Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla are ‘Design Royalty’. They have ruled the business of fashion and star dressing for 36 years in India. Andrea CostaBir asks them what it takes to be the couturiers to the famous, wealthy and powerful around the world. And gets them to share nuggets about their fabulous personal equation which has made it all possible.
This is going back really far… but how did you meet, and what inspired you to work and launch a brand together?
Our meeting was what can be termed purely accidental, although we see it as Divine providence. We met at a common friend’s on August 15, 1986, at an Independence Day brunch. We gravitated towards each other and began a spirited discussion about design, our sensibilities and dreams. Both of us wanted to create the finest and reinvent the standards of craftsmanship to create a brand new design expression. We found ourselves instinctively drawn to each other’s vision and by the end of that first day, resolved to join forces and create together. It was an utterly impulsive decision based on faith and gut instinct. Abu had been offered a boutique space in Juhu by his client, Gopi Magnani. Now that we had met, we decided to take up her offer and launched our first fashion label there by the end of December 1986. Mata Hari was born and we had begun our lifelong adventure and journey together.
You have been the couturiers to so many mothers and daughters over the decades… Jaya Bachchan-Shweta Nanda-Navya Naveli Nanda, Nita Ambani-Isha Ambani Piramal, Dimple Kapadia-Twinkle Khanna, Neetu Kapoor-Riddhima Kapoor Sahni, Amrita Singh-Sara Ali Khan… the list is endless. Do you have a favourite pair? And your fantabulous clothes aside, what exactly do you do to impress the ladies across generations?!
It has been an utter joy and privilege to work with generations of a family. We have designed for three generations of the Bachchan and Ambani families now, in addition to many more mothers and daughters. Most of our friendships have come through our work. Our clients have become cherished friends. Jaya is our sister and we are therefore especially attached to her and Shweta, who has grown up in front of us. Jaya has championed our work and supported us like an absolute rock. Shweta is our muse. It’s a deeply emotional bond. We are beyond blessed to share wonderfully warm relationships with all these mothers and daughters. Dimple and Amrita are our closest friends. Nita Ambani is a stellar and inspiring presence in our lives.
There is a deep respect and faith in our creativity, which has resulted in us becoming design favourites over generations. We always go the extra mile and those with discerning taste and a love for the highly original and impeccably crafted, choose us time and again.
So many young brides chose to wear your ensembles for their big day – Isha Ambani, Priyanka Chopra, Sonam Kapoor, Rhea Kapoor, Ishita Salgaocar to name just a handful… what are the magical ingredients that keep you hugely relevant even 35 years after being in the business?
Beauty and exceptional design have no sell-by date. We pride ourselves on our constant reinvention and honing of our expression. There is no resting on one’s laurels. When you are passionate about your work, your work stays relevant to you. It’s about setting the bar at its highest, and then breaking one’s own bar with every collection. We have never catered to a market or an audience but always dedicated ourselves to creating the absolutely original. Our expression is rooted firmly in our own aesthetics and imagination. There is no compromising, there are no shortcuts. It’s blood, sweat and tears. We reach higher with every collection. It’s the only way for us to be.
When you continue to dream bigger, when you constantly reinvent your expression and hone your creativity to ever higher standards, there is no question of becoming irrelevant.
India’s biggest industrialists like Pinky Reddy, Dipti Salgaocar, Debbie Hitkari and so many more swear by you… So also the discerning jetset like Deepika Padukone, Natasha Poonawalla, Sussanne Khan, Gauri Khan, Shobhaa De and so many others from that rarefied strata. What do you bring to the closet that makes everyone want to be dressed by you?
We are completely obsessed with our own creative growth and evolution. Our work is always original and designed to transcend trends, gimmicks and seasons. It is both absolutely contemporary and utterly timeless. Today’s masterpiece becomes a treasured heirloom that can be worn for years to come. Those who appreciate impeccable craftsmanship and timeless and original design, with a discerning eye for excellence and beauty, are drawn to our work. When we create for someone, custom means custom. Every couture outfit is distinct, every couture bride stands apart, there is no repetition or cookie cutter mould with AJSK; we put our hearts and souls into every outfit and collection. And it shows. The love, faith and patronage we have been shown for 36 years is testament to this reverence and passion for design that is innate in us.
Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, Dame Judi Dench, Gwen Stefani, Carrie Underwood, Madonna and several other Hollywood and international stars have chosen to wear AJSK over the years… do you consider it an acknowledgment of your hard work and dedication… and is it a moment of pride too?
