It’s Kind of a Funny Story: Sachin & Babi

Sachin and Babi Ahluwalia tell us how they came to America, fell in love and made a business together.

10.19.16
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Haley Nahman: So, how’d you meet?

Sachin Ahluwalia: Should I start?

Babi Ahluwalia: Yeah, take the lead.

Sachin: Both of us are from India, but we never actually met there. I’m from Mumbai, Babi is from New Delhi. I came to New York to attend FIT in the fall of 1994 and I think it was the second day or third day of school that I saw a beautiful girl wearing a short black skirt and polo T-shirt across the street with, like, 17 boys around her. And I was like, “Okay, she’s cute. I gotta figure out who she is.”

So I asked my friends, “Do you know this girl? There’s this Indian girl here and she’s really pretty and popular.” And they said, “Oh that must be so-and-so. She’s an RA.” So I spent the next four or five days looking for her during lunch break. I went to all the dorms and then I finally meet this girl and it wasn’t her!

Haley: Oh no!

Babi: That’s because you had the name wrong!

Sachin: I had the name wrong. Then soon after a senior was taking all the young international students out for Thai food and there were a lot Indians in that group. That’s when Babi and I first met. And then one night I hear a knock on my door and there’s Babi. She was like, “Hey! Are you Sachin? Someone told me that you know how to get a social security card.”

Haley: Could you not believe your luck?

Sachin: Well it was strange because they had mentioned it ten times. Like, “This is where the social security office is…”

Babi: I thought, “Okay let me go to that one nerdy fellow who seemed to know what I’m supposed to do…”

Sachin: It wasn’t any nerdy fellow that she came to see! So anyway, then we kind of hit it off.

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Haley: As friends?

Sachin: As friends. And we were friends I think for the first semester, but very close friends. We used to always have dinner together after class.

Babi: We had a lively group of about four to five of us but we were the only girl and boy that liked each other, so we wanted to keep it below the radar.

Sachin: I used to do fittings, for school, and if I couldn’t get into the lab early enough I’d wake her up at 2 in the morning and use her as a fit model.

Babi: Yeah, I used to be a size 2 then!

Sachin: I’d make her fit the muslin and she’d be like, “Okay, since you woke me up, you’ve gotta feed me.” So I’d take her down to go to the diner on 8th Avenue. I think after the first semester we started dating.

Babi: Yeah, after that Christmas.

Haley: What was that transition like? Did you guys have “the talk?”

Babi: Only kind of, because he used to talk to me about this girlfriend back home. She’d send him letters and he wouldn’t open them and I was like, “Oh that’s the worst thing! You should open those!” and he’d say, “Ah, no I can’t.” So I said, “Listen, if you’re over this girl, go home, sort it and we’ll figure out what we have to do. But, just go. Do right by her. Don’t just string her along. She lives in India. We are here now.”

Haley: So she talked some sense into you!

Sachin: See, there’s a bit of a confusion. I thought I was already done! But then clearly I was not.

Haley: You didn’t think that you still had a girlfriend?

Sachin: Exactly, because I had moved on. I wanted to get out of Bombay because I grew up there. I wanted to come here to study at business school. That’s what my intentions were, at least right after graduating. But then my mother said — I’m an only child — “Sachin, why don’t you come and work with me? See if you like it. After a year, I’ll pay for your education. You can go to whichever business school you want to go to.”

She always knew I was very entrepreneurial. When I was 16, I started a shirt company. I used to block print on men’s shirts and sell them to my mother’s suppliers. So I worked for a year with her. It was really good. I was running her block-printing factory and I started really enjoying what she was doing. I learned a lot of business acumen from her. She was a thorough businesswoman. At the time, she was one of the first ready-to-wear designers in India to start supplying to department stores all over the country.

Haley: That’s incredible.

Sachin: Then I got into Penn and I didn’t get into Columbia. But I wanted to come to New York for some reason. I was destined to come here. One of my mother’s designers said, “There’s this great school called FIT. Go there for six months. You’ll have a great time, and then transfer to Columbia.

