The Man Who Made the Sari Haute

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In New York, Sabyasachi Mukherjee can almost be anonymous. He takes morning runs in Central Park; walks through Times Square, looking up at the billboards like a little kid; dines at family-run Chinese restaurants, the kinds of places where he’s unlikely to be photographed with a mouthful of food. Whenever he sees anyone from South Asia, he veers in the opposite direction, hoping to avoid an awkward encounter. But run-ins are inevitable, as when a fan stopped him recently coming out of the Plaza Hotel — a doctor from India, eager to exchange a word with India’s most famous fashion designer.

This month, I sat with Sabyasachi — as he’s known in the industry — in a labyrinthine retail space on Christopher Street. The walls, dressed in nostalgic floral papers he designed, were lit by overlapping chandeliers with floral fabric shades. More than a million dollars’ worth of art, some of it from the 17th century, was stacked five frames deep against the walls. Sabyasachi was here for the decoration of what will soon be his first store in the West. Among the items of furniture being installed, the one closest to his heart was a massive, 12-foot-tall antique wedding chest made in Syria and inlaid with mother-of-pearl.

It was a fitting choice, because Sabyasachi is not just the most famous designer in India but also arguably the world’s most influential creator of wedding wear. Over the past five years, he has outfitted brides and grooms for all of the biggest Bollywood weddings: Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas; Anushka Sharma and the cricket star Virat Kohli; Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh; Alia Bhatt and Ranbir Kapoor. He also dressed Isha Ambani, the daughter of India’s richest man, for her wedding festivities, during which Bollywood stars served food and Beyoncé performed. “He has completely dominated the bridal industry in India,” Aishwarya Subramanyam, a former editor of Elle India, told me. “And it’s not easy to do in a place like India. Different regions have their own customs, but he has managed to cut across all of that.”

At 48, he has a Bengali baby face that lends him the look of a precocious child: sweet, impish, delighted, determined. He tends to dress entirely in items from Uniqlo, cropped khakis with elastic ankles and white button-up shirts, which he buys once a year, in person, 20 at a time. Today, though, his Uniqlo garments had taken a turn toward retro, the pants corduroy, his band-collared shirt navy blue. He was also wearing necklaces for the first time in his life — two of his gold Sabyasachi logo necklaces and a ram’s head — at the behest of his jewelry team.

If these evolutions had all been made in preparation for his American debut, the greatest evolution was in the garments he intended to sell. He pulled up a PDF to show me on his phone. Ten days earlier, listening to Leonard Cohen, he decided he needed to design an exclusive New York collection that was a little more Western. He began visualizing his customers, channeling characters he would dress: “When you’re going through divorce or when you’re going on your first date or when you want to go on a power trip, what is it that you would like to wear?” The American line would be available only in New York; an Indian who wanted it would have to travel or send a friend. He swiped through the initial designs — evening gowns with embroidered Indian borders and brocade coats, everything in a palette of mustard, black and brown, inspired by the Bengal tiger. It was a departure from the colorful, crafted saris and lehengas (traditional full skirts worn with cropped tops) that made him famous. It was also a big bet. He had a 15-year lease.

Throughout an era dominated by oppressive minimalism, Sabyasachi’s clothes remained refreshingly maximalist, a celebration of Indian decorative arts, a menagerie of interlocking embroideries entirely outside Western trends. “He is the king of color,” Shefalee Vasudev, editor in chief of The Voice of Fashion, told me. He sells a kind of Old World beauty, marrying different traditional specialties in a way that looks completely natural. And according to Sabyasachi, some 2,600 Indian brides a year have bought that beauty, the bulk of them purchasing lehengas ranging from $2,500 to $23,000 apiece — this in a country where the average annual salary is estimated to be around $2,600. In 2019, his company earned $36.2 million in revenue.

Now Sabyasachi is looking to become not just India’s pre-eminent designer but one of its most high-end exports. As he opens his New York store this fall, he will also be finalizing a beauty line and preparing for next year’s jewelry pop-up (his third) inside Bergdorf Goodman. (At an earlier pop-up, one Indian arrived to shop from Spain in the morning and flew back home in the afternoon.)