It is always wonderful to dress iconic legends. We are huge fans of their work, so it’s thrilling when they love our work too.
The men love your clothes too – Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, Hrithik Roshan, Akshay Kumar, Abhishek Bachchan, Ranveer Singh, Kartik Aaryan, Ibrahim Ali Khan… the list is endless. What charms the men the most about Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla?
Our label MARD by Abu Sandeep has gotten a great response from men of discernment, who seek the extraordinary when it comes to excellence, who are not afraid of standing apart, who enjoy embroideries and complex craftsmanship. Each one of them possesses a commanding presence and personality, and expect their clothes to reflect their tastes and unique sense of individual style.
From the legion of stars and celebrities that you design for, you are close to many… But how are your closest friends from among them all? And how do you balance your equation with them all?
Our work has introduced us to everyone we know and many of those people have become friends, integral to our personal lives. Friendship is Friendship. The only rule is love. It is a priceless bond between humans. There isn’t any hierarchy or balancing of equations between sets of people. It is free flowing, organic and joyous.
You largely choose to design Indian clothing, with a smattering of western wear… What about Indian clothing appeals to you the most?
India is our Eternal Muse. We are deeply influenced and informed by her unsurpassed creative, cultural and crafts legacy. It has been our mission to reinvent crafts, techniques and embroideries to a brand new standard of finesse and excellence with our design expression. We choose to take Made in India and put it on the global high fashion map. It is a matter of love and pride. Our designs and silhouettes are world class.
What has been your work ethic to keep you majorly relevant and ruling the business for this long? What helped you build #AJSK into the behemoth it is today?
We live to work. It’s as simple as that. We are consumed by our love for design. We work obsessively and without pause or resting on our achievements. We are madly ambitious when it comes to our design expression. Ambitious to excel, to grow and to expand our expression. We march to the beat of our own drum and are fiercely independent when it is our creativity. We pride ourselves on our originality and refuse to follow external trends. There are no secret shortcuts to lasting success. It’s blood, sweat and tears. Every single collection is the work of our hearts and souls, and we are as deeply excited today about that work as we were 36 years ago.
After continuing to rule the business of fashion and star dressing for decades, how would you say the industry and style has changed over the years?
There is much to celebrate in the evolution of the fashion industry. From the opportunities now afforded to young designers when it comes to training and education, to the huge marketing and PR machinery that now accompanies fashion. When we began, there was no formal industry. Your work had to speak for itself. Today, there is an entire infrastructure that supports young designers to market their expression.
One thing that we see as less positive is the infiltration of copycats and the rise of plagiarism. It is rife within the industry. The same tendency also exists in the film industry where many stars lack the courage to create their own signature looks and style. Everyone looks fabulous, but everyone also looks like everyone else. We miss the originality of actors from the past, each of whom carved their own unique position and sense of dressing.
What change would you like to see in the world of beauty and fashion; do you have a message for new-age, aspiring designers?
Have the courage to be original. Seek inspiration from within. Tell your story as you wish to write it sans compromise. Work bloody hard. And you must continue to learn your craft through the years. There is always room for improvement.
Your work shows a lot of diversity and inclusivity; what do you think defines beauty?
For us as artists and humans, beauty has limitless forms of expression. It can neither be defined, nor kept to a certain definition. There is no room in the imagination or the heart for discrimination or boundaries that exclude. Art is all about expressing the diverse and rejecting rules. Art must create an inclusive world if it is to express true freedom and beauty. Else, it becomes a stranglehold instead of a joyous act of liberation. We don’t pay mere lip service to inclusion and diversity, we dream and believe in both to our very core. It’s who we are and our design expression reflects our inner belief.
You don’t just design clothes, you design entire weddings – taking charge of the venue, and all the other paraphernalia that comprises a wedding. Shweta Bachchan’s wedding was the first AJSK wedding, followed by a plethora of others, including Pinky and Sanjay Reddy’s daughter’s wedding, and Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas’ wedding too. What can a couple expect when they sign up for an AJSK wedding?
The extraordinary. Every detail, every facet receives our full attention. From Decor, F&B and Entertainment, to the last napkin on a table. We create an experience that is holistic. A wedding must be unforgettable and transport you to a magical space and time.
Your CEO Saudamini Mattu seems to have taken charge of AJSK business-wise – apart from your couture line, you have launched labels like Asal by Abu Sandeep, Gulabo by Abu Sandeep, and Mard by Abu Sandeep. Can you please give us a quick walkthrough around these labels?
