Abu Jani Sandeep Khosla on their return to the runway


Abu Jani Sandeep Khosla on their return to the runway

Nikhil Thampi documents the return of the original Indian maximalists

By Nikhil Thampi  October 21st, 2015

There’s nothing restrained about Abu-Sandeep. Their office is crammed with dramatic art that edges brazenly into your peripheral vision. Their film inspiration is the diva mother lode: Meena Kumari in Pakeezah and Madhubala in Mughal-e-Azam. Their latest show at Lakmé Fashion Week was an ode to fashion’s most outré decade, the ’80s. But this is not just them putting on a show; it’s who they are. Over almost three decades, the duo has created clothes that can only be described as celebratory and larger-than-life. It’s why they are such a massive hit with brides and red-carpet regulars alike. This year, they returned to the runway after a break of five years, and designer Nikhil Thampi met up with them to find out what thrills and confounds them these days.

Nikhil Thampi: What made this the right time for a comeback?
Abu Jani: We are very demanding of our own work, and the budgets for our shows have always been absolutely crazy. Everything has to meet our standards before we present it to people. But with the world of fashion media changing so much, we felt it was time to get something going.
Sandeep Khosla: We wanted to tell everyone: we’re here, alive and kicking, and not irrelevant yet!

NT: To the average observer, the highlight of your work is its maximalism, but how would you define it?
AJ: We always pick more over less, whether we’re designing interiors or clothes. And over the years, our clients too have developed a finer eye, and they demand this of us.
SK: Even if we do the simplest garment, without embroidery, say, the finishing will be so crazy and so detailed, that it circles back to maximalism. If we try to do a garment in a blended fabric, it doesn’t work — it has to be pure. We started at a time when people wanted a change from synthetic Hong Kong fabrics. There is not a single synthetic thing in our collection. It’s luxe silk, cotton, crêpe or georgette all the way.

NT: What is it like to work creatively as a duo? Do you often have to compromise or do you think as one?
AJ: No, we can’t think as one. He’s north and I’m south. If we were alike and we were doing the same things, we could never have lasted as long we did.

NT: Your show for BMW India Bridal Fashion Week was an ode to Benaras. Could you elaborate on your fascination with Benarasi fabrics and chikankari?
AJ: Our first collection ever for Ensemble was Benaras-themed; it’s been a constant throughout our work for 29 years. And because it was a bridal collection, we took inspiration from the Ghats in Benaras, all lit up with diyas. As for chikankari, we were both brought up surrounded by it. Sandeep’s aunt in Lucknow made chikan work and he came up with this brilliant idea of trying it on finer, luxury fabrics. But it was five years before we got a real good piece. Then, of course, it filtered down and became a rage in the wholesale markets of Delhi.

NT: Some thought your LFW show featuring the song ‘Jawani Jaaneman’ was a blast, while others felt it was too theatrical. How do you respond to such criticism?
AJ: We’ve done drama in all our shows. 
SK: We are drama! And we are not apologetic about it. Actually, Abu and me don’t believe in these non-choreographed fashion shows where everybody’s dead, the model is dead, the clothes are just on a walking hanger. This is why we don’t have a supermodel today, because none of the girls know how to even carry a drape. They’re not feeling the garment. Their faces are deadpan, and the men file in and out in a queue — that just doesn’t work for us.

NT: The best of Bollywood swears by your work. Have you ever been tempted to do costume design full-time?
AJ: We did Devdas, and it was a great pleasure to work with a slightly eccentric director. The way he presented each garment was fantastic. Of course, we had disagreements later on, but that one has to get over. If something like Devdas comes up again, we’ll definitely want to do more Bollywood.

NT: Are there any younger designers whose work you particularly admire?
SK: I like Monisha Jaising, I like your work and, as far as textiles are concerned, Raw Mango is very good. In little pockets and smaller towns too there are some very talented people. But there is also a lot of bad work happening as well. I was browsing a popular designer shopping website and it’s got our collections on it, all completely done by somebody else.
AJ: I don’t agree with him on this. I think it’s fine to inspire people. Why else do you put your work in three books? It’s so that people can be inspired.