If his global expansion takes off, Sabyasachi will establish himself as a sort of Indian Ralph Lauren. “He sold the idea of good American living to middle-class Americans,” Sabyasachi said of Lauren, “and I’ve sold the idea of good Indian living to middle-class Indians.” His West Village store will, he hopes, introduce Americans to the painstaking art and exuberance of Indian weaves, embroidery and craft. When a friend fretted to him about the location’s not being near a designer hub, Sabyasachi answered: “I’ll create my destination. When you build something very beautiful, people will find you.”

I discovered Sabyasachi while trying to get a handle on what to wear to an Indian wedding — my own Indian wedding — from a studio apartment in San Francisco. In desperation, I turned to Pinterest, and eventually realized that everything I was saving — stately emerald Banarasi saris with gold brocade pallu (end pieces), velvet lehengas in regal maroon with metal aari (chain stitching) reminiscent of armor — had been designed by a single man. His website was perpetually “being renovated” (this is still the case years later), but his Instagram offered a trove of what might be described as heritage high fashion. He photographed his clothes at the country’s Mughal palaces. His models wore low buns with center parts streaked with sindoor, a vermilion powder that signifies marriage. I didn’t consider myself a wedding person, and I am the opposite of elegant, so I was surprised, even a little ashamed, of my childlike fixation on these decadent lehengas. (Maybe no one is immune to a dress fit for a maharani.)

When my partner, Karan, and I visited Delhi to shop for wedding clothes over Thanksgiving in 2018, a month before my Hindu ceremony in Jodhpur, I told my future mother-in-law, a graceful woman who wears salwar kameezes in muted weaves, that I wanted to visit Sabyasachi’s flagship store. She laughed gently and encouraged me to look at more affordable designers. Far from my private discovery, Sabyasachi was a huge celebrity in India, the star of his own wildly popular bridal makeover show, “Band Bajaa Bride.” But I was determined. So I drove 45 minutes through the careening auto rickshaws and jerking Marutis to the Mehrauli neighborhood of Delhi, where the high-end bridal boutiques are concentrated.

Two white vaultlike buildings were tucked at the end of a dirt road. Opening the heavy door, I entered a dark passage. When my eyes adjusted, I saw that the walls were adorned with hand-painted Portuguese tiles lit by a hanging garden of tinted chandeliers. Beyond the long entry corridor, Kashmiri rugs covered the walls. Fine china and traditional Indian art was layered over them: Tanjore paintings of gods encrusted with gold, Ravi Varma prints that their owners had embellished with silks a century earlier. Later I would learn that Sabyasachi designed every detail himself, personally spray-painting the chandeliers. A series of cavernous rooms with racks of saris led to a staircase, and upstairs a dozen cloth mannequins were dressed in wedding lehengas. Velvet embedded with jewels, raw silk with hand-beaten sequin borders, silk brocades woven with gold.

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Photography is prohibited in the store. An employee who let an outsider into Sabyasachi’s factory says he was let go afterward. (Sabyasachi denies this.) Sabyasachi controls his brand image so tightly that his work lives almost exclusively in photos he has authorized and on his Instagram page, where he debuts his collections, preferring to set his own pace.

As it turns out, not only were the lehengas well above anything I could afford, but I was laughably late for wedding shopping. Sabyasachi garments are made to order and must be bought four to five months out. But the saris, while not affordable, were attainable. I spontaneously bought two — an emerald green linen one, for the wedding reception in Delhi, and a deep blue Banarasi, for what, I wasn’t sure — in what was by far the biggest clothes purchase I had ever made in my life. But I did it with the instant and unshakable certainty that attaches to things of undeniable beauty.

At age 12, Sabyasachi was certain he was born to be “bloody famous.” He just wasn’t sure what he’d be famous for. Middle-class people didn’t talk like that in pastoral Chandernagore, a small town in West Bengal, about 30 miles from Kolkata. His father was a chemical engineer at a wool factory, his mother an artist who taught cooking. She told him to stop saying such things or else the neighbors might think he was crazy.