I thought I would be there for six months to a year. And then when I got there I really enjoyed it. It was the most exciting thing that I had ever done and I felt I had a knack for it, so I stuck with it. I remember when I first met Babi I asked her what a form was.

Babi: He was like, “Do you know what a form is?” And I was like, “You’re in design! You’re gonna fail. You’re gonna fail this.”

Sachin: That first semester that’s all she would say.

Babi: He didn’t even know what a dress form was! PLEASE!

Sachin: Because most of the kids in my class had grown up sewing garments. But I studied economics and suddenly I was in fashion design.

Haley: That’s amazing.

Babi: It was!

Sachin: My first and second semesters were the most challenging. I was really trying to learn how to sew and sketch and get up to speed. By the second semester I really hit the ground running and I knew exactly what to do.

Haley: Babi, how did you end up at FIT?

Babi: I went to Lady Shri Ram in India, which was a very boring girl’s college. I was bored out of my mind. Through family connections, I knew one of the forefront fashion designers in India and I used to work in his atelier. He said, “You’ll go to Bombay, to the design school there to get a taste of it, before you go to FIT.” He was mentoring me! When I arrived in Bombay the summer before coming to New York, I was six feet tall and outgoing and I was bartending at a nightclub. One night, there was a shooting outside the club. Those were very scandalous days in Bombay. And later we realized Sachin was in the club that night too! But we didn’t know each other.

Sachin: She was modeling at the time. We had heard that all of these models would come down and bartend at this club. Me and the boys were like, “Okay we gotta go!” So we ended up there. And years later Babi was like, “Oh my God, I was bartending!” And I said, “Oh! You were one of the models.”

Babi: My dad flew in the next week and picked me up. He was like, “Enough of this business! Wrap it up, go straight to New York and finish school there.” And when I arrived in New York, I had a bit of a fire in my belly. Sachin too. When we met we used to say, “Oh my god, are we going back to India after these two years of school? What are we going to do?”

I said I could ask my mom and dad for a loan and a year to figure things out. This was before 9/11. International students used to get 15 months of practical training after graduating before their student visas ran out.

Haley: Do you remember at what point you felt like you were more than just causally dating?

Babi: Summer of ’95, almost exactly one year after we first met. His parents took him to Africa.

Sachin: Yes, but we flew through London together first.

Babi: Right. We flew from New York to London to hang out with his family and then I flew back to New Delhi and he went to Africa on a safari. Our parents kind of knew things were brewing, but not because we told them. I remember as Sachin was unpacking he asked me, “Babi! Where did I keep my shaving kit?” and “Babi! Where did I keep my T-shirts?”

And his mom was like, “What is going on with these two? They don’t say it, but they’re dating! She knows where the shaving kit is, she knows where the T-shirt is…”

Haley: You had told them you were just friends?

Babi: In India it’s very traditional — our parents are — and the minute you tell them you’re dating they’re like, “Oh my god you must marry!” So we thought better not tell them, we’d figure it out, but of course you spill the beans when you’re packing together, you know what I mean?

Sachin: We were quite realistic about the fact that we really didn’t know what would happen with us after school finished. Because there was a chance that Babi had to go home and maybe I didn’t, or I’d go home and Babi would stay.

Babi: He went to Africa that summer and I was in India. He would call every other day! They were expensive phone calls, you know?

Sachin: It was like $24 a minute. Because you’re calling from the jungle! So I’d call her and we used to fight a lot about like everything. A friend from L.A. is visiting us right now and he remembers. He said, “I’ve been seeing it for 21 years. You both fight like that. You fight about the most useless things.” Well, not fight, but argue.

Haley: And you’ve been like that since the beginning?

Sachin + Babi: Yeah.

Sachin: I look at it like this. At home we finish each other’s sentences, and at work we interrupt each other.

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Babi: It’s so bad!

