We talk to Sandeep Khosla, one half of a design duo who have brought the Indian aesthetic to a global audience, ahead of a London exhibition celebrating their career and achievements.
Jani and Khosla inheritors of a great Indian fashion tradition
Affectionately known in the fashion industry as "the boys", Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla have spent 25 years clothing Indian celebrities with their signature luxury and elegance, a contribution that will be honoured by the UK auction house Sotheby's in London from September 3 to 5.
Titled India Fantastique, the exhibition will showcase the designs of India's leading couturiers. "Jani and Khosla have built a 25-year partnership that has included working with directors on costumes for lavish Bollywood films and creating extraordinary maximalist interiors which combine art, artefacts, antiques and Indian textiles, to build a brand that marries Indian tradition with contemporary luxury," read a statement from Sotheby's.
In an industry where even the mediocre can easily be hyped by an uncritical audience, Jani and Khosla have consistently stood for quality and have showed an unstinting pride in their Indian heritage.
At their 25th anniversary bash in Mumbai early this year, virtually the entire Bollywood industry turned up. At the Cannes Film Festival in May, India's most popular actress, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, chose one of their outfits for her red carpet appearance, as she has done on many occasions as one of their regular customers.
At the Bafta awards in London in February, the actress Judi Dench, also a Jani-Khosla loyalist, wore one of their richly embellished and feminine outfits. Maggie Smith and Sophie Moreau are also customers.
For what began as a chance meeting in Mumbai in 1986, the pair have enjoyed instant success since their debut in the world of fashion and interior design. Neither of them possessed any formal training then. Jani began his career as a costume designer in the film industry, and Khosla started out in his family's leather business. Yet their first collection was snapped up by leading actresses and the wives of rich industrialists.
And while other Indian designers have struggled for recognition outside of India (or even outside the category of bridalwear), their clothes are stocked by Harvey Nichols and Harrods in London, and Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman in the US.
Their standing in the fashion world is based on their revival of crafts such as chikan (exquisitely fine embroidery) and zardozi (gold thread embroidery).
These ancient Indian artistic traditions are used on opulent and fluid fabrics to create a flowing, almost royal silhouette.
The duo's style is hugely popular among Bollywood stars because it is, as the Indian fashion writer Sunil Mehra calls it, "uber, outré, over-the-top but tasteful and elegant".
"They launched the romance of white-on-white, beige-on-beige chikan work and pioneered the elegant use of their zardozi," she says.
Speaking from London, Khosla says their greatest achievement has been to revive these ancient skills by taking them to a new level of quality and sophistication.
"I always say that if India had to build the Taj Mahal again, we could - because all the skills and workmanship are still here," he says.
"By reviving chikan and zardozi, we have made it our own. And we have made embroidery fashionable in India and abroad."
Their success stems from many factors, most noteworthy being their understanding of the Indian woman's body shape and their passion for Indian heritage.
"Everything around us is about India," says Khosla. "Our whole aesthetic is purely Indian and it's this that we want to spread across the world."
Jani and Khosla also appreciate the generous curves of the average Indian woman's body and know they must be accommodated, not wished away. They write on their website: "We are a culture and a body type that is made for curves. It's Ajanta Ellora [ancient caves containing paintings depicting voluptuous goddesses] 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."
Nor do they have any illusions about how far the Indian fashion industry still has to go.
"If we are going to make western couture, we need to concentrate on tailoring and pattern cutting," Khosla says. "The truth is that currently a jacket from Marks & Spencer fits better than any by an Indian couture house. We cannot compete with a Dior, Armani or Prada until we incorporate this skill set into our product."
The Sotheby's exhibition will coincide with the launch of a lavish two-volume publication of the same name, to be published by Thames & Hudson this month. The first showcases their fashion and the second their interior design work.
Shefalee Vasudev, the author of a just-published book on Indian fashion, The Powder Room, says she's not surprised that Sotheby's chose Jani and Khosla. They are the foremost revivalists of craft and textile techniques in India, she says.
The dependence of the rich and famous on their clothes is also no surprise to Vasudev.
"In post-liberalised India, opulent, lavish and decadent clothes assure distinction. They announce wealth and luxury, they label who you are," she says.
The duo's future ambition is clear: Khosla says they are determined to promote the Indian aesthetic sensibility far and wide.
"Our goal is to build a worldwide brand with shops all over the world - to put India on the creative fashion map of the world," he says.