When he was 14, he moved into a small room at his paternal grandmother’s house in the chaotic post-colonial city of Kolkata so he could attend a good high school. He had always gotten 100s — which, in India, means inevitably being tracked into science. “I thought that the education system in India was like an arranged marriage, where they push you into a system and they ask you to discover love,” he said. “Yet at the same time, I knew that if I didn’t drop out, I would end up becoming an engineer or doctor, which I didn’t want.” As Sabyasachi tells it, he became certain he had to kill himself and took a handful of sleeping pills that he’d slowly collected from pharmacists around town. The last six or seven seconds before he fell asleep, he frantically tried to claw his way back. His mother, traumatized, slapped him and forced him to throw up. After this, he dyed his hair orange, and his father, who had been very strict, softened up and took him to the restaurant Trincas, where Sabyasachi stood on the stage badly belting out Madonna songs. But without a sense of direction, he remained depressed and dropped out of school three years in a row.

One of the few bright spots in Sabyasachi’s life at the time was his cosmopolitan neighbor, the 26-year-old Meeta Ghose. Bold and fashionable, she wore short skirts, stilettos and blue eyeliner. (This was the 1990s, when trends washed through India about a decade late.) Never mind that she was married and he was only 15 — they were kindred spirits, interested in life beyond their immediate surroundings. When Ogaan — one of India’s chicest multidesigner Indian boutiques — opened down the street from where they lived, Sabyasachi was captivated. Studying the clothes, he decided he wanted to be a designer. He sketched a portfolio for Ghose, including a neon pink cropped jacket and a turquoise miniskirt inspired by his idol, Madonna, and Ghose told him he would become famous. Sabyasachi haunted Ogaan until a salesperson finally reviewed his sketches. They were nice, the salesperson said, but he needed more experience.

While his mother was buying paint at an art-supply store, Sabyasachi spied cheap Indian beads — gold, wooden, shell — catching the afternoon light and decided to design his own costume jewelry collection. This started his romance with Indian materials. There was something so beautiful and joyous in the 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 sellers. When Sabyasachi checked in the next day, everything had sold. A doctor who bought a necklace-and-earring set with painted wooden beads for 165 rupees (roughly $2) said his work should be in Bergdorf Goodman. It was the first time he ever 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 unusual talent. Still, Sabyasachi’s parents wouldn’t pay for his entrance exam, so he sold his science and math textbooks to cover the fee.

He enrolled in Kolkata’s National Institute of Fashion Technology, hoping to learn about Indian weaves and embroidery techniques, but Sabyasachi’s teachers were focused on preparing students to export to Western markets. “The course for Indian clothing was almost an apology,” Sabyasachi said. His real training came from freelance jobs at boutiques around town.

A version of his graduation collection — textured garments in drapey Indian silhouettes — premiered at India Fashion Week in 2002 and made him an instant success. Sabyasachi put together unusual color combinations in a palette of tea-dyed stains — old rose, pistachio green, pale blue — entirely his own, and styled his models with books and big glasses. “It was what you would call granny dressing, but it was just Kolkata sensibility redefined,” Nonita Kalra, a former editor of Elle India and Harper’s Bazaar India, told me. “All of us sitting in the front row went, A star is born.”

Sabyasachi founded his label with 20,000 rupees from his father and sister, who both went on to work with him for many years, and a team of two craftspeople in his parents’ apartment. When Ogaan shuttered its Kolkata store, he persuaded his father to help him rent the 8,500-square-foot space. From 2006 to 2009, he quietly showed bohemian garments in luxe Indian fabrics at New York Fashion Week. He slunk onto the stage afterward, hands clasped behind his back, wearing an all-black ensemble that looked a little like a costume on him. Sabyasachi recalls that Saks Fifth Avenue wanted to stock some of his clothes, but he could already see the ways in which he would compromise his aesthetic trying to cater to Westerners. “To really become successful in New York, because I was completely unknown, I would have to discard my Indian identity and do things their way,” Sabyasachi said. “So I thought the smarter way to do it was for me to come to India and create a stronger brand. When I have a certain name for myself, I will be able to influence people to see things from my perspective. Then when I’m absolutely ready, and when I’m in a position of power and privilege, I’ll go back on my own terms.”