NT: But surely getting inspired is different from just blatantly copying someone. How do you guys deal with having your designs copied?
SK: It bothers us. The only person who has done something about it is Ritu Kumar. Her entire workshop, including the printers and zardosi artists, started coming out with a collection under a different label. She went to court and won the case. But then again, she’s in Delhi, she’s highly influential and she patented her designs. But generally in India, who’s going to go to court?

NT: Tell us more about Jani Khosla, your new Indian international brand. 
SK: It is yet to be launched, but we are experimenting with the western silhouette. After having said we’d never do it! It is going to be an extension of couture. 

NT: It feels like you are speaking to a younger generation. Is Abu-Sandeep being rebranded?
AJ: Sandeep’s niece and my daughter Saudamini Mattu recently joined us, and she has a finance background. It will be interesting to see what she brings to the table, because finance is not our biggest strength. We haven’t done badly, but now there’s a whole new team that will give us fresh direction. 

NT: What is your take on upcoming designers in the country? Do you think the aesthetics are evolving, or is there a lack of originality?
SK: There’s very little original work coming out, to be honest. There are some people who are over-hyped without having done much.
AJ: Like Alexander McQueen said, you must know the rules to break the rules. Today young people break the rules without really knowing them.

NT: If you had to pick someone to take on your brand as a creative director in the future, who would you pick?
AJ: Somebody has to start at the bottom level to really understand our personality and brand aesthetic. I started off matching thread to fabric, like for sari falls. You have to grow in one place for some time. We have somebody working with us who started as a peon and has become a finishing head. So our people grow, but they have to be stable for some time to get that magic. 
SK: These days, young people get out of design schools and they work under a different designer every year. They are completely clueless. Then one day, Daddy will say, ‘I’ve got 10 lakh darling, have a sale — and you’re a designer!’

Photographs: Manasi Sawant; Styling: Nidhi Jacob; Make-up and Hair: Jean-Claude Biguine; Models: Anjhula, Mitali and Monica

There’s nothing restrained about Abu-Sandeep. Their office is crammed with dramatic art that edges brazenly into your peripheral vision. Their film inspiration is the diva mother lode: Meena Kumari in Pakeezah and Madhubala in Mughal-e-Azam. Their latest show at Lakmé Fashion Week was an ode to fashion’s most outré decade, the ’80s. But this is not just them putting on a show; it’s who they are. Over almost three decades, the duo has created clothes that can only be described as celebratory and larger-than-life. It’s why they are such a massive hit with brides and red-carpet regulars alike. This year, they returned to the runway after a break of five years, and designer Nikhil Thampi met up with them to find out what thrills and confounds them these days.

Nikhil Thampi: What made this the right time for a comeback?
Abu Jani: We are very demanding of our own work, and the budgets for our shows have always been absolutely crazy. Everything has to meet our standards before we present it to people. But with the world of fashion media changing so much, we felt it was time to get something going.
Sandeep Khosla: We wanted to tell everyone: we’re here, alive and kicking, and not irrelevant yet!

NT: To the average observer, the highlight of your work is its maximalism, but how would you define it?
AJ: We always pick more over less, whether we’re designing interiors or clothes. And over the years, our clients too have developed a finer eye, and they demand this of us.
SK: Even if we do the simplest garment, without embroidery, say, the finishing will be so crazy and so detailed, that it circles back to maximalism. If we try to do a garment in a blended fabric, it doesn’t work — it has to be pure. We started at a time when people wanted a change from synthetic Hong Kong fabrics. There is not a single synthetic thing in our collection. It’s luxe silk, cotton, crêpe or georgette all the way.

NT: What is it like to work creatively as a duo? Do you often have to compromise or do you think as one?
AJ: No, we can’t think as one. He’s north and I’m south. If we were alike and we were doing the same things, we could never have lasted as long we did.

