Babi Ahluwalia is smiling ear-to-ear. Her 5-foot-10 frame floats down Spring Street towards the entrance to Balthazar where she pauses before sliding into the seat across from me. What’s the reason for the glow? Nothing. For this half of Sachin & Babi–the fashion line she founded with her husband, Sachin–there’s no rhyme or reason for her warmth. A sunny disposition is de rigueur for the Delhi-bred Babi, flying in the face of stereotypes people may have of New Yorkers or fashion industry veterans.
“It’s our values, you know? It’s a simple upbringing and the good friends that we have close to us. We are pretty grounded spirits because we like the simple things in life–like when we see friends do well, we do well. This has always been our mantra,” she says.
While she may credit a simple upbringing as part of the success of their fashion brand, what they have created in actuality is anything but simple. It’s elegant. It’s extravagant. It’s classic. It’s what brought the designers and I together in this moment because there’s an evolution happening at their eponymous label. Silhouettes are chicer. Designs are more structured. Fabrics are richer than ever. Elegance is amplified. Each and every piece in the collection feels as if it could be uptown fabulous or downtown chic, depending on how the wearer wants to wear it that day. And the prices are phenomenally approachable which gives the brand an overall vibe that Sachin & Babi are offering up Madison Avenue without the price tag. In many ways, they are.
“Status cocktail,” two words Mr. Ahluwalia uses to describe their ready-to-wear label via a Zoom interview. “When you’re investing $895 in a gown for a celebration, you certainly don’t want something that’s made in an inexpensive Georgette. You want structure, you want it to look good. You want to dance in it, you want to take your shoes off and be twirling.”
“Though, we’ve had to find a medium which is, what we call, more democratically priced,” he explains further. “I think this was always an objective: how do we take what we have learned in the last 25 years and make it more accessible to people like us?”
Let’s break down his statement into two parts, the ‘people like us’ part and the ‘what they have learned in 25 years’ part.
First, by ‘people like us’ Sachin describes a part of the population whose incomes are significant but who aren’t quite rich. “We appeal to a very large population of people, such as ourselves, who aspire to high fashion–we have good taste, we are sophisticated in the way we dress, in our lifestyles–but we seek a middle ground, the price that is below that for the 1% but above the 20%. We have a level of sophistication and style of the 1% but value the dollar spent a lot more.”
On his radar as well is a growing demographic called HENRYs (High Earners, Not Rich Yet) which consist of younger generations who make considerable salaries–in the $200-500K range–but have yet to amass wealth. HENRYs indulge in, or aspire to, the same material pursuits as the 1%, using their high-incomes towards frequent travel, luxury goods, and 5-star hotel stays. It’s a group which has proved to be very high spenders.
The couple also find inspiration from their teenage daughters and how their lives, desires, and opportunities are so different than generations past. “I look at how ambitious they are. There are more women graduating college. More and more women are entering the workplace with high-level and high-paying jobs than ever before. These women need a wardrobe that befits their status and where they are. We want to be the brand that fills that void they have in their wardrobe,” says Ms. Ahluwalia.
Now, to ‘what they have learned in the last 25 years’ part, because this is the puzzle piece which completes the picture of how the couple deliver their world-class product. It’s a recipe which includes talent, sophistication, taste and unparalleled experience in creating the most coveted luxury clothes, as the Ahluwalia’s main business for the past two decades has been to support houses such as Oscar de la Renta, Carolina Herrera and Valentino in the manifestation of their designs. Making them well-versed in creating fashion with the detail and quality expected of the most expensive fashion brands.
“We were an embroidery house to start with–” explains Mr. Ahuluwalia.
“These houses wanted to leverage the craftsmanship coming out of India,” Ms. Ahluwalia interjects, playfully finishing her husband’s sentence. “Today, that side of the business is purely a design service. Our studios have an entire space dedicated to fabric textiles, prints, embroideries, different textures of embroideries, and different types of stitching techniques to accentuate a piece. Over time, we grew as creatives with these amazing houses and we developed so many more different techniques together.”
“So, everything associated with red carpet, walking down the runway, the highly developed pieces and the couture part of their world or bridal was something we developed through the creative process,” adds Mr. Ahluwalia, who goes to describe their 300 person team in India who meticulously execute the designs of other fashion houses as well as their own.
The couple’s work has hardly gone unnoticed. Over the years, Sachin & Babi designs have landed on the backs of everyone from Taylor Swift to Michelle Obama to Mindy Kaling. Their work has earned them a coveted seat as part of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, and the couple were recently invited to the the home of Vice-President Kamala Harris as distinguished guests as she honored the Hindu holiday of Diwali.
While both the Ahluwalia’s family businesses are in the apparel business (Mr. Ahluwalia recalls his mother-in-law who taught him the most important aspect is to understand fabrics. “‘To truly understand ready-to-wear, you have to understand textiles, and then you will have a great business,” he quotes), the couple’s fashion story started in New York at the top place people cut their teeth in the industry at the time: The Fashion Institute of Technology.
Both were studying for their undergraduate degrees at the famed New York fashion school but hadn’t met yet. “I thought she was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen!” exclaims Mr. Ahluwalia about their first encounter. “But also the most argumentative person I had ever met. The perfect recipe for a life long relationship, never a dull moment!”
For Ms. Ahluwalia, the feelings were mutual. “I had a huge crush on this rather tall Mumbai chap [Sachin] who was so doe eyed, kind and loving. It was kismet that we were to meet and fall in love. We swam and sank together through school projects and nurtured our dreams together as we started our young adult lives together here in New York.”
A quarter of a century later, the business partnership which has resulted, in addition to their 26-year marriage, is one that is sometimes somewhat unexpected. For example, in the case of these two creatives Mr. Ahluwalia is the designer while his wife operates the other half of the business. Ms. Ahluwalia is also, rather fittingly, her husband’s muse and the muse of the brand.
“Normally, it’s the other way around,” laughs Mr. Ahluwalia. “The woman is the designer and the man takes care of the other side of things.”
While it’s good to have a giggle about the fun and the glamour, there are real challenges to the business these days. Consumers are not spending as predictably as they did pre-pandemic and noise in the market is the biggest hurdle and burden.
“Through all the social media, the many media channels out there, and all the things that you can do, it’s a very crowded space to get noticed,” explains Ms. Ahluwalia. “The challenge is: will they [customers] be able to find you? And if they do find you, we have to help them understand who we are, what we stand for, and what it is that we offer–”
Mr. Ahluwalia jumps in, this time he’s the one to finish the other’s sentence as the story keeps going. “But I think when people do find us, they find exactly what they need and once our customer experiences this sweet spot, she keeps coming back. And we love being here for her.”