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“Couture in the West is dead — nobody wants that,” the textile expert Rahul Jain told me. “Sabyasachi created a vocabulary that really comes out of here, as opposed to coming from elsewhere.” Much of that lies in his use of Indian artisanal craft. “The fact that you could really get a unique object is far more possible here,” Jain added.

I was thinking along these lines as I walked through Sabyasachi’s factory in central Kolkata. Over the years, a single room has become nine buildings, 200,000 square feet. In a space the size of an aircraft hangar, thousands of silk-screens lined the walls, and buckets of woodcut block prints sat beneath long tables draped in freshly printed silks and chiffons. In a smaller room nearby, a dozen or so embroiderers gathered for their 5 p.m. prayer, surrounded by glass jars of beads and hand-beaten metal sequins. One of them might toil over a single lehenga panel for more than a month.

As the Sabyasachi brand grew, hundreds of craftspeople who had settled across India reverse-migrated home to Bengal to work in his operations. In addition to 500 full-time staff members, Sabyasachi employs 1,000 artisans and has ordered work from thousands more (weavers, dyers, printmakers, jewelry makers, leather tanners, stationers), many of whom he met while traveling the country to source original textiles and antique embroidery. Indian crafts are regional specialties traditionally passed down through families. On visits, Sabyasachi often asks to speak to the grandfather in a textile or embroidery outfit, the man who might feel muscled out by modernity. Sometimes Sabyasachi will take an antique textile to ask if the elder can recreate it. Other times he simply asks to see the archives from the 1910s to the 1940s, his favorite era in Indian design. “There was such classical purity,” Sabyasachi told me. One of Sabyasachi’s favorite finds was in Varanasi: a Banarasi sari in which images of gramophones were woven into the center of dahlias. He imagined the old weaver catching sight of the technology for the first time and being so enthralled that he fit it into a flower, like someone embroidering an iPhone inside an anemone. Sabyasachi calls it “the exuberance of design that comes from an untutored mind.”

Mixing high and low is signature Sabyasachi. Varun Rana, who worked for Sabyasachi as an assistant designer in 2004, recalled walking with him through a local bazaar and stumbling on a diaphanous textile in crimson. Sabyasachi envisioned it with black borders and big silver rosettes and bought all of it, Rana remembers (though Sabyasachi does not). “I think we made about 10 or 12” saris, Rana said, “because that’s how much fabric we had. And then those saris blew up.” Within a week, he was recreating the fabric to meet the demand.

Years later, Sabyasachi’s process remains largely the same. “He’s a storyteller, and if he has an idea, he wants everyone to listen,” his former design team member Aanchal Cheema said. “I never sketch,” Sabyasachi told me. “I tell myself I want to go on a journey but never fix my destination.” (Also, he noted, his mother is a skilled artist, and he didn’t want to live in her shadow.) For his bridal collections, he generally begins with the borders, the strips of embellishment at the bottom of a sari or a lehenga, describing what he envisions. He and his design team will generate 50 to 60 unique borders each season. Then he’ll mix and match them to build out an idea. In the case of a certain brocade latticed with wildflowers, that idea was an unlikely color palette; Sabyasachi elevated sophisticated shades of sherbet — vintage lime, guava and banana — with raw silk. “He used to spend hours on the terrace hand-dying himself, because he’s also a control freak,” a former design assistant told me. “If anything looks a little bit new, he’s like, ‘Go dip it in tea.’” Tea powder boiled in vats at all times. (Now Sabyasachi uses a sepia dye, which unlike tea won’t run or fade.) Then he will stack borders from different regions — geometric Kashmiri embroidery, Punjabi kiran (silver fringe dipped in gold), creating a mash-up of heritage styles that somehow manages to seem timeless.

Once he sees the finished garment, if he’s uncertain about anything, like a month’s worth of tedious aari work, he takes a pair of scissors and snips it off. “It’s the surgeon moment,” he told me. “I don’t want to second-guess.” If he comes up with something new, like adding kiran, he lets it play out for two to six seasons, because he doesn’t like to date his clothes. Some critique him for the repetition, but I like that surety. His collections exist on a slowly evolving continuum.

