Love and Fashion
Seated at a conference room table cluttered with fabric swatches and sketches in their Midtown Manhattan atelier, Sachin and Babi Ahluwalia hold up prototype handbags with pride.
“Aren’t these so fun?” asks Babi, 44, swinging an orchid-printed black silk purse by a thick gold handle.
“Cute, right?” says Sachin, 45, nodding at a blush pink plaything with beadwork and feather detailing.
The bags are from two collections, both firsts for the husband-and-wife duo, who helm contemporary womenswear brand Sachin & Babi. One collection is their own; the other is a collaboration with Italy-based Swedish designer Rasmus Ringberg of Savas Milano, whom they discovered during their extensive travels. The handbags debuted at New York Fashion Week in September, and they constitute only one component of a busy fall season. Sachin & Babi’s first full jewelry line, a collection of earrings—pendant styles studded with cascading glass caviar beads dubbed “coconuts”—launched last month at Neiman Marcus. The Ahluwalias also introduced a made-to-order section online and at their recently refurbished Upper East Side boutique, allowing customers to personalize designs from the Sachin & Babi archive.
The growth of the business is a testament to the designers’ growing popularity. The Sachin & Babi look is precisely tailored and a bit flirty, but, most important, it’s ladylike. “Feminine is very important to me,” Sachin says. The emphasis is on evening and occasion wear, which has paid dividends with socialites and celebrities in need of red carpet attire (see Brooke Shields in a floral gown or Taylor Swift in a multitoned minidress). One thing that sets the brand’s evening wear apart is elaborate embroidery. That may mean lilies blooming across a black lace bodice, a tree of life pattern cascading down a bridal gown’s train, or a beige frock awash in metallic threadwork and bouillon twinkling like rain in the sun.
These signature touches come courtesy of the couple’s native India, where the two grew up surrounded by fashion. (Both their mothers were fashion designers, and Babi’s sister is couturier Ranna Gill.) They met in 1994 as students at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.
One night, the two showed up for a meet and greet for new Indian students—and found they were the only ones there. Last year, the couple, who have two daughters, celebrated 20 years of marriage and business.
“He was very thoughtful, very sweet, very determined,” recalls Babi, wearing a black ruffle dress and white tassel earrings from the new accessories collection. “A driven young kid who had a sense of urgency. He’d say to me, ‘Babi, it’s only a year and a half left till we graduate—what are we doing?’ He had all the good things that you want to learn from a friend.”
“We are very incompatible and compatible at the same time,” says Sachin, elegant in a black polo, gray jeans, and matching chocolate brown belt, watch strap, and loafers. “We have very different, very strong views. In the broader spectrum, we might argue on every little point, but on the bigger issues we are in unison.”
After graduation, they worked hard to set up their own embroidery business. “We were persistent kids who had to make it happen, or we had to go home with our tail between our legs and work for the family businesses,” Babi says. A fortuitous connection led to a meeting with Oscar de la Renta, who became a client, a mentor, and a close friend. “Oscar would get on the floor and put the pattern out,” Sachin says. “He taught us a lot. It was an incredible schooling.” Soon, their company, ANK Embroideries, was making embellishments for Giorgio Armani, Carolina Herrera, and Manolo Blahnik.
By 2009, the time seemed right to explore a clothing line. They found a niche for attainable garments that mimicked haute couture’s aspirational pieces. “Our aesthetic always goes back to old masters and silhouettes,” Sachin says. “We consider ourselves to be dressmakers. The only twist is, as designers, we make it more relevant today.” Now, they have a factory in Mumbai with about 250 workers; on top of that, they employ karigar, artisans who hand-embroider each of their pieces. While they don’t consider the embroideries “Indian”—“application is what we changed,” Sachin explains—they do say it’s inevitable their culture would be reflected in their designs. “I think you will see the Indian in us will never leave,” Sachin says.
The workload is divided thus: Sachin authors the first draft of the design; Babi edits by adding or subtracting details. They derive inspiration from culture and travel. During his first visit to Istanbul, Sachin discovered pieces of ikat fabric that were transported to an Istanbul wholesaler from Uzbekistan on the backs of donkeys. Consequently, the spring 2018 collection features washed-out ikats that echo watercolors; tulips, which came to Holland from Turkey, appear as hand-painted prints; and Ottoman-style tassels trim hemlines.
Working with your spouse, of course, has its challenges. Sachin fought Babi on including a coatdress with pants in their bridal collection, which marked its first anniversary this year.“That was a really nasty fight,” she says with a mischievous smile.
“She won,” Sachin says with a hearty laugh, “and it turned out to be one of our best sellers.”