“Great design isn’t made for an audience. It always finds an appreciative one,” this line has served India’s foremost designer duo Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla well over 33 years, right from the time they started out in 1986, when designer wear was still an unfamiliar concept, to eventually playing a pioneering role in shaping the Indian fashion industry.
Their army of loyalists boasts the likes of the Bachchans, the Ambanis, the Kapoors… Not to forget Deepika Padukone who wore one of their creations for her Bengaluru reception, and Priyanka Chopra, whose extravagant Jodhpur wedding they designed last year.
Their journey is peppered with several milestones—from being the first to use chiffon, georgette and organza; winning the National Award for Costume Design for Devdas; dressing the who’s who of Hollywood and Bollywood, and foremostly for reviving traditional Indian art forms such as the chikankari and zardozi. This year, the duo introduced MARD by Abu Sandeep, ther first menswear line with a special showcase; and to mark their milestone moment, the designers went all-out, with an extravagant fashion show, with 90 models, 25 dancers and Deepika Padukone as showstopper. Cheering from the front row were their many muses over the years, including Jaya Bachchan, Amrita Singh, Shweta Bachchan Nanda.
I am meeting the duo at their atelier in a quiet lane of the bustling suburb of Andheri in Mumbai. Their studio and office space is brimming with coffee-table books, awards, artefacts collected from different parts of the world, piles of magazines on shelves and flamboyant art, in an apt reflection of the personalities that they are. Soon enough, we settle down for the chat, and I want to understand how it was starting out at a time when designer wear was relatively unheard of, and how it has evolved over the years. “We didn’t really classify it as designer wear. Creativity was our strength, and a commitment to create the finest without compromises and shortcuts, was what we really wanted to do. The evolution of the brand, starting with our first collection, Mata Hari, has been a natural result of our own creative progression. Our growth has been fuelled by our ambition to explore newer avenues, be it introducing new labels, or venturing into newer territories such as interiors. ASAL (which means rebel) by Abu Sandeep is diffusion wear that carries all the hallmarks and sensibilities of our couture but is diffused to reach a wider and different demographic. Khosla Jani, on the other hand, is our international, western wear label. Gulabo happened as a result of our wanting to introduce a pret line to reach more people, and now MARD, considering the number of requests we got asking to start a menswear line. The idea throughout has been to challenge ourselves as artists while expanding our vision and expression.”
That is not to mean the journey has been without its fair share of challenges. “We dived into the pool, basis our creativity, but neither of us were really good with money, we never managed money well, so there have been various times when we almost drowned, and then somehow made it,” jokes Khosla. Jani is quick to add, “We have actually never made conscious decisions, we are not businessmen after all, we are creators.”
Among many others, the one art form the duo is synonymous with reviving is the chikankari, and is one that is very close to their hearts.“Our arts and craft legacy is unsurpassed. It pains us as artists that that legacy is so undervalued. It should be cherished, protected and built upon. That is why we took it upon ourselves to protect and nourish our heritage craftsmanship through our work,” explains Jani. “It was our first trip to Lucknow in 1992, that ignited our imagination and mission to revive and reinvent chikankari. Originally, chikankari was only done on muslin cloth featuring nature-inspired motifs and architecture-inspired jaali work. However, in the 1980s, synthetic textiles and cotton took over, and the chikankari suddenly became completely mass and casual. It was then that we decided to restore chikankari to its former glory, and got working with our aunt, Sita Sondhi, and friend, Shahnaz Kidwai. It took two years of intensive training, research and development before we could create our first collection. The process started with the older ladies, who we re-trained for complex stitches. They passed on the techniques and skill to younger women. We sourced vintage blocks for printing exquisite, multiple patterns and then had to train our artisans to embroider these fine stitches. Instead of cotton, we used luxury fabrics such as georgette, chiffon and organza. Those early days were a huge learning curve and full of experimentation. Each garment would take six months to complete because of the refined nature of the embroidery and patterns. But the fruits of our labour paid off and the first collection itself was completely sold out. Our customers knew the value of what we were attempting to recreate,” he continues.
"To have taken chikan from a casual, mass market category and turning it into haute couture is something we take great pride in. We’ve also kept it on the high fashion map for two and a half decades now; our first chikan bride was Shweta Bachchan Nanda in 1997, something we consider a real milestone. For her wedding reception last year, Deepika Padukone too chose to wear an ivory and gold chikankari outfit, which we brought to life using intricate, tone-on-tone thread embroidery along with sequins, Swarovski crystals and gold zardozi embroidery,” adds Khosla.
Known to have consistently created fashion trends than following them, the designer duo credits their ability to think out of the box as one of the key elements to their success as a brand. “For us, the sky is the limit. We don’t believe in resting on our laurels, rather we want to keep pushing the envelope. Our madness has a method to it. Look at Amitabh Bachchan, look at the kind of work he is still doing; that is who we want to be as designers.We were the first to introduce chikan, khadi, and white and beige ensembles to bridal wear, and look at where white has gone today. It’s all about twisting and breaking traditional rules for us. It is never enough to draw from the well of one's legacy. One must always push further and leave one’s own stamp on the classical,” says Khosla.
Apart from their couture outings, the designer duo who brought home a National Award for their costumes in Devdas, (the actual mirror-work ghaghra worn by Madhuri Dixit-Nene for the film’s promotions is displayed at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, for the Fabric of India exhibit) continues to design for the movies (albeit rarely), their latest outing being the very glamorous Veere Di Wedding. So, how is working on movies different from designing for the runway for you, I ask. “When it comes to films, it isn’t just costumes that we are designing, it is the entire character’s wardrobe. So, meticulous attention, the amount that goes into a made-to-measure ensemble goes into this as well. So, unlike the runway, it is actually like designing a customised ensemble. This is why we don’t do a lot of cinema, although the canvas is a lot wider; we simply cannot cut corners, and then it ends up being a logistics issue.”
On a winding note, I have to ask the duo, on what’s trailing the Indian fashion industry currently, and what are some of the other challenges it is faced with apart from rampant plagiarism claims. “Funding and infrastructure,” comes Khosla’s quick retort. “When we began there was no high fashion industry or training institutions or fashion media. Your work had to speak for itself. Today we have a massive PR machinery, social and print media. But having said that Indian design houses have grown completely on their own steam. It’s time we received private and public sector support to take us to our optimal sizes. There’s no dearth of talent, no limit to the business potential of design. But it needs to be backed by big bucks if we want to make Brand India global. We also need strong and united lobbying from the industry as a whole. We must become and be seen as the fashion capital we can be,” he signs off.