At the factory, Shreyansh Pradhan, the head of saris at the time, led me into a room full of metal shelving, like the stacks of a library. But rather than books, the shelves held thousands of the elaborately embroidered trimming for the bottoms of lehengas and saris. This was the haloed “border room,” where most of the designing happened, and it was a library, the vintage embroidery Sabyasachi’s critical reference material. He’d scavenged the trimming, many more than a hundred years old, from all over India. “He’ll keep on getting inspiration from here,” Pradhan said.

We rounded the corner into another expansive wing of the room with shelves of woven saris, arranged by region. Pradhan pulled out a red-and-yellow Bandhani, a specialty from Kutch, in Gujarat. In a process dating back centuries, the fabric was dyed yellow, then thousands of tiny knots were tied individually around mustard seeds and the fabric was dyed red, creating a stuttering of tiny yellow O’s in undulating patterns. “So complicated,” Sabyasachi told me, “but so breathtakingly simple. It’s almost ritualistic.”

Pradhan lifted a Kanjeevaram from its box, another iconic Indian weave from the ancient southern city Kanchipuram. Kanjeevarams are made with a thicker silk — paradoxically, since the south is so much hotter — and they typically come in brilliant, hot colors, often with brightly contrasting “temple” borders, in which gold zari thread is woven into motifs — elephants, peacocks, mythical creatures — derived from local Tamil Nadu temple sculptures. “They’re very proud textiles,” Sabyasachi told me. “Influences come and go. People have done design intervention. Societies have changed. But they have stood the test of time.”

Since he was 18, Sabyasachi had largely lived in undecorated apartments (shared, early on, with his tailors) and hotels (he loved being able to shut out the world). But after staying at Christian Louboutin’s home while collaborating with him on shoes and bags, he decided to build his own place. When I visited, he tumbled down the grand staircase bearded, barefoot and a bit disheveled, wearing his Uniqlo uniform, completely at home beside a 14-foot-tall Ming vase. The astonishing residence struck me less as a personal indulgence than an act of brand building, a set piece for the cover of Architectural Digest India, a proof of concept for any foray into home wares, a place to entertain business partners.

Sabyasachi was having me over for an al fresco lunch with his old friend Meeta Ghose, and on our way outside, we passed through his much-photographed sitting room. Fourteen West Bengali artists spent nearly a month painting jungle foliage in the style of Henri Rousseau on the walls, only to have those walls covered in countless pieces of art, artifacts and crockery. In the backyard work studio, his web designer — the one who was never allowed to complete a website — and others were laying out Instagram grids with the deliberation of designers assembling a magazine.

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The house, Sabyasachi said, allowed him to spend more time with himself. “In the last two years, I learned to accept my shortcomings,” Sabyasachi told me. “I’m a better marketing person than I am a designer. And I say, ‘To hell with it, even that is a talent!’”

“He’s a creative artist,” Ghose interrupted, imperiously. “Like Picasso.”

“That’s superfluous,” Sabyasachi said. “I will tell you — ”

“Superfluous! You used the wrong word,” Ghose scolded, as though she were still 26 and he 15.

“Let me tell you,” Sabyasachi said. “A lot of people look at things, simple things, and they complicate it for the sake of design.”

“Yes, correct,” Ghose said.

“I look at a simple thing and keep it simple.”

He loves clichés. Something became clichéd, he said, when it was so beautiful that it became iconic. The center-parted low bun. Frida Kahlo’s floral headdress. The Taj Mahal, which he put on the saris he designed for H&M in a 2021 capsule collection (the first from an Indian designer) that Sabyasachi says sold out within 15 minutes.

Of course, Sabyasachi has his critics. Some felt he failed to use his power to elevate Indian artisans in his H&M collection. (He responded that the mission of his H&M capsule was to offer Indian aesthetics to a broader demographic, and that he supports artisans through his couture lines.) Others have criticized him for representing the work of master weavers as his own or capitalizing on patriarchal traditions like the mangalsutra, a South Indian Hindu wedding necklace that denotes the binding of a woman to her husband (incidentally, a pro-Hindu cabinet minister attacked him for desecrating the sacred necklace by photographing it on a woman in a bra, and Sabyasachi removed the ad).

