Photos courtesy Sabyasachi/Instagram

For Pakistani brides, there's something about Sabyasachi

The Indian designer to the stars is finding a niche market in Pakistan, courtesy of the growing influence of social media.
Updated 23 Apr, 2022 10:54am

Social media has become a staple in our everyday lives, so it's no wonder that Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter have overtaken traditional forms of advertisements as one of the most beloved and effective marketing tools for the wedding industrial complex. This same complex has given birth to the rising trend of people spending fortunes on elaborate wedding celebrations. People look for top-of-the-line caterers, event planners and photographers to ensure their wedding is trendy. And what's more trendy than an elaborate bridal outfit from one of the biggest designers across the border?

The sheer power of the complex can be deduced from the many areas that fall under its ambit — decor, venues, catering, photography, makeup, and most notably, bridal couture. In recent years, we have witnessed the rise of an interesting cultural phenomenon in the form of “hashtag weddings” — weddings that go beyond the norm of a two to three-day celebration to span over the course of a few days or even weeks in certain cases, and acquire an identity of their own in the form of a hashtag created with using the names of the couple to be wed.

Among the many things on display at these grand hashtag weddings is the luxurious fashion and, most often, the greatest attention is afforded to the bride’s choice of clothing on each day. Not only have hashtag weddings shone a spotlight on veteran and upcoming designers of Pakistan and helped bring them on the radar of brides-to-be, they have also successfully facilitated an import of bridal couture fashion from across the border. Perhaps, the most frequently imported bridal couture is that of the renowned Indian fashion and jewellery designer, Sabyasachi Mukherjee —a known favourite of Bollywood A-listers and, now, upperclass Pakistani brides.

Bollywood star Alia Bhatt wore a Sabyasachi sari at her recent wedding — Photo via Alia Bhatt/Instagram
Bollywood star Alia Bhatt wore a Sabyasachi sari at her recent wedding — Photo via Alia Bhatt/Instagram

Some of the most renowned Bollywood starlets and superstars that have donned Sabyasachi bridals at their weddings are Anuskha Sharma, Deepika Padukone, Soha Ali Khan Pataudi, Bipasha Basu, Katrina Kaif, Vidya Balan and, most recently, Alia Bhatt.

Similarly, in Pakistan, we have witnessed a handful of well-known individuals all dressed up in vibrantly-coloured lehenga cholis on their own wedding festivities or while attending other people’s weddings. Ayesha Saif Khan, the wife of Maryam Nawaz's son Junaid Safdar, made headlines for wearing a Sabyasachi bridal on her nikah in London. She opted for a pastel-themed lehnga choli and a matching organza dupatta. A number of socialites have also donned Sabyasachi bridals at their weddings.

It would not be far-fetched to say that hashtag weddings have played a significant role in highlighting the designs of couturiers like Dr Haroon, Bunto Kazmi, Farah Talib Aziz, Shehla Chatoor, and, more recently, Sabyasachi. Hashtag weddings have also contributed towards creating more awareness about these high-end fashion houses among people both inside and outside of the metropolises. The constant reposts, likes, comments, and shares of the posts onInstagram have resulted in more women becoming aware of the countless bridal-wear options available and designer bridal-wear becoming increasingly coveted.

“Social media is definitely the reason why I knew so much about Sabyasachi and was so familiar with his designs,” confessed Aimen, who walked down the aisle in a quintessential red and gold-worked Sabyasachi bridal lehenga choli this past February.

Silkina responded with a similar answer when I asked her about the significance of social media in informing her decision to opt for a Sabyasachi bridal outfit. “I knew about Sabyasachi for a long time, you can say word of mouth initially and then I used to see his designs on social media as well. So in a way, yes, social media did have a huge part to play,” she said.

Silkina in Sabyasachi on her baraat. Photo by Irfan Ahson via Silkina
Silkina in Sabyasachi on her baraat. Photo by Irfan Ahson via Silkina

“I planned to wear Sabyasachi since the day I saw their pictures on Instagram. There was no going back for me after that...With so many colours and combinations to choose from, I wanted something lively and girlish and ended up choosing a beautiful signature Sabya Lime,” shared Shahama, who wore a stunning lime green lehenga choli with colourfully hand-worked borders at the hem and sleeves.

With a Sabyasachi bridal having become a salient clothing item at every hashtag wedding, we have begun to see more and more women opt to wear his designs on their big days. This, of course, begs the question: What makes a Sabyasachi bridal so unique and sought after?

The anatomy of a Sabyasachi bridal

Although both Pakistani and Indian fashion have roots that can be traced back to the fabric and embroidery patterns of the Subcontinent, the over half a century since the divide of the two countries has led to an evolution of silhouettes, styles, and embellishment techniques that share certain similarities but also possess qualities that allow for them to be distinguished from one another. The lehenga choli silhouette is one that is indigenous to Indian culture and has made an entry into Pakistani wedding and bridal-wear fashion only recently —undoubtedly, as a consequence of Pakistani designers and maisons being inspired by their Indian counterparts.

