Reliance Brands Limited (RBL) continues its shopping spree of homegrown fashion labels. After setting up a joint venture with designer Rahul Mishra earlier this year, the company has now signed a definitive agreement to invest in the country’s foremost couturiers Abu Jani Sandeep Khosla (AJSK) for a 51% majority stake.
Known as “the boys”, designers Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla have been responsible for bringing crafts such as chikankari, zardozi and crushed Bandhani back to the forefront of fashion. In their 35-year long journey, they have dressed many celebrity brides, including Shweta Bachchan and Tanya Godrej, and won several accolades, including winning the National Costume Design Award for their work in the film Devadas in 2003. Their pieces are part of the Victoria and Albert Museum 2015 exhibit, “The Fabric of India”. They used to have a store in London’s Knightsbridge and have retailed out of Harrods and Bergdorf Goodman’s, and have an archive full of treasures. Having worked on the James Bond film, The World is Not Enough in 1999, they have dressed a number of national and international celebrities from Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Sonam Kapoor, to Dame Judi Dench and Beyonce.
“Teaming up with India’s foremost couturiers, who hold an unparalleled position in Indian fashion for their fine craftsmanship and impeccable attention to detail, techniques and embroideries is thrilling," says Isha Ambani, director of Reliance Retail Ventures Ltd, the holding company of all retail companies in Reliance Industries Limited group. “It allows us to build a stronger platform for their zealous commitment to reinvention of Indian craft. Inspiration from the old to create with a brand new approach is their gift. Abu Sandeep have been extraordinarily successful for over three decades and it is time that their endeavour to present their unabashed vision of luxury reached every nook and corner of the world, carving a unique space for the brand globally, making them true ambassadors of Indian style”.
Ambani, like her mother Nita, is a well-known fan of AJSK; so much so that she wore an AJSK hand-embroidered lehenga, which had a 16-panel ghaghra skirt, for her wedding ceremony in 2019.
Over the past one year, RBL, the country’s largest player in the luxury business that has tie-ups with over 60 international brands, like Tiffany’s, Giorgio Armani and Burberry, has been focusing a lot on Indian fashion labels. It started last year when the company acquired Ritu Kumar, and announced a 40% stake in Manish Malhotra, Bollywood's go-to designer. The portfolio also includes Anamika Khanna’s prêt line AK-OK that marries Indian silhouettes with streetwear, a 60/40 joint venture with Rahul Mishra to soon start a ready-to-wear line, and a majority stake in the label Abraham and Thakore.
The question is, why did take so long for AJSK to become a part of the illustrious list, considering the designers’ close relationship with the Ambanis?
Abu Jani explain: “This venture is just the latest evolution of a relationship we have cherished for more than 30 years. Given our long history together, it was important that we do this right, not in a rush. It is a decision which comes with full faith, confidence and commitment to each other and to a shared mission to write new history and aim for higher heights.”
RBL’s president and CEO, Darshan Mehta, who first met the designer duo 10 years ago, says putting together the deal took nine months. “As they say, you can't hurry love; it takes time. We don’t want to trespass through any corporate muscle. If I were in either Abu or Sandeep’s shoes… to allow an outsider into a company I have nurtured for 35 years and that has my name on it… is not an easy leap of faith.”
For many years, the designer duo has spoken of the need for Indian fashion to gain corporate investment. Says Sandeep Khosla, “We aren’t businessmen, we are artists. Partnering with Reliance Brands will allow us to focus on creative expansion and excellence while they steer the brand and its labels to greater reach and optimal size with their business savvy and expertise.”
The corporate look
Referring to the investments in labels by corporates like Reliance and Aditya Birla Fashion and Retail Ltd (which has stakes in Sabyasachi, Shantanu and Nikhil, Tarun Tahiliani and Masaba), Khosla believes a new chapter is being written in Indian fashion. “It is the only way forward to grow exponentially. The only way to explore every opportunity and achieve optimal size. To compete globally and expand one's reach and offering, corporate investment is a must,” he says.
AJSK has expanded into the home segment previously, and their fashion house Abu Jani Sandeep Khosla currently features three other labels — ASAL by Abu Sandeep, a line of diffusion, formal, occasion and wedding wear; womenswear label GULABO by Abu Sandeep, featuring luxe pret separates, casual and formal wear for women; and MARD by Abu Sandeep, a formal and occasion-wear men’s label.
Mehta says, “If any Indian label can be called the first maison out of India, then it is them.”