A sensitive man, Sabyasachi does not love criticism. But it is an inevitable part of broadening his brand. He remains most proud of persuading Indians to look to their own country for luxury. Nevertheless, he estimated that more than 40 percent of his sales were to Americans. “Indians in India are not as proud of the culture and heritage as the Indians outside, because we have so much in abundance that we are constantly seeking new pastures. But in the West, you know, they romanticize the idea of going back to India,” Sabyasachi told me. “They seek out India in a very pure way, which is what my brand stands for. And the more and more purist I make the brand, the more the American customer comes.” The biggest cliché, it turns out, was me.

Still, there was that not-exactly-pure New York line he showed me when I visited his West Village store — a new venture after the trying years of the pandemic. As with so many designers and retailers, 2020 was a setback. Shortly before the virus ravaged India, Sabyasachi shut his factories to give his workers, whom he continued to pay throughout the closure, time to go home. He invited his parents over for lunch and locked them in his house, where they have lived since. Weddings, and especially the big fat Indian wedding in which brides outfitted their entire families in Sabyasachi, came to a halt. He never stopped working and eventually invited a small design team to live in his house. He learned how to cook to keep everyone well fed.

For more than a decade, Sabyasachi had resisted investor acquisition, from LVMH and others. But in early 2021, he decided to sell a 51 percent stake to the Indian company Aditya Birla Fashion and Retail Limited for nearly $55 million. The final decision, which he made — literally — overnight, upset many in his company, especially his family. Their disappointment gnawed at him. But he told me that he never has regrets and that he wanted the brand to live on without him.

It remains to be seen what the sale will mean for Sabyasachi’s work. As the chief executive of another Indian fashion conglomerate has said, true craftsmanship isn’t scalable. Will Sabyasachi’s prices go up? Will the level of craft go down? His logo, the royal Bengal tiger, was becoming increasingly ubiquitous on belts and handbags, an all too obvious marketing move (annoying because Sabyasachi’s design language is so instantly recognizable that anyone who buys the brand to flaunt the logo doesn’t deserve it).

But the real question is: Will foreigners feel comfortable wearing Indian clothes? While we were observing one of Sabyasachi’s palace photo shoots, the woman who runs his Hyderabad store told me that her daughter, home from Stanford with some friends, had stayed up late into the night furiously debating whether it was appropriate for Kim Kardashian to wear a Sabyasachi sari in Vogue India. Sitting around the jewelry table as Sabyasachi styled his models’ arms with bangles, I asked him if he was concerned that Americans might be skittish to buy from him for fear of cultural appropriation. “People see it as costume,” he told me. “But they don’t understand that Indian clothes are part of a living culture. Women in India wear Indian clothes every single day. The most opulent clothes in many parts of India are worn by street cleaners. Our sense of opulent decoration in spite of what part of society you come from — it’s just amazing.”

Then he told me about an American couple, Rudy Espinoza Murray and Kasey Espinoza, one Spanish and Italian, the other Irish. I recognized their names from Sabyasachi’s 2019 end-of-year Instagram stories, featuring a roundup of weddings. I had lingered over their photos in particular: two handsome men, neither Indian, married in sherwanis (knee-length coats) in Miami.

Sabyasachi told me that he met Rudy when Rudy worked in Bangalore. Rudy knew he wanted to be married in a sherwani even before he met his husband. The key to Sabyasachi’s global expansion, without diluting his look, is more people like Rudy.

Rudy and Kasey adored the craft of Sabyasachi, one wearing a black sherwani, the other a cream sherwani, both raw silk with Bengal-tiger buttons. The tailoring was perfect, every detail of the outfit just so. “What did they call it?” Sabyasachi said, turning to his employees for help recalling a word that the couple used. Not appropriation. No. “Rudy and Kasey called it appreciation.”

Francesca Mari is a contributing writer based in Providence, R.I., a national fellow at New America and a lecturer at Brown University. She has written about housing, inequality and con men for The New Yorker, The Atlantic and The New York Review of Books. Zishaan A Latif is a photographer based in New Delhi. He last photographed victims of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s draconian citizenship laws for the magazine.

The post The Man Who Made the Sari Haute appeared first on New York Times.

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