Therefore, one major aspect that sets a Sabyasachi bridal apart from the bridal-wear made locally is its lehenga choli silhouette. There’s something about the way that the choli hugs the torso, how the lehenga flares out without mimicking a ballgown and the style with which the dupatta is draped over the ensemble that has yet to be adequately replicated in the tailoring of lehenga cholis stitched in Pakistan.

In my quest to understand what exactly it was about Sabyasachi’s bridals that appealed to the modern Pakistani bride, I spoke to a handful of women who had worn Sabyasachi bridals on their mehndi or baraat events. Humna — who wore a green lehenga choli with accents of fuchsia and gold embroidered and embellished motifs on her mehndi — believed there were benefits to designers on both sides of the border.

“I believe designers both across the border and here have their own fortes. Our traditional hand-work is phenomenal and unmatched, but for lehenga cholis and saris, I feel that the way they drape it is something they are masters at.”

Another Sabyasachi bride, Silkina, had a similar opinion. “The kind of lehenga cholis Sabyasachi makes, I have not seen any other designer in Pakistan doing those. There’s just something about the stitchings and the fittings…

“It took me around four to five months to constantly update my measurements to be on the safe side and just send them the numbers on texts and video calls. When the lehenga choli came, I hadn't seen any trousseau or bridal fit me that well,” said Shahama.

Shahama in Sabyasachi at her mehndi. Photo by Izzah Shaheen Malik via Shahama
Shahama in Sabyasachi at her mehndi. Photo by Izzah Shaheen Malik via Shahama

The lehenga choli style offers an alternative to the traditional silhouettes of ghararas, shararas, and lehengas —paired with shirts of varying lengths— or the ever-present pishwaas that we have witnessed our grandmothers, mothers, aunts, sisters, and friends wear over the decades. Many brides are now opting to wear a signature Sabyasachi lehenga choli on at least one of their wedding events — if they can afford it — for the sake of standing out.

“I chose Sabyasachi since I wanted to diversify my look for each day. For the rest of my events, I chose our Pakistani designers whom I am equally in awe of, if not more,” said Shahama.

The growing appeal of a Sabyasachi bridal, therefore, can also be linked to the millennial bride’s desire to stand out amongst the hundreds of brides being dolled up, photographed, and reposted all over social media.

Apart from the choice of silhouette, another thing that differentiates a Sabyasachi bridal outfit from Pakistani bridal couture is the use of rich textiles, embroidery patterns and embellishment techniques. Whereas Pakistani designers and ateliers often aim for a head-to-toe heavily-embellished shirt and intricately-worked borders on the lower, the handwork adorning a Sabyasachi bridal is more delicate and widespread.

Not only is the embroidery more spaced out — with the needlework often creating gossamer and vine-like patterns that are punctuated with small flower and other motifs borrowed from nature — the selection of decorative material is also distinctive in that there is an emphasis on glistening threadwork, the use of sequins, and coils of embellished lace encircling at the borders of the lehenga. The absence of heavy embellishments and the allowance for the rich fabrics to shine through is something that adds to the one-of-a-kind quality of a Sabyasachi bridal.

“His colour scheme, the kind of colours he uses, the kind of fabrics and materials that he’s using, his embellishments and designs are so unique, you know? It’s not the typical head-to-toe kaam sey bhara hua jora dey diya [outfit filled with embroidery]…It’s so creative and it’s so fun," explained Aimen.

Silkina in Sabyasachi on her baraat. Photo by Irfan Ahson via Silkina
Silkina in Sabyasachi on her baraat. Photo by Irfan Ahson via Silkina

"And it’s more than just the design. I think the entire story around the design is so unique, like the campaign, the music, the way the models are doing all these cool things in the videos…There’s such phenomenal marketing on social media that it’s like an entire Sabyasachi experience," said the bride. "Like, I didn’t just wear a Sabyasachi outfit, but my jewellery and makeup and hair were also inspired by the Sabyasachi campaign. So I think, yes, like I've told you why I think his designs are unique and different, but I also think that he creates a very unique and different bride experience on his Instagram page so when you see it, you kind of want to recreate the whole thing, because it feels so magical and whimsical,” said Aimen.

The courtier of the rich and fabulous

Since we have now established an unmistakable connection between social media, hashtag weddings, and the hype surrounding Sabyasachi bridals, it is important for us to try and understand the appeal of Sabyasachi’s designs and what they represent in the Pakistani context.

Hashtag weddings have taken the form of a social-cultural phenomenon that is not only a manifestation of the generational tradition of weddings as they are celebrated in South Asia, but also a representation of how far capitalism has succeeded in bolstering the wedding industrial complex. Weddings were once considered private and intimate affairs to be celebrated in the company of close friends and family members but are now being broadcast to thousands of spectators online.