Saudamini’s entry into the company has allowed us to focus entirely on the creative. This has meant that we have expanded the brand to incorporate three new labels and diversify our offerings, catering to brand new audiences. It has been a time of rich experimentation and growth. We have forayed successfully into ecommerce in the thick of the pandemic and reaped rich results with Gulabo.
Gulabo by Abu Sandeep is a luscious expression of natural fabrics, fluid silhouettes and deliciously easy style. A breath of fresh and fabulous fashion. It’s light, breezy, flirtatious and easy. Gulabo is beautifully detailed and finished to put the luxe into ready-to-wear.
Asal by Abu Sandeep showcases meticulous embroideries, accented with handmade craftsmanship to create a range of style for women who want fine clothing which is both current and timeless. It is rooted in the contemporary, but without gimmickry and the short shelf life of the trendy. It’s now and it is forever.
Mard by Abu Sandeep is a ready-to-wear label designed to appeal to men’s desire for immaculate clothing. Taking classics and reinventing them with a twist of fabulous and a dash of whimsy. It is stand apart style, meticulously crafted to perfection. It is proof that boys too just want to have fun. Stylish fun.
Tell us about your strategic alliance with Reliance Brands Ltd.
We have always maintained that without corporate investment and partnership, a design house cannot become a truly international brand. We have been in talks with Reliance Brands Limited for a year to discuss this tie-up. We wanted to ensure the decision was one that would ensure creative and business growth, and only strengthen the brand through building a long-lasting and harmonious relationship.
Having joined forces with Reliance, together we now have the perfect opportunity to create India’s finest for the world. Reliance Brands Limited has taken a 51 percent stake in Abu Jani Sandeep Khosla and will provide strategic investment which will allow us to build bigger infrastructure, ramp up our teams and artisans. New products in new lifestyle segments including accessories (footwear and bags), the jewellery segment with different categories, collections for each of our four brands and fragrances are on the anvil. We will also enter new geographies with this tie-up, both within India as well as abroad.
…Also, about your longstanding foray into home decor (designing Dimple Kapadia’s home, creating one-of-a-kind decor pieces for The Charcoal Project).
As artists, we are naturally drawn towards all forms of creativity. Our imaginations transcend borders and our urge to create extends beyond fashion. Our work in interior design began with an experiment with furniture at the Bajaj Art Gallery in Mumbai in 1993. The furniture was inspired by Mughal and Gothic architecture and was an instant hit. We sold every piece. We would soon design Dimple Kapadia’s Juhu residence, followed by projects for the Nanda family in New Delhi and the Bachchan residence in Mumbai. Over 29 years, we have worked on 30 residential projects and also as Creative Directors for the T2 Terminal at Mumbai Airport, our first public project. Last year, the Lodha Ciel at Trump Towers etc etc. We have designed homes in London, Mumbai, Rishikesh and New Delhi.
Our signature style is maximalism. More is more. And layering is key. We have a holistic approach to design and possess a finely honed skill for detail. Our eye extends beyond the physical space, we create boom pieces of furniture and meld art, artefacts and antiques into the mix to create homes that exude spiritual as well as physical beauty. Homes that delight the soul as well as the senses.
What is your equation like with each other, what’s the key to making a relationship like yours work?
36 incredible years of honouring each other’s minds, celebrating each other, absolute respect, and huge amounts of patience and tolerance too. The ability to laugh through it all, especially the lows. The faith to know that Love is stronger.
Please share a day in the life of India’s most renowned couturiers Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla…
Our days are long and packed. Hectic doesn’t begin to describe the daily chaos. We work around the clock. The mind is always ticking. The day includes a series of meetings at the factory in Andheri, client appointments at our store at Kemp’s Corner, site visits to our interiors projects and when we come home, we love to entertain our close friends. Food is a sacred obsession. Although we love to dine out when we travel, in Mumbai our own kitchen serves our favourite food, so it’s tons of feasting at home. Life is beautiful and we are blessed that work, no matter how strenuous, always feels like play.
…And when, after a celebratory day that is common in your life is done, the spotlight has dimmed, and the champagne flutes have stopped clinking, do you still go to bed with dreams to dream and goals to accomplish?
Oh yes, and how! We are hardcore dreamers and our desire to grow and excel fuels our dreams. We are hungrier than we were as two young men. It’s a crazy passion that only grows with time.