a packaging, from a carpet I've seen, from a hair band someone's worn, from a personality, from music I've heard or a film I've seen, maybe the colour of food and the way it's been presented.
"My mind is like a silent camcorder that records everything that goes on around me. And when I actually sit down to conceive a collection, thoughts that have been stored away in the deepest recesses of my mind keep coming back," he said.
Mukherjee is moving beyond designing and will be turning TV show host this month and is working really hard to take two weeks off in summer to visit Spain. Inspired by Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara?
"Bang on!" he laughs, giving me a high-five. "But I always wanted to go to Spain. In fact, I like places with a rich food culture and lots of sunshine — Spain, Tuscany, Mexico, Greece, South of France, southern Italy... At some point, I want to be a food writer and do a food show. I love eating food in local restaurants to find out the flavours. I don't really want to go to London, Paris or New York, not that they're not beautiful places but because I feel I'm a very rustic person."