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Chinkari or zardozi?

The Sartorialists


They are called The Boys. Their exquisite, elaborate and over-the-top creations are favoured by the filmi frat and the celebrity coterie. Each of their pieces is more rococo art than a crafted garment with the flair of a casual pair of jeans. These make up one end of the sartorial spectrum, at the other an heirloom sari queens over the world. Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla have partnered for a quarter of a century on luxurious fashion for the individual and the home, on their television show, on the occasional film and on the revival and rejuvenation of India's classic crafts. To celebrate the 25th anniversary, the two have created a two-volume book that speaks eloquently of their design sensibilities and meticulous striving for perfection. Volume one is all about the dozens of clothes the duo has created, with close-ups of the detailing. Volume two zooms in on their interior design concepts.

The duo has dressed the who's who of India and the world, their styles flaunted by Bollywood royalty - from the Bachchan clan to the Khans and Kapoors - and Hollywood luminaries including Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Frieda Pinto and Sophie Marceau. It began in 1986, when Bombay-born Abu, who started his career designing costumes for films, met Sandeep from Kapurthala, the young man who worked in his family's leather business. They had no money, no qualifications, just talent and determination. The collaboration began immediately, with a first collection called Mata Hari shown barely four months into their partnership. They were passionate about all things Indian. As Abu said some years ago, "We are unabashedly Indian in our aesthetics. Passionately in love with the rich cultural, historic and design legacy of our land. Design is our way of paying homage to that beauty. By taking it into the 21st century. "

Elegance, fine fabrics, exquisite handwork and superb finish characterise their garments, which incorporate ancient techniques and craftsmanship of chikankari, zardozi, tharad and mirrorwork.

Now with their book, India Fantastique, Abu and Sandeep are raring to celebrate this milestone. "Abu and I thought long and hard about how we wanted to celebrate our milestone, and also about how we would use this celebration to set the vision for our creativity and ourselves in the next twentyfive years. It soon became clear that a book, or two as it turned out to be, was ideal. "

It really does not matter who answers, Abu Jani or Sandeep Khosla, because the two minds think so alike and the two sensibilities are so finely co-tuned. One speaks, the other voicelessly echoes.

Have the 25 years of partnership been a smooth ride right through?

We were fortunate to receive instant accolades and sell out with our debut collection, but of course it hasn't been smooth. Blood, sweat, tears are the ingredients when you choose to dream big. And our dream was no different. Financial constraints, setbacks like a fire that destroyed everything, our refusal to change or compromise or downsize - none of these things is easy. But the disappointments and struggle have been the most valuable. When things seemed impossible, others' belief in us enabled us. Along with the hard times, there's been much magic and many miracles.

From Jashan the store to Abu-Sandeep the brand - how has your design sensibility evolved?

An artist evolves in a continuum. You finish something, are compelled to create again. We are maximalists. Our couture has always been classical, not trendy. Fashion fads will always be transient. We aim to transcend the limitations of now and create something that will always be contemporary. You hone, you evolve, you set new standards and then break them but ultimately you retain your original sensibilities because they are your core.

How has the market for your couture changed since you started working?

It's got bigger. If you have the goods, there will always be a buyer. We believe in letting our work 'speak'. And the 'word' reaches the wardrobes of a diverse audience.

Why did you concentrate on chikankari and zardozi?

Chikankari had disintegrated into its crudest form as had zardozi. It irked to see the downgrade of such regal techniques, painful to see what these crafts had been reduced to. So we made it our mission to return them to their rightful state. We've dedicated ourselves over the years to revival and reinvention. India has an unsurpassed legacy when it comes to textiles and craft. We incorporate that history and fashion it for the future. Apart from chikan and zardozi, we've refined mirror work, resham, tharad and rabadi.

Is prat slowly taking over couture?

Couture will always have a market in India. We're not only au fait with luxury, but accustomed to it;we're inclined towards made-to-measure, addicted to living large. Of course, fashion must extend to the masses and pr?t will be the way forward.

Has fashion in India come of age today? Is there a lot of original work?

There's a lot of talent but also too much derivative or borrowed design.

Are the demands of your celeb clients different from the rest?

A celebrity client is merely much more visible, so any mistakes/accomplishments make news beyond cocktail party chatter. Every man and woman we dress deserves to look and feel their best.

You wanted, you said, 'to build a worldwide brand with shops all over the world - to put India on the creative fashion map of the world'. Have you achieved that?

We've begun to live out the dream. We do want to put India on the global map. And whenever we've created, it's been without compromising our sensibilities. When Judi Dench or Sarah Brown or Princess Michael or any international client have worn us, they've worn us proudly. We want global success but it must come without diluting or warping who we are. It's something that requires big bucks or funding. We need corporate India to believe in Brand India. Only then can we, or any other Indian fashion house, hope to make it on the global front.

You won a lot of women's hearts (mine included!) when you said "We're a body type made for curves. It's Ajanta Ellora not Twiggy that floats our boat and our fashion. The sari is made to be draped against rounded hips and the swell of a bosom. It sits better. " Do you still believe that?

Of course! Nothing is more beautiful than a woman comfortable in her own skin. Sexiness isn't a shape or a dress size. But if it were we would like to think it was voluptuous with a capital V!

For your 25 years, why a book and not a film?

A book is forever, combining language and visuals. This moment, our journey, couldn't be encapsulated in a presentation. A movie is again didactic. It dictates what the audience sees. There is a certain beauty to a still image. It allows you to dream, to read between the lines. To create your own relationship with the content.

What gives you more pleasure - creating the garment or the smile on the face of wearer?

For any artist, to create is their life force. It isn't something one controls, but rather that which takes you hostage. It is both pleasure and pain, beauty and torture. So it is the prime mover. To see that creativity bring joy to the recipient is a source of immense pleasure but it is not what they create for. Our work isn't a product. That would make it a business. And as you know, business has always been a by-product of our work, never its raison d'tre.

Garments, interiors, a television show, exhibitions, now a book. What next?

More. More. More! More, taking it global in a much bigger way. Creating bigger and better. Expanding our field of vision to include other lifestyle verticals.

What makes Abu-Sandeep truly happy?

To create without constraints. To live life on our own terms. To make a difference. An exhibition of the designers' work will be held at Sotheby's, 34-35 New Bond Street, London W1, from Sept 3-5, to coincide with the launch of India Fantastique.

India Fantastique

Fashion: 402 illustrations, 300 in colour Interiors: 167 illustrations, 162 in colour

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