At the age of 12, Sabyasachi was sure he was born to be “damn famous”. He just wasn’t sure what he would be famous for. Middle-class people did not speak like that in the pastoral of Chandernagore, a small town in West Bengal, about 30 miles from Kolkata. Her father was a chemical engineer in a wool factory, her mother an artist who taught cooking. She told him to stop saying such things or the neighbors might think he was crazy.
When he was 14, he moved into a small room in his paternal grandmother’s house in the chaotic post-colonial city of Calcutta so he could attend a good high school. He had always scored 100s – which, in India, inevitably means being followed in science. “I thought the education system in India was like an arranged marriage, where they push you into a system and they ask you to find love,” he said. “Yet at the same time, I knew that if I didn’t give up, I would end up becoming an engineer or a doctor, which I didn’t want. As Sabyasachi recounts, he became certain he must kill himself and took a handful of sleeping pills which he had slowly collected from the town pharmacists. The last six or seven seconds before falling asleep, he frantically tried to go back. His traumatized mother slapped him and forced him to vomit. After that, he dyed his hair orange, and his father, who had been very strict, softened up and took him to the Trincas restaurant, where Sabyasachi stood on stage badly singing Madonna songs. But with no sense of direction, he remained depressed and dropped out of school for three years in a row.
One of the few bright spots in Sabyasachi’s life at the time was his cosmopolitan neighbor, 26-year-old Meeta Ghose. Bold and fashionable, she wore short skirts, stiletto heels and blue eyeliner. (It was in the 1990s, when trends caught on in India about a decade late.) It didn’t matter that she was married and he was only 15 – they were kindred spirits, interested through life beyond their immediate environment. When Ogaan, one of India’s fanciest multi-designer boutiques in India, opened on the street where they lived, Sabyasachi was captivated. While studying clothes, he decided he wanted to be a designer. He sketched out a portfolio for Ghose, including a neon pink cropped jacket and turquoise miniskirt inspired by his idol, Madonna, and Ghose told him he would be famous. Sabyasachi haunted Ogaan until a salesman finally reviewed his sketches. They were nice, the salesman said, but he needed more experience.
While his mother was buying paint at an art supply store, Sabyasachi spotted cheap Indian beads – gold, wood, shell – catching the afternoon light and decided to design his own collection of costume jewelry. This started her romance with Indian materials. There was something so beautiful and joyful about 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 vendors. When Sabyasachi arrived the next day, everything had sold out. A doctor who bought a necklace and earring set with painted wooden beads for 165 rupees (about $2) said his work should be at Bergdorf Goodman. It was the first time he had 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 an unusual talent. Still, Sabyasachi’s parents were unwilling to pay for his entrance exam, so he sold his science and math textbooks to cover the cost.