Sachin: Yes. It kind of works like that. So when we’re home — because of the kids — it’s much more lax because we’ve made it a rule that we don’t discuss work or we try not to talk about work. It’s really good. When we work though, we’re working.

Babi: We try. We honestly do.

Haley: So he was calling you every other day that summer. Were things starting to feel different?

Babi: Yes. That following semester, we kind of got serious. We were like, “Okay, so what’s our plan?” We started coming up with these weird plans together about work. We were very sweet, loving, sincere.

Sachin: Yeah. When we got to that stage the big question was: What will happen after school? Not so much about us, but about going back to India or not.

Babi: We knew we had to build a life here so soon questions about career came up. We knew we couldn’t live together because of our parents. So we weren’t sure what to do.

Haley: Oh, so not about the relationship, but about your future.

Sachin: Yes. That’s when I started interning and Babi started interning. We had to figure out how we were going to stay. I knew my parents were not going to let me stay here six months with nothing, so I had to come up with a compelling enough reason to stay in New York. My father’s immediate boss at the time knew the CEO of Oscar de la Renta. So he said, “Listen, would you like an internship at Oscar de la Renta?”

And I was like, “Jeez that would be the best thing ever.”

But I was a sportswear designer and Oscar is eveningwear. So in the end of my third semester, I went to India and I started designing embroideries. I made six to eight swatches of embroideries that I thought I’d add to my portfolio just for that meeting. And then, like an ass, I decided to do seven garments for my final submission for school, not the three that were required.

Haley: You over-delivered!

Sachin: Over-delivered. I was doing that and I was trying to create a new portfolio for eveningwear with these embroideries. And Babi would be sitting with me until 4 in the morning. To me it was like, “Babs if I get this, we’ll somehow manage. If I get into Oscar, I can get this job, maybe we can figure this out.”

That’s the hardest I’ve ever worked. I was literally working day in and day out to try to finish my own portfolio for school — the seven garments — and Babi was helping me with my second portfolio, the embroideries. We got everything done! But then my interview kept getting postponed.

Babi: It never happened actually!

Sachin: Well, it kept getting postponed so much so that I graduated. In fact, the day of my graduation, the ceremony was in the morning and my interview at Oscar was at 3 o’clock. So you can imagine, I was on top of the world like, “I’m graduating and then I’m gonna meet with Oscar!”

Haley: I would have been so nervous!

Sachin: Oh but I was on top of the world! Because I loved the portfolio. And Babi was with me and my parents. And then Babi dropped me downstairs at 2:50. I didn’t want my parents to come with me because I’d get too nervous and so Babi walked me there and said, “Good luck, go kill it!”

I was wearing an oversize suit. I went upstairs, I sat down and then the receptionist says, “Oh Sachin, Jeff can’t see you. He said they’re all done right now. Why don’t you come back in six months?”

Babi: They said to come back in September. This was June.

Haley: Six months?! So your heart sinks.

Sachin: My heart sinks. Two days later my parents leave and then another disaster happens. Babi was supposed to get a room with another roommate and then the roommate backed out so she didn’t have a place to stay. And we were checking out of our dorms. I had one roommate and I had taken up a loft — a small, awful, awful place right on Seventh Avenue and 27th Street above a deli — so I told Babi, “The loft’s really huge, why don’t you just move in with us?” And she was worried about what to tell her parents and I told her, “Just say you live upstairs.” We were really stuck.

Haley: Were they asking you about marriage?

Babi: They just wanted us to graduate and finish our internships. But yeah, when I moved into this loft in June or July, my parents were too smart. They could tell from my voice. One day in the fall, we got a phone call saying, “Alright kiddos, you guys are engaged.”

Sachin: Her parents went to Bombay for a meeting for business. And then they just called Babi and said, “Listen, we’re here, why don’t we meet Sachin’s parents? It would be really nice.” So they go to meet them and I get the phone call the next morning and they say, “Sachin! Congratulations! You guys are engaged!”