The pomp on display for the viewing pleasure (or displeasure) of anyone and everyone online seems to directly serve the spirit of capitalism, as the hashtag wedding becomes a symbol of an ideal of wealth and an opulent lifestyle for one to aspire to. Even when this grandeur and affluence is unattainable, the trap of consumerism is one that threatens to ensnare us all, to the extent that the privilege of acquiring and wearing a Sabyasachi bridal comes to be seen as a step towards this ideal. Thus, this beckons the question of whether or not a large portion of the hype surrounding Sabyasachi bridals can be attributed to the fact that they symbolise wealth, luxury, and the attainment of a social status that would classify one as a member of the upper echelons of society.

As bridal couture that has to be exported from a another country, Sabyasachi bridals embody a charm that promises exclusivity — exclusivity in the selection of silhouettes, fabrics, and designs, but also in the realisation that Sabyasachi bridals are not readily available for all.

“I don’t think so, there was just one store in Mall 1, Lahore, that had a few outfits by Sabyasachi, but I don’t think that’s much variety to choose from,” replied Silkina when I inquired about whether Sabyasachi outfits were readily available in retail designer-wear stores in Pakistan.

Shahama in Sabyasachi at her mehndi. Photo by Izzah Shaheen Malik via Shahama
Shahama in Sabyasachi at her mehndi. Photo by Izzah Shaheen Malik via Shahama

Aimen had a similar insight. “I don’t think Sabyasachi bridals are readily available in Pakistan. They used to be. I think about two to three years ago, there was a store in Karachi called Ensemble and they had bought a bunch of ready-to-wear Sabyasachi options but, since then, I haven't heard of anyone who has ready-made outfits here.”

That there are only limited and ready-to-wear options for Sabyasachi outfits available in Pakistan and no certified retailers who can arrange custom orders only adds to the luxury and exclusivity of a Sabyasachi bridal. Like all luxuries, a Sabyasachi bridal remains largely inaccessible to the average Pakistani bride, but what makes it especially out of reach is the fact that you need to be able to travel abroad to visit retail stores that stock Sabyasachi bridals or have your outfit delivered to an address in London or Dubai.

“If you travel frequently to London or Dubai, I know that there are boutiques where you can pick up ready-made outfits, but if you're ordering a jora… I have a few friends who have ordered for their weddings, I’ve ordered myself but it’s not an easy process. The payment and delivery definitely make it a hassle,” explained Aimen.

The tenuous political relations between Pakistan and India have made it near impossible for anyone to cross the border, let alone for Pakistani brides-to-be to visit the Sabyasachi studios in person. The travel restrictions and fact that the bridal outfit cannot be shipped to Pakistan are two major factors that make a Sabyasachi bridal inaccessible and, thereby, a more exclusive and enchanting luxury.

Fashion that comes with a price

Another element that adds to the inaccessibility of Sabyasachi bridals is the exorbitant price tags they carry. A Sabyasachi bridal can cost anywhere between Rs900,000 and Rs4.5 million — a price range not unheard of in the realm of Pakistani bridal couture, but still solely reserved for the observably deluxe and top-tier maisons and fashion designers.

“I think Bunto Kazmi is equally expensive,” reasoned Humna. But Aimen had a slightly different opinion. “Pakistani designers, the high-end ones like Bunto Kazmi and Faraz Manan, they’re more expensive than Sabyasachi. With Sabyasachi, you have his bridal range between Rs900,000 and Rs1.6 million and his very high-end designs go up till Rs2 million.”

Ayesha Saif Khan wore Sabyasachi at her nikah to Maryam Nawaz's son Junaid Safdar. Photo by Zehra Photography
Ayesha Saif Khan wore Sabyasachi at her nikah to Maryam Nawaz's son Junaid Safdar. Photo by Zehra Photography

Gone are the days when it was the norm for affluent Pakistani brides to make a quick trip to India for their trousseau and bridal-wear shopping. However, even with all the aforementioned barriers in place, social media and modern technology continue to play an active part in countering this lack of access to overseas fashion.

“I got in touch with them over the phone, they set an appointment for a video call and then that’s how they showed me all the designs etc. When I chose what I wanted, they took my measurements all over the video call as well by demonstrating in front of me how the proper measurements should be done. So the whole process was entirely done over video call,” explained Silkina.

From all this, we can conclude that sensational hashtag weddings that were so enthusiastically followed by thousands helped make Sabyasachi a household name in Pakistan. The fact that Sabyasachi's name became synonymous with luxury, exclusivity, and extravagance automatically made the Sabyasachi bridal ensemble more desirable.

The desirability of his designs also came from the realisation that his aesthetic, use of embroidery techniques, and preference for the traditional lehenga-choli silhouette was unique and unlike the fashion trends that were being employed by Pakistani fashion designers and bridal couture houses. Moreover, there is an undeniable correlation between the increased use of social media, the power of capitalism, the trend of hashtag weddings, and the subsequent rise in Pakistani Sabyasachi brides.