NT: Your show for BMW India Bridal Fashion Week was an ode to Benaras. Could you elaborate on your fascination with Benarasi fabrics and chikankari?
AJ: Our first collection ever for Ensemble was Benaras-themed; it’s been a constant throughout our work for 29 years. And because it was a bridal collection, we took inspiration from the Ghats in Benaras, all lit up with diyas. As for chikankari, we were both brought up surrounded by it. Sandeep’s aunt in Lucknow made chikan work and he came up with this brilliant idea of trying it on finer, luxury fabrics. But it was five years before we got a real good piece. Then, of course, it filtered down and became a rage in the wholesale markets of Delhi.

NT: Some thought your LFW show featuring the song ‘Jawani Jaaneman’ was a blast, while others felt it was too theatrical. How do you respond to such criticism?
AJ: We’ve done drama in all our shows. 
SK: We are drama! And we are not apologetic about it. Actually, Abu and me don’t believe in these non-choreographed fashion shows where everybody’s dead, the model is dead, the clothes are just on a walking hanger. This is why we don’t have a supermodel today, because none of the girls know how to even carry a drape. They’re not feeling the garment. Their faces are deadpan, and the men file in and out in a queue — that just doesn’t work for us.

NT: The best of Bollywood swears by your work. Have you ever been tempted to do costume design full-time?
AJ: We did Devdas, and it was a great pleasure to work with a slightly eccentric director. The way he presented each garment was fantastic. Of course, we had disagreements later on, but that one has to get over. If something like Devdas comes up again, we’ll definitely want to do more Bollywood.

NT: Are there any younger designers whose work you particularly admire?
SK: I like Monisha Jaising, I like your work and, as far as textiles are concerned, Raw Mango is very good. In little pockets and smaller towns too there are some very talented people. But there is also a lot of bad work happening as well. I was browsing a popular designer shopping website and it’s got our collections on it, all completely done by somebody else.
AJ: I don’t agree with him on this. I think it’s fine to inspire people. Why else do you put your work in three books? It’s so that people can be inspired.

NT: But surely getting inspired is different from just blatantly copying someone. How do you guys deal with having your designs copied?
SK: It bothers us. The only person who has done something about it is Ritu Kumar. Her entire workshop, including the printers and zardosi artists, started coming out with a collection under a different label. She went to court and won the case. But then again, she’s in Delhi, she’s highly influential and she patented her designs. But generally in India, who’s going to go to court?

NT: Tell us more about Jani Khosla, your new Indian international brand. 
SK: It is yet to be launched, but we are experimenting with the western silhouette. After having said we’d never do it! It is going to be an extension of couture. 

NT: It feels like you are speaking to a younger generation. Is Abu-Sandeep being rebranded?
AJ: Sandeep’s niece and my daughter Saudamini Mattu recently joined us, and she has a finance background. It will be interesting to see what she brings to the table, because finance is not our biggest strength. We haven’t done badly, but now there’s a whole new team that will give us fresh direction. 

NT: What is your take on upcoming designers in the country? Do you think the aesthetics are evolving, or is there a lack of originality?
SK: There’s very little original work coming out, to be honest. There are some people who are over-hyped without having done much.
AJ: Like Alexander McQueen said, you must know the rules to break the rules. Today young people break the rules without really knowing them.

NT: If you had to pick someone to take on your brand as a creative director in the future, who would you pick?
AJ: Somebody has to start at the bottom level to really understand our personality and brand aesthetic. I started off matching thread to fabric, like for sari falls. You have to grow in one place for some time. We have somebody working with us who started as a peon and has become a finishing head. So our people grow, but they have to be stable for some time to get that magic. 
SK: These days, young people get out of design schools and they work under a different designer every year. They are completely clueless. Then one day, Daddy will say, ‘I’ve got 10 lakh darling, have a sale — and you’re a designer!’

Photographs: Manasi Sawant; Styling: Nidhi Jacob; Make-up and Hair: Jean-Claude Biguine; Models: Anjhula, Mitali and Monica