I was like what? I’m engaged? I didn’t even propose yet! And I look at Babi and she asked what happened and I said, “We’re engaged apparently.” And she says, “Yeah, they want us to get married in December.”

Haley: And this is the summer after you guys graduated?

Sachin: This is the fall.

Babi: We graduated in June. So from June until December we were figuring out our lives. We’d taken out the loan, we were in the little dumpy loft, and we had come up with this idea for beautiful embroideries.

Haley: You’d given up on Oscar?

Sachin: Oscar wasn’t in the picture at that point.

Babi: Those were rough days. We were cold calling and meeting every little joe shmo because we wanted to work with designers from our factories in India. We made a cheat sheet and we were really trying. We researched designers who had done beautiful beadwork.

It was the beginnings of a start-up. And our parents were like, “No no. You must marry. It’s fine you don’t have any money, we’ll give you a loan. You can’t live like this. No no no.” But technically he still hadn’t proposed.

Sachin: It was a strange time. The thing is we had to get married in the US before we went to India because we needed a marriage certificate if we wanted to come back, for visa reasons. So we first went to City Hall to just check out what it’s like. And it was awful. There was a dingy little room and there’s a judge there to swear you in and get you married.

Babi: You can rent flowers. It was not glamorous. I don’t know what it’s like now, but then it was really bare bones. And life was already like that so I thought, “Oh my God, now I have to get married like this? This can’t be it!”

My old Italian friend had been married by a Baptist minister in Jamaica, New York. He said, “Sure I’ll marry them, I don’t care what faith they come from.”

Sachin: So he called me up the night before and asked, “Do you want to get married tomorrow morning?” And we were like, “Okay!” I wore the same oversize suit…

Haley: What kind of dress did you wear?

Babi: I didn’t wear one. I wore a pair of pants and a Henri Bendel sweater.

Sachin: It was a nice chapel. For us, it was at least better than City Hall.

Babi: It was a place of faith, to me faith is faith. We went to a big dinner after. We opened two bottles of wine and we were barely looking at the bill. Sachin was 24, I was 23. We were like kids!

Haley: Did your parents expect you to get married at that age?

Babi: In India, it was normal. It is.

Haley: I feel like people are so stressed about finding the right person or meeting the right person. Did you experience those feelings?

Sachin: Well, I knew it was her. I wanted to be a little bit more settled.

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Babi: Long story short, we get married. Very sensible 23 and 24 year olds. We had a business plan. We married because our parents wanted us to get married, fine. And then we met Oscar de la Renta and we did a small, shitty program for his licensee line.

Sachin: Bob Mackie used to own it. They approached us and they told us, “Listen, we would love to do this embroidery on a knitwear program.” So I spoke to my aunt — she was my only family here — and she said, “Sachin, listen, if you’re going to get a client, you can’t work out of your bedroom. You gotta get an office!”

So we took up 200 square feet of a little room, we hired an assistant, Tracy, one or two days a week, we bought a computer, we bought a fax machine because faxing was needed. This was right before we got married because we went to India for the big bang seven-day wedding.

Haley: When was the wedding?

Sachin + Babi: Christmas Day.

Haley: This is all happening really fast.

Sachin: Oh yes! Literally every day there was something new happening.

Babi: Then we got this fax saying, “Sachin, this company is being bought and they’re dissolving this entire program. So anyway, have a great Christmas holiday and good luck with your wedding!”

We were like, “What do you mean? We go back to America and we don’t even have a client now?”

When I look back on those days, I think it’s why we can get through anything.

Sachin: After the wedding our luck changed. My friend called me up and said, “Listen, let me do this one thing. I know this one guy who works at Oscar. He’s a really nice guy…”

I’d had six months of cold calling and people telling me, “See you six months later.” But I still called this guy up and he asked if I could come in right that second. I said okay and quickly put on my oversize suit and ran there with a little bag of eight swatches. This was such a pivotal time — what happened that day — because it changed the entire direction of our lives. I walked into that same office and the same receptionist who had brushed me off was there. And I’m waiting when Oscar de la Renta himself passes right by.

