The fashion fraternity fondly refers to them as ‘The Boys’. But Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla, who are counted among India’s top couturier duos, are more than just lads trying to break into the esoteric world of fashion and style. They are the lions of the fashion food chain. Their deft skill in combining the traditional with the modern, all the while making it elegant and classic, makes them the favourite of Bollywood’s fashion icons – think Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Katrina Kaif Deepika Padukone and Sonam Kapoor.
National Award winners for their costumes in the Bollywood romantic saga Devdas, one half of the duo – Sandeep – was in Dubai recently for the UAE debut of their diffusion label Asal. Dressed in a pair of Polo Ralph Lauren jeans and a powder blue Brooks Brothers shirt, Sandeep’s attire appears modest for a designer of his calibre.
‘I’m not so much into clothes for my own self. Abu is the stylish one between us,’ he explains, relaxing at a coffee shop at Dubai’s Jumeirah Emirates Towers.
‘I mostly dress up in a white shirt and jeans, but today I picked a blue shirt… blue is lucky for Saturdays, I believe.’ The designer admits that kurta pyjamas are his favourite attire, ‘but if it’s a formal do, I pick a bandhgala kurta. It’s always much better than a dinner jacket, which looks too stiff.’
Ranked among India’s most influential couturiers, the duo are well-recognised internationally, too, particularly in the UK where their creations can be seen on the racks of Harrods, London. Actress Dame Judi Dench and singer Beyoncé have been spotted in Abu Jani Sandeep Khosla creations, the latter collaborating on the hugely popular Coldplay video for Hymn For The Weekend.
So, despite global recognition, how come Indian designers haven’t yet made a mark on the Milan, Paris and New York haute couture scene? ‘Indian designers have the potential; the world loves Indian designs, and is even influenced by them,’ says Sandeep. ‘But we are unable to make a mark internationally because we are not backed by any industry.
‘All the big international designers are backed by massive companies. Kering represents Gucci, Alexander McQueen and Balenciaga; LVMH owns Dior, Givenchy, Fendi, Emilio Pucci and Marc Jacobs. They plan every haute couture outing for these designers. And that’s why they can be a part of these big international haute couture shows.’
Sandeep says that except for Anita Dongre and Ritu Kumar – both well-known designers in India who have recently had investors – all Indian designers are self-made and self-supported. ‘They have to use their own earnings to showcase their creations at shows. And if the season is not good, then [it’s a disaster]. Abu and I can only put back whatever we earn, and we are already dependent on what we earn, to showcase our stuff in India.’
The designer says that although Indian companies have all the wealth in the world to invest they aren’t doing it, adding that it’s ironic: ‘We are getting all the global designer brands to India, but we are not ready to invest in our own designers.’
Abu and Sandeep are known for reviving Chikankari and Zardozi, traditional Indian styles of embroidery, which earlier were rarely seen on the ramp. They are also credited with having reinvented traditional embellishments such as mirror-work and incorporating them into contemporary styles.
Does Sandeep still feel these styles sell?
‘Our label is a classic. Our clothes have a timeless quality about them. And, that’s our biggest success. Even after three decades, our embroideries are still our biggest unique selling point,’ he says.
He reveals that one of the label’s successes is the fact that its take on traditional designs has become a resounding success.
‘When we started off about 30 years ago, we did a white-on-white exhibition and several people wondered why we didn’t include colour in the designs. In India, white was seen as a sombre, mourning colour. But we refused. Fortunately for us, people such as Jaya Bachchan and Dimple Kapadia loved our white clothes and made them look so glamorous.’
That set off a trend of sorts, he says. ‘Chikankari is our most premium product. Production is very limited as it’s confined to the Lucknow area and done by only a few artisans. We love the traditional white thread, but we experiment with colours also and have made changes to the chikankari blocks.’
So what is trending this season? ‘For the festive season, dresses with lots of mirror work are sure to be popular. Black when embellished well looks nice. It’s no longer a taboo colour for Indian festivals. Look for a stunning ebony piece with spectacular embellishments,’ he suggests.
And is there any element of Middle Eastern or Emirati fashion that particularly catches their attention?
‘We love the shared sensibilities. There is a mutual love for embroidery, for volume, for sumptuous fabrics and meticulous detailing. We have designed custom couture for several years for our clients in the Middle East. We adore the silhouettes indigenous to this region.’
Having been couturiers of some of the biggest names in Bollywood, who did he find the most interesting to dress? ‘Amitabh Bachchan is very special,’ says Sandeep. ‘An absolute delight to dress. He’s not scared of colour at all. He is experimental and adventurous, and is constantly reinventing himself. What’s more, he’s a thorough professional who has complete and utter respect for the creativity of others. He’s always worn whatever we’ve given him.’ But Amitabh is not the only Bachchan they have designed for. ‘Jaya [Amitabh’s wife], their daughter Shweta... they are all very special for us,’ he says.
Among the other celebs they have styled are Sonam Kapoor, Dimple Kapadia, and Amrita Singh and her family. ‘Dimple’s timeless beauty is the very definition of our fashion label,’ says Sandeep of the gorgeous yesteryears actress. Dimple and her daughters Twinkle (Khanna) and Rinke have done a breathtakingly beautiful shoot for Abu Sandeep’s India Fantastique book.
‘Jaya and Dimple are our two muses. These two women are the ones who glamorised our white-on-white chikankari when everyone else doubted its wearability in the Indian culture. They met us during our first exhibition and have been by our side ever since.’
So how did the pair get to work with all these superstars? ‘Everybody we know today is through our work. I come from a family in Kapurthala, a town in the north Indian state of Punjab and Abu comes from a family in Mumbai. We come from middle class families… so we couldn’t fund a fashion course abroad. And at that time, there were no fashion schools in India for men! But I believe formal education cannot teach art to anyone, it only makes a raw artist finer. The innate talent has to be there,’ says the mainly self-taught couturier.
‘Together, we both are as different as chalk and cheese! But we have agreed to disagree. Abu is wonderful with his hands… He can draw like a dream. I am more imaginative. I cannot sketch with ease. I love contemporary art. Abu prefers the Masters. He is cautious, reticent! I am a natural risk-taker. He’s conservative, I’m not.
‘But there are certain loves that we have in common… the colour white, some of our friends, and the fact that we are daring to dream big all the time. Once we are convinced, we both won’t shy away from making something even if it will cost us a big amount of money. We go ahead with it, believing that this will eventually find a buyer.
‘It’s the dissimilarities that create this unique alchemy. There’s a magical thing that happens when we work together.’
He admits that they often disagree. ‘We fight a lot. And then we may not speak to each other. But, then, the process is all about convincing the other. It can be chaotic, but it’s about the new vision each of us brings that results in our collective best. It is chemistry at its most magical.’
It is the same chemistry that is visible in the recently launched affordable diffusion label Asal (‘the real thing’; ‘the original’), which was one of the attractions at the recent Design One exhibition in Dubai. A collective of designer clothes and jewellery, it is the brainchild of Mumbai-based Sahachari Foundation. ‘We have been working with the foundation for three years now. They created this affordable platform for young designers to showcase their creations… It is our way of reaching out to many more people who love our clothes,’ says Sandeep.