The old fashion week — where seemingly every brand that sold clothes put on a blow-out runway show or presentation, regardless of that brand's size — is dead. At least here in New York, as the last few seasons have brought us the likes of "see now, buy now," calendar shuffles and a now-nearly resolved Parisian exodus. But with all that change also came a significantly downsized schedule; by no means do editors, buyers and influencers expect for a label to host a show to physically "show" its latest collection.
Many brands, like Sachin & Babi, have embraced their newly autonomous presentation format (or lack thereof, actually) with aplomb. The New York-based womenswear label founded by husband-and-wife designers Sachin and Babi Ahluwalia did away with the traditional runway format last season to better allocate resources toward matters that hold more importance to the designers personally, as well as to the brand as a whole.
This season, that's all matters of inclusivity. It's a hot-button buzzword, for sure, and it's also one that no shortage of designers have either embraced wholeheartedly or blatantly capitalized upon to move product. But for Sachin and Babi, the inclusivity they're looking to spotlight for Spring 2019 — that of Indian and South Asian heritage — is acutely personal. When Sachin and Babi moved to the U.S. from India (Sachin from Mumbai; Babi from New Delhi) to attend New York's Fashion Institute of Technology in 1994, they searched high and low for their racial background to be represented in the American and European fashion markets. It wasn't.
"We were very lucky that we found each other," Babi tells me from the set of the brand's Spring 2019 photo shoot at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. "We built our careers together as a small design service brand for big design houses. But we never really found a representation of us in the society. It did matter and it didn't. We were very busy building our business, so these troubles weren't that large. But as you grow as an adult, you look around and say, 'In this beautiful chaos of fashion, who else looks like me?'"
While at FIT, Sachin studied fashion design while Babi studied textiles. After graduation, they built an embroidery business together, working for top houses like Oscar de la Renta, Carolina Herrera and Jean-Paul Gaultier. Sachin & Babi, their ready-to-wear brand, came after in 2009. It was during this former period that the couple had a lightbulb moment seeing Ujjwala Raut, a supermodel and former Miss India from Mumbai, walk in Yves Saint Laurent by Tom Ford's Fall 2003 show. Babi explains that while modeling was certainly a viable career in India at that time (she herself did it "just for fun" growing up), rarely did models walk major international runways. Raut went on to break that barrier, spending the early aughts on runways for Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, Givenchy, Oscar de la Renta, Valentino and the holy grail gig that is the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show.
Raut is often touted as India's first (and to a certain extent, still most successful) international supermodel. Babi says that after Raut, she began to notice more Indian and South Asian models, including Bhumika Arora and Pooja Mor, gaining industry success. But when both Sachin and Babi went to cast Indian models to showcase their Spring 2019 line, they hit a roadblock: Where are all the Indian models?
Babi says that well-known industry faces like Arora or Mor are currently contracted by bigger brands and thus unavailable for other smaller-scale projects; Mor, for example, is currently a face of H&M. ("These girls are huge today," says Babi.) So, Sachin and Babi looked to their own history and cast Raut herself, shooting her alongside up-and-coming model Kiran Kandola, a British native of Indian heritage. Kandola, who is repped by Muse Management here in New York and Storm Management in her native U.K., may be at the start of her career, but she's already appeared in editorials for cool-kid glossy Dazed and walked for Ashish last February. "And she's fabulous," says Babi, after a dramatic pause.
"We just can't design in a vacuum and expect the consumers to connect with us," she says. "You have to live, love and connect with the consumers. That's when you're going to be a darling brand, because this whole business of, 'I'm going to make it for this girl...'No. Fashion has to mean something. Otherwise, she can go anywhere and shop."
Since Sachin & Babi exited the conventional fashion calendar earlier this year, the brand has put a new priority on what it calls "narratives," which it tells through a digital lookbook. For the first post-runway show initiative, the label focused on age inclusivity and cast Maye Musk, model, dietician and mother of Elon Musk; last September, at the age of 69, she was named one of the newest faces of CoverGirl. Later, for Sachin & Babi's Resort 2018 collection, they cast '90s icon Helena Christensen, who is now 49.
"People in the business actually told me, 'Have you lost your mind? Maye's 70!’ And I was like, 'Well, she's the face of CoverGirl!'" recalls Babi. "If she's 70 and she's fabulous and she's a size 8, 10 or 12, what does it matter? If she can buy your clothes, and she can look good in them, isn't that our job as dressmakers to make everybody shine?"
Sachin & Babi also recently built out its digital arm, relaunching its website this month after nearly 10 months in development. While the new platform is sleeker and more user-friendly, its most essential capability is an updated ability to ship internationally, including to India where the brand has a wide fanbase. ("We get a lot of love from Bollywood," says Babi.) The revamped e-commerce platform also allows users to filter the looks based on body type, like "Full Bust," "Hour Glass," "Pear," "Petite," "Straight & Narrow" and Babi's personal favorite, "Rather Tall." Right now, the brand ships up to a size 20.
"Everybody is built differently," says Babi, who herself is 5 feet 10.5 inches tall and between a size 6 and 8. "In the end, this product has to be put on a real person. Otherwise, what's the point of us making it?"
The brand has also become a mainstay on Hollywood's red carpets, often cropping up on a diverse swath women who aren't all, say, 18-year-old, size-0 starlets: Just this past awards season, they dressed Chrissy Metz at the Golden Globes, Laurie Metcalf at the SAG Awards and Anna Chlumsky at the Emmys.
At the end of our conversation, I ask Babi about how the brand has gone about embracing inclusivity with authenticity — and what others might be able to learn from their expertise. While both Sachin and Babi are especially dedicated to increasing the visibility of Indian and South Asian figures within fashion, they're also looking to their consumers via friends of friends, intimate soirées and in-store events at their Upper East Side location.
"It's my job to put customers at ease and have deep, meaningful conversations with women who enjoy the brand, who think it can do better," says Babi. "That's why fashion is fun. Number one, she has to afford it. She has to reuse it a couple of times. Then she'll start having fun with it."
Of course, says Babi, it's also "fun," and other things, for women to see themselves represented in an industry they may not only love, but in which they work, as well. In her case, Babi sees that representation of Indian and South Asian models has increased of late, largely beginning with Raut. But there's much more ground to cover.
"Moving forward, you have to be very true to your DNA and your sense of ethos. Who are you making this for? How well are your pieces prized? Who are you working with in terms of your messaging?" says Babi. "That's how the real world is, a mixed bag, a gaggle of people. That's really who we hoped we show. Diversity is showing the world the way it is, right?"
Homepage photo: Sachin & Babi