Babi: Was I with you?

Sachin: No you weren’t. He walked right past me and then paused and came back to me for some reason — I don’t know to this day why, and he never remembered it to date — and he asked me, “Is anyone helping you?”

And I go, “Yes, I think someone’s helping me.”

And then I met with Francisco and showed him the swatches and he said, “This is really good. Is this all you have?” And I said yes and then he said, “Okay, let’s go meet Oscar then.”

I went in and showed Oscar de la Renta. The first thing he asked was, “Who do you work for?” And I listed a few [names] and he goes, “I’ve never heard of any of them. Sachin, do you work for anybody?” I finally said no, and he said, “Okay, next time someone asks you that question, say you work for me. Now let’s sit down and do some work.”

That moment changed everything. I fell in love with that man then; I knew there was a very special connection. We came back from that meeting and I told Babi, “I met this guy and I don’t know why I feel like I’ve known him my entire life.”

From that day on, he was like a father figure to me.

Babi: I started playing assistant, playing office manager, playing financier, when Babi asked me to bring patterns to Oscar. When I got there he said, “Oh you work for Sachin? Are you his sister?” and I was like, “Nope.” Then he sat me down and tried to get a lay of the land. He wanted to know all about us. As soon as he found out where we came from, our families, our business, our start-up, our loan, he said, “This program you’re doing is fine but book your tickets, you’re coming with me to Paris, too. For fashion week.” He used to design for Balmain. Balmain was very different back then.

The problem was we’d bought our tickets for our honeymoon already for the same time! We were so busy working after the wedding that we didn’t take a trip right away.

Sachin: And we didn’t have the money to cancel.

Babi: I took off for the honeymoon three days ahead because I was like, “I’m gonna go!”

Sachin: We couldn’t waste those tickets.

Babi: This has been our lives, this has been our journey.

Haley: And now you’ve been married for how long?

Babi: Oh god, so…fall of ’96…20 years this year!

Haley: Wow!

Babi: We did this madness of building the business and generating income, and Sachin used to fly to India eight to ten times a year. I had a bunch of girlfriends who were single and in their twenties — everyone was single except for us.

Haley: What was that like? Did you guys not mind being married?

Babi: And I had had boyfriends before, it wasn’t like he was my first boyfriend. It was really sincere, I truly loved him. It was hard, but it wasn’t like I’d ever run off with another boy. Nothing like that. In a way, having single girlfriends let me have it both ways. Because I’d look at their love lives and party with them and then two weeks later Sachin would be home. I got both sides and it worked out.

We also wanted to get organized before having a baby. Buy the first apartment, traditional stuff. We planned our first born and she arrived when I was 29, in 2002. And then the second one arrived three years later.

When you meet the right person…I don’t know what right or wrong is, I just think eight out of ten is good, you know what I mean? Yes he’s going to be this and that, he’ll have a particular point of view or whatever but for the most part if you’re kind and you’re really sincere and you look at the big picture in the same way, it works!

Haley: Did you guys find the balance of having a business together difficult with your marriage?

Babi: We’re cut from the same fabric because we come from the same backgrounds back home. Both of our parents were business partners and so we saw this madness growing up.

Haley: Both of your parents worked together?

Sachin + Babi: Yeah!

Haley: Oh wow!

Babi: So we love and hate it, if you know what I mean.

Sachin: It’s almost like second nature.

Babi: We understand it. I don’t think it’s the perfect thing, but we never knew anything else.

Haley: Did having kids present challenges for the marriage?

Babi: Not so much in the marriage, more in my field. Because time is what you need for children. They really don’t need big houses. Children need time. Your time. I am a firm believer in the idea that if you give them a lot of love and you give them a lot of time, they come out right. Sachin traveling so much — and he still does — plays very heavy on him. Because they grow up so fast. It’s so cliche, but I have a 14-year-old daughter. I don’t know how that happened!

