Beginning my series of portraits and observations (Yes, Truman Capote reference) I post a little piece I wrote a year ago when I began chronicling people I’d like not to forget, and moments i’d like to go back to. These are still drafts in working, but, I thought I might as well get started…
Sabina Chopra is the personification of a no-logo discreet brand. Visible to only those erudite enough to be able to discern her in the a crowd that is monogrammed (not by their own) and glittered (unnecessarily). For someone who has been associated with Lakme Fashion Week since its inception, its always seemed a little odd that while googling her, one finds more photos of her red carpet moments than the total number of spoken words combined from all of her interviews. Is this because of offline editorial fatigue or of her own discretion?
She is an Indian version of Daphne Guinness minus the PR theatrics or grossly over styled hair. Loyal to the most creatively charged and incidentally reclusive designers, her small frame wears the most bold ensembles, with a natural mundane valour, that I can only see matched by the confidence one possesses in their favourite fat day outfit.
When one first understands who she is and her social/cultural relevance one becomes more intrigued as she doesn’t fit the typical mould. And if your value system is anything like mine, after a few sightings you discover her distinctive sartorial vocabulary and develop a respect for her. Her selections are never worn by stars or chosen by their stylists, they never grace an editorial shoot, and while many in the industry admire her wares, they can never source or find them themselves; when worn however, they can spot exactly who designed them without even needing to wonder.
Sabina’s face reminds you of personalities in fashion history, her eyebrows and facial symmetry are Kahlo’s and her black long hair slicked back hair reminiscent of YSL’s Le Smoking woman. For those well versed in evolved, superior, subtle non-verbal social cues she wordlessly tells you she is someone worth knowing. I assure you she is. One can’t ignore that her face is thinly lined, but it’s youthful tanned glow colours in well. As far as appearance go she is the most well maintained 50+ year old I have ever seen and has a grace and pace to emulate an elegance that is saved to describe First Ladies. Each of Sabina’s meticulous steps and glances all seems practiced but without any intention to be.
Sunil Sethi, President of the Fashion Design Council and thus rival fashion week organizer impulsively asked her a question that had been on a lot of people’s mind for years. It happens that she was already walking away from ‘Mr. Sethi’ after having just greeted him for the first time that evening. This exchange occurred after a couture show in New Delhi and the question exclaimed with a curious exuberance that dismissed all possible potential from actually sounding nosy “Sabina, how do you always manage to wear his (pointing at the designer who had just shown) newest collection before it’s ever down the catwalk!?” She stopped her quick and deliberate steps, smiled like a cheeky child who knows the answer before the questions been asked, as if expecting someone to ask her how she aced the test. “I’m sample size and pick out what I want before fittings.” The couture show was Sabyasachi Mukherjees and he had just closed Delhi’s Couture Week 2012.
Seizing the opportunity of this quick rubbing of shoulders an industry favourite Page 3 photographer caught the exchange and asked them both to pose together for a better version. Sunil Sethi stopped, “How can we have a picture of the muse without who she inspires?” Sabyasachi standing a few feet away observed listlessly, shyly smiled, hands behind his back. After having being ushered by a senior member of his team from Calcutta he waddled over along to them. They all looked slightly awkward, did they now need to address Sunil’s statement/question after the photo?
Many have associated Sabina’s relevance in society with the men in her life. As Sabyasachi Mukherjee’s muse or wife of Mr. Anil Chopra. I don’t know if that says more about the press, society or her. Sabyasachi and her close relationship has also befuddled many industry eyes, is she his real creative director? Muse? Deal maker? Strategist? Or is it all just PR for her Sabya store and investments? The lack of definitive answer is the most rewarding for the pair.
I told her that she had successfully developed an air of complete inaccessibility around her, which she told me was just common misperception while we were on the topic of first impressions. (How did that even come up?) A misperception I feel she actually possibly enjoys, self perpetuated by that childlike smirk and subconsciously by her ability to dismissively glance over you as if you were a buffet that she knew had been out too long. Because of my social tact I decided to mention this to her as well, after only officially meeting her a few times during Lakme Fashion Week 2013. ‘I’m actually quite friendly…’ she elaborated and abruptly stopped.
We were sat opposite each other in Sabyasachi’s suite the day after his finale show, where we were debriefing amongst other things. She finally had an opportunity to eat that day, because she had no time before, as she was working out and running around- she got up at the godly hour of 5 am after going to bed at . “You mustn’t break good habits…” she told me. Over lunch she laughed copiously, owning to the topic matter discussed, an ethical debate that was had and subliminal Cold War that took place before our eyes because of the some other individuals we were with. Oh, politics. While maneuvering and appeasing figuration both the USA and USSR, she divulged an embarrassing anecdote where recently a first time consumer had mixed up her identity “They actually thought I was Sabya’s WIFE!”
The first time I was seated opposite her, and possibly met her formally was earlier that week. Front rows are quite the awkward thing, people look around them to see who they’re seated opposite to, on the side of and all that jazz. As a front row veteran not that it is a status of value to her identity, she surveyed the panorama in front of her standard Lakme seat, chewing her gum with a gusto. What was she looking for? A good outfit? A friendly face? Or just glancing around the room because the hall was already packed and the show was late to begin. What was taking so long? A last minute guest sat next to her, whispered in her ear, she smiled and exclaimed and perhaps let out what one could only tell was a giggle. What could make Ms. Chopra giggle?
Back in the suite she continued divulging tidbits about herself. Her indelible ability to spot the best new talent is either ahead of the curve, or the compass that can pencil/create it. Through the fashion week she changed outfit after outfit successfully into the next shutterbug worthy ensemble. “I told that photographer if he took one more photo of me for that ridiculous website…I refuse to be on it” she isn’t the biggest fan of bollywood and “hot or not” outfit rating websites “They’re just so tacky.” Talking about social media, she passed a loaded comment that I think many people will agree with “I’d hate to have a twitter because then I’d be obliged to actually respond to people I don’t want to speak to.” Sometimes while being around her it seems as if she’s giving you a class on how to behave or think. And all you must do is watch and absorb, lead by her fully composed and faultless instruction. I was not complaining “Maybe I should just write a book, because if anyone disagrees or has an issue with what I say they can just tell their friends. Not me.”
Her real desire is curation and being surrounded by aesthetically beautiful things that are hand crafted. Before Sabyasachi’s show we were all going through music for it, what should it be like? What should come first? We were all inkling for some jazz and had enthusiastically suggested it. Sabina meanwhile was quickly on her computer and before one had suggested a song had begun to play some sublime Diana Krall. (Jazz was used in the end)
What struck me most about Sabina was her authenticity, and bluntness. So rarely do you have people in the industry really speak their mind without the fear of offense. People may not like her but that probably because she doesn’t like them. When surrounded air kisses and gushing declarations, maybe a well framed smile that you don’t know the reason behind is needed just to keep you in check. Because in an industry that survives on projecting a brand all based on visual, textual manipulation and deception you have to realize that the people that make the images, words more often than not happen to be much the same. Once in a while you need a reminder, that there is more to a headline, byline or story and some people themselves make a good one.