In a partnership that completes 25 years this year, designers Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla have dealt with a lot of brides-to-be. There have been the coy and indecisive, the I-know-exactly-what-I-want bride, the bridezilla and even the overzealous one who strips down in front of everyone to try on her lehenga. But there was one request recently that left them flummoxed. A bride wanted them to make a leather and lace lehenga.

Khosla laughs as he recalls the incident. “What could I do? I just told her you have come to the wrong people and asked her to approach another designer." That’s the kind of bride that the designer duo fear even more than the bridezilla—the one who wants something “different". “But they don’t know what’s different. You’re getting married, you’re going to wear a lehenga-choli. What can be different about that?" asks Khosla.

Work in progress: (clockwise from top left) A red wedding lehenga with Isfahan embroidery in resham sequins and beads; Sandeep Khosla (left) and Abu Jani in their meeting room; Gyasi Ram Verma has worked as a tailor for the designers for 17 years; and a karigar hand-finishing a blouse. Photographs: Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint

The first meeting

We are at their factory in Andheri, Mumbai, where the bridal-wear couturists also have an office and a meeting room for clients. Rose essence envelops you as you enter this room. With a large chandelier twinkling in the dull light, thick drapes, gold seating and silver stands, a life-size painting of a man dressed like royalty on one wall, and a throne with a lion’s face carved on its arms resting next to another wall, the place is reminiscent of Indian palaces or, well, a venue for an opulent Indian wedding. It is unlikely you will get a combination of leather and lace here.

In a corner, a couple of racks are lined with pieces from their collection. There are some garments in their signature chikan, and some with intricate sequins, beads, resham and badla work. It’s been a few weeks since their couture week collection was unveiled in New Delhi but the designers are now back in Mumbai to deal with the bridal rush. “The brides are all about red this season. They want to match red with diamonds, but I think red goes best with gold," says Khosla, the more affable of the two. Personally, he says, he always tries to push for his favourite shocking pink because it works on most skin colour types. But the final decision lies with the bride. The embroidery of the ghagra is decided based on the jewellery—traditional if jadau, slightly contemporary with Western motifs if it’s a necklace with diamonds and coloured gemstones.

Khosla and Jani get two kinds of customers. One who will buy clothes off the rack and one who would like to meet and order bespoke couture. Most clients take appointments at the store, where the store manager is the first point of contact and conducts the first meeting with the bride-to-be to understand the type of wedding and venue, among other things. The designers then meet her either at their factory in Mumbai or at their Delhi store, depending on where the customer is. They even fly to London to meet clients at their store there. The bride gets two meetings with them.

Wedding finery: (clockwise from top left) Sample sheets shown to the brides; tassels for a lehenga; and a wedding lehenga with a pattern of leafy motifs and a Swarovski-sheeted blouse. Photographs: Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint

“The first one is about understanding where the bride is coming from, her mother, her family, which community is she from, how long will her wedding ceremony be, what is her jewellery like. Which functions are we designing for?" says Khosla.

For the sangeet, the outfits could be lighter and brighter, with Swarovski and sequins; for the mehendi, the outfit is more fun, with lots of colour and perhaps some gota, but the wedding outfit has to be traditional. “We are known more for our traditional work. It’s best that brides have fun for the other functions and keep the weddings as traditional as possible," says Khosla.

The outfits for other functions are kept light to allow free movement for the bride, but the designers don’t want her to feel burdened on her big day either. Their bridal lehengas don’t weigh more than 4-5kg. “We don’t believe in making 20kg lehengas," says Khosla. To do this, they balance out the work on the garment using appropriate embellishments. Materials such as bugle beads or pure metal sequins that would weigh down a ghagra are used in a relatively small amount. They provide two dupattas, the heavier one is pleated on the shoulder and the lighter one is for the head.

To make sure the dupattas don’t get messed up by the varmalas, the designers’ tip is to get ones with hooks at the back.

The rocks

Pick your life partner carefully and choose your shopping companion shrewdly. Khosla has a warning for those who are planning to come with their best friends. “We have had experiences where the friend is wearing the same colour as the bride. They get influenced, the embroidery looks the same and they end up with a bad replica and you wonder if she’s your best friend really," says Khosla. Even worse is coming with the mother-in-law. The need to please her may backfire. Mothers and sisters, according to them, are the best shopping partners. If both, the bride and groom, want their outfits designed by them they are also encouraged to come separately. “It gets too confusing."

Another complete no-no for this first meeting—don’t ask them to make a bridal outfit in nude or shades of brown. “They are all colours of shit. Why would you want to wear that? Nude and gold just washes you out," says Jani. Old rose (onion pink) is another colour they dislike.

The second meeting is when a sample is shown to the bride and her measurements are taken. Experience has taught Jani and Khosla many lessons. One lesson: Take the blouse measurements only a month before the wedding. “Brides give us their measurements and come back for trial after crash dieting and we have to restitch the blouse entirely," says Khosla. If the blouse needs to be made less risque for “dadaji’s benefit", now is the time to say so. Another thing they have learnt is to tune out when there are too many opinions. “At times when there are 15 family members for the first meeting, coming to a compromise is the best way," says Jani.

The union

Like one would do for one’s children, Jani and Khosla have names for all their embroidery patterns. Shabb, Isfahan and Abaan are a few of them. Depending on the final design, these are copied on to life-size paper cut-outs of the outfit and traced on to the fabric. About 25-30 people work on one garment at a time, and it takes 60 days to design, cut, embroider, stitch and finish the garment. Through all this, only the duo know what the outfit will finally look like. The bride is not shown the garment at any stage of the making. “We have to be the final editors of the work," says Khosla. Of course, they also don’t want the bridezilla breathing down their necks. They have learnt to control brides who want to control everything. No one is allowed to come to the workshop or keep calling about the progress of the work.

“People start fantasizing, and get obsessive. You need to keep her away from her obsession or she’ll go mental. We try to involve them only to the point that they are required," says Khosla. Usually, what most of them want is to look slimmer. “Even if they are thin as a stick," he adds. So they strategically place the belt of the ghagra to tuck in a tummy or drape the dupatta in a way that’ll hide the extra bulge.

They demonstrate the draping of the dupatta for the bride and her mother to make a note of. How conservative the family is, sets the parameter for how much skin the bride will show. “Marwaris carry the dupatta across the stomach, the diamond merchants usually don’t like backless cholis," says Khosla. In general, Indian women prefer a backless choli to the one cut low at the neckline. Once ready, the lehenga is wrapped in an organza fabric and delivered to the bride’s home without much ceremony.

The stage is set

A stitch of Swarovski there and a pearl of wisdom in between, their work doesn’t end with the designing and draping. Over the years, the two of them have learnt to play shrinks to the nervous bride. From suggesting dermatologists and make-up artists to prescribing multi-vitamins, the designers even have to help build self-confidence in the bride. “They can be so critical of themselves. We are short so we can’t wear this, or we are dark so that colour won’t suit us. We have to tell them that they are beautiful and should keep themselves in a happy place," says Khosla.

The 4kg ghagra with life lessons thrown in (“marriage is not about the honeymoon") comes at a price starting at 2 lakh and could go up to “anything", as Khosla puts it. “We don’t make bridal outfits for fashion victims. We never cut corners and we want our lehengas to be heirlooms that you can wear again," says Khosla.

If the outfit costs as much as the wedding ring, we’d like it to be an heirloom.