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Haley: What would you say is the hardest part of marriage?

Babi: Raising kids!

Sachin: Raising kids. Listen, being a parent is hard. Becoming a parent, I feel, was one of the most challenging things. What is a good parent? There’s no book written that can teach you. All children come out differently. It helped that we got married when we were very young. We had little-to-no egos between the two of us because we had nothing. We saw the worst of our times together when we were younger and that was very helpful. Now, when hard times come we just…

Babi: We have tolerance.

Sachin: I think the older you get, your tolerance level decreases, but when you’re young? It’s phenomenal. The first five years of our marriage prepared us for life. If we could somehow manage to figure out work and marriage and love and everything, then we could do anything.

And then kids! The kids are actually a great balance now in our lives. Earlier when they were younger yes, it was a lot of work. Now, this is the best age. We can interact with them and they’re independent. We went on our first holiday together — in eight years! — without the kids this summer because they were at camp! We were like, “God! We gotta do this again! We gotta do this every year!”

Babi: We did Capri!

Sachin: Yeah Capri! That was after eight years. A vacation without the kids. Once you come home — we have girls, I don’t know how it is with boys — they don’t give you time to talk about anything else.

Babi: It’s all about their lives. It doesn’t matter if you have a fashion show. “I had the shittiest day! My math teacher hates me!”

Haley: “Girls, I have a show to plan…”

Sachin: Right! That’s secondary! But no, it’s a great distraction.

Haley: That’s probably humbling.

Babi: It is! And then you know, now I’m noticing with my older one, she doesn’t want to be around me too much. She wants me around but in the background. In their teenage years, kids kind of — it’s funny, just moral support is what they need you for. They just have a very strong sense of awareness. They know. Conversations are always about them. It’s like a show in my house.

Haley: Right, it takes so long to see your parents as fully formed people. It’s not until you’re an adult that you realize they have a whole story and don’t only think about you.

Babi: Exactly!

Haley: What advice do you have for people in relationships or who are looking for love?

Babi: Hmm. I think you have to be at peace when you are with somebody. Like I said, when you’re looking at the big picture, eight out of ten things. I don’t think anybody is always going to “yes” you, but if the person has seen your good and your bad and knows how to work off of that — because we’ve had to do that in our lives — it works. You just know. You’ve got to make it work. If it feels right eight out of ten times, I think it’s the right one.

Sachin: If you’re looking for love, look for it for the right reasons. I’ve known people — friends of ours — where things have not worked out and I’ve always sort of questioned it. Were you in it for the right reasons? We got into it for the right reasons: we liked each other, we were great friends, we had common interests. There was no grand plan in my mind or I don’t think her mind either. It just kind of happened.

Haley: You didn’t overthink it.

Sachin: Everything in life should be more organic. Things don’t necessarily have to be that difficult.

Haley: What a concept!

Sachin: A lot of people don’t get that because they struggle from the beginning. You’ve got to find something that organically works. We applied that to our lives and to our business as well. You know, we get into things only if we organically feel things moving towards that direction. You really have to catch the wave and go with it. If you try to fight it, you’re not going to get that far.

Haley: I love that. What do you love about each other?

Babi: His sense of adventure, his sense of looking at the positive in all things, his sense of purpose. He’s up every day. I enjoy that about him, strangely. It’s a little wearing sometimes. But I really respect that. I really do!

Sachin: She has — for 22 years — been my best friend and that’s the best part that I like about her. She’s been one of my best friends, my hardest critics, she’s an incredible mother, an incredible wife.

Babi: I have a great sense of humor…

Sachin: Everything about her has made me better as a person. That’s so important in any relationship. It’s how your partner influences you to become a better person. So maybe that should do it.

Babi: You kind of rekindled our vows — thank you!

Visit the Sachin & Babi website and follow the brand on Instagram @sachinandbabi. Photo by Krista Anna Lewis.

 

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