Acclaimed couturiers Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla, whose designs are worn by global celebrities like Judi Dench and Beyonce, speak to Swati Singh about the fashion industry, creating costumes for Bollywood films, and the way ahead for the AJSK label.
Q. In Veere Di Wedding, we saw the Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla label appear in a Hindi film after a gap of 16 years. Tell us about this project. What was your creative approach here?
Abu Jani (AJ): Each of the four characters in this film [played by Kareena Kapoor Khan, Sonam Kapoor, Swara Bhaskar and Shikha Talsania] is absolutely unique in terms of her personality, lifestyle and aesthetic choices. It isn’t so much a collection that we did for this film as creating a whole wardrobe, which suits each woman and each occasion she’s dressed for in the film to perfection.
Q. Was there a specific set of ideas, cultural or aesthetic, that inspired your Veere Di Wedding collection?
Sandeep Khosla (SK): Rhea Kapoor [co-producer of Veere Di Wedding, who is also a designer] is someone who understands the importance of costume design. She is a pioneer in styling actors for the screen and in real life. Our idea was to work closely with her and create clothes that would not merely be beautiful couturé, but clothes that would define and complement each of the four actors. Our clothes tell their story: representing their unique character, physical beauty, passions and personality. Every woman is dressed to reflect and express herself in the movie.
Q. Kareena Kapoor Khan wore an authentic vintage dress in the movie. Could you tell us more about it?
AJ: This was a catalogue lehenga from our coffers, and it was made 25 years ago. It carries chikankari embroidery, lavishly embellished with pearls. Rhea loved it and we thought this movie was the perfect opportunity to reveal it to an audience which isn’t familiar with our early work. We reinvented the blouse to give it a 21st century mood.
Q. How many vintage dresses do you have in your stock? And when are you planning to unveil more of these?
AJ: We always reserve pieces and ensembles for our own catalogue. So, of course, we have several vintage masterpieces which haven’t been revealed. We don’t plan these things. As it did with Kalindi’s [the character Kareena plays in Veere Di Wedding] wedding ensemble, the perfect occasion arrives. And when it does, we will use or share more of these pieces.
Q. How has your experience of designing costumes for Hindi films been so far?
SK: We have only done two Bollywood projects in the last 16 years: Devdas and Veere Di Wedding. For us, it is imperative that we work with directors and producers who possess a shared affinity towards quality and detail, and who accord costume design the importance and budget it merits. We are delighted to say that working on both these movies has been an absolute pleasure. The whole process—right from ideation to execution and then the results on the screen—was thrilling.
Q. You are among the most celebrated designers in India. When did it first occur to you that you wanted a career in fashion design?
SK: Both of us were always inclined towards the arts. We loved beauty and had a strong aesthetic sense.
AJ: Neither of us possesses any formal training in design, but we knew, by our teenage years, that we wanted to work in an artistic field.
Q. What inspired you to collaborate and jointly create the AJSK label?
AJ: It was an absolutely impulsive decision. We met at a common friend’s home and began talking about our aspirations and vision. It felt like we were meant to work together on creating that expression. We decided on pure instinct to work as a team that very day.
Q. What’s the USP of your label?
AJ: It’s classical with a twist. It is inspired by a reverence for impeccable craftsmanship, and an unwavering commitment to seeing the old with brand-new eyes. It is all about original design and a passion for reinvention. It is timeless yet current.
Q. Is teamwork a productive strategy in the ego-driven world of fashion? With two designers at the helm, what has kept the AJSK brand strong?
SK: It’s alchemy of some sort. One plus one equals way more than two. It’s a magical thing. For a collaboration to work, there has to be respect for each other’s creativity and a desire to dance together. We don’t always agree but we love the maddening disagreements too. We are blessed to have found this bond. And we cherish what it has resulted in.
Q. How do you look back on your three-decade-long journey?
SK: With a deep sense of gratitude and absolute awe. Our dreams were fantastical and next to impossible. But we continue to make them come true. And to dream even bigger. Our appetite for beauty is both relentless and voracious. It’s an absolute privilege to have spent 32 years doing what thrills us.
Q. You recently designed Sonam Kapoor’s wedding attire. What inspired this design?
SK: Sonam ordered this ensemble two years ago. She loved a chikan lehenga from our book India Fantastique Fashion, and that became the creative inspiration for her own outfit.
AJ: It is a masterpiece which took 18 months to create. Every panel features a different set of motifs embroidered in chikan. Every panel is then embroidered with gold and silver zardozi. Three borders unite the panels. The blouse carries crochet embroidery done by Bohri women. Several borders were combined to create the boat-neck backless choli. This ensemble is deeply romantic: a fantasy come true for Sonam, and for us.
Q. In 2016, you designed the outfit that Beyonce wore for her part in the video of Coldplay’s song “Hymn for the Weekend”. How did that happen?
AJ: Beyonce Knowles’ team loved the two outfits which we had ready as part of our collection in Los Angeles. The next thing we knew, we saw her wearing them in the video. She is one of our favourite artistes. We freaked out seeing her in our designs.
Q. Another celebrity client of yours is the British actress Judi Dench, who is often seen wearing your designs. Your association with her goes back a long way, doesn’t it?
AJ: She is the very standard of excellence as an actor. A veritable institution. We have designed for her for two decades. She is an absolute treasure. So full of appreciation, such a champion and believer in us.
Q. The fashion industry has become very competitive of late. What sort of challenges do you face in the business today?
SK: We design for ourselves. We are our only competition because our unswerving focus is on honing and reinventing our own expression. We pay little attention to trends or other designers. We aren’t businessmen; we are artists. The challenges faced by the industry have to do with the lack of public- and private-sector investment. Made in India must go global and that requires backing.
Q. You’ve always aimed to popularise age-old Indian crafts, like chikankari, zardozi and mirror-work, through your designs. What are your views on India’s artisanal tradition?
AJ: We are besotted with craftsmanship and embroideries in particular. We are supremely blessed to have an unsurpassed legacy of textiles and embroidery in India. It has been our mission to resurrect these and reinvent them to even higher standards of finesse. We are all for technology but we hope it never replaces the handicrafts. Artisans must be promoted and protected.
Q. Would you consider fashion to be the mirror that reflects the social reality of a particular time and place?
SK: Fashion has always been a political and social statement. From Chanel ditching the corset and liberating women, the bohemian hippy chic of the 1970s, to the power suit for women in the 1990s… There is always a deep connection between fashion and society.
Q. While we have numerous new fashion designers emerging these days, there aren’t enough original designs being exhibited. What’s your take on plagiarism in Indian fashion?
SK: Plagiarism is an epidemic in India. It isn’t just the housewives and small-town high street outlets ripping off our designs, but also the well-established designers who have no ethics. We need to go the Diet Sabya route.
It’s high time the media, industry organisations like the FDCI [Fashion Design Council of India] and the clientele boycotted such designers.
Q. Where do you think Indian fashion is headed?
AJ: There is plenty of fabulous and original talent here. There is also a lot of mediocrity. It’s time for a crowding out. It’s also time for “Design India” to go global.
Q. As you said, your label has now completed 32 years. What’s the way forward for AJSK from here on?
SK: Bigger, better and even more fabulous. We intend to stretch our own creativity and expand our reach in India as well as across the globe.