25 years clocked in and many more to go. Tarun Tahiliani needs no introduction. Creator of the first multi brand retail store in India, Ensemble, and going on to rewrite fashion with his stunning drapes and his fusion of the traditional and modern. Indian Fashion Royalty and genius designer, Tarun Tahiliani proves that passion and talent is all you need to reach the top. Not one to rest on his laurels, the ace designer has many miles to go yet. He shares his dreams, passions and interesting glimpses of his journey with Priyanka Sippy . Read and be enraptured.
How is the view from the top? How hard was the climb?
When we started Ensemble in 1987, I mean there was no down side. I felt the time was right because of a very strong particular article that talked about the new burgeoning fashion movement. It was a risk, but also there was no fashion, it was a culture of exhibitions cum sale, that people basically tried clothes on over their clothes in little art galleries that doubled as retail spaces by people who came in to do them. There was no organised fashion. There was some kind of organised textile because we still had a saree culture and predominantly people still went to tailors, many of whom in this burgeoning culture did not know how to fit anything, so people roamed about in clothes that were very very uncomfortable. It was a very exciting venture to embark upon because it felt full of possibilities and because we were backed by a family business that owned the space. It really was not as much of a risk as if we had just ventured out to start a store from scratch. I daresay that that would never have happened now that you ask me the question, it would actually have happened only in the circumstances that we had. I never actually had an initial thought for my label. So the only thing I knew from the very beginning, was that I was attracted to the draped form and that the saree, as is worn on the body, was a very incredible influence on me, because the way it wraps and moulds different people is incredible. When I went to Benaras for the first time I knew that I liked beige, I liked cut-work. But knowing that is not enough to express a cohesive line and that’s why I started my label in 1995, when I did my first solo show in London because I felt that by then I was ready. But today I don’t even understand how we did that because we have such a heightened vision today of what we want to do and how we would like to work. So that has been very exciting.
Having clocked in over 25 years and having created fashion history, what are your learnings?
I feel like the last 25 years I’ve spent working in fashion have really helped define my style and hone my craft, particularly since I am not somebody who likes just embroidery but I am very concerned with how to interpret India in a modern way for drape and structure and structured drape is something that we’ve had to evolve our own techniques, learning the basics from the west, then moving forward. It is, having said that, nice to have 25 years’ experience under one’s belt and be clear about what one is thinking and apply the techniques and the methodologies to get where we want to. I suppose we have established a culture of working and that’s now going to be honed into our expertise. We understand that we sell much better through our own stores rather than relying on the fly-by-nights multi brands formula, that’s come out of India. We understand that our customers experience is something else when they come into our own stores and into our couture studio and these are the principles around which we will build our brand. We are also very clear that we are not here just to build a numbers game, but want something sustainable and luxurious and because my clothes are often considered classic and people tell me that they can wear them up for 15 years, we are not going to compromise quality for growth. All these learnings, I suppose are what make me feel like a senior designer in the context that I have learned a lot from the younger designers, who’ve built very rapid businesses, used Bollywood and also been very clear from the outside about who they wow. I am very clear though that I am equally excited about the Ready-to-wear and not just bridal and we are going to build along both lines.
Not having had a designing background, how did you conceptualize Ensemble, India’s first multi brand designer store?
I am Indian who was brought up with a strong English influence and live by the mantra – India Modern. I grew up in Bombay, in a post-colonial, socialist India, where the elite clung to Jesuit schools and piano lessons and the craft of India shriveled up from a lack of design, innovation and proper patronage. Slowly, a new philosophy began to develop out of this bleak environment: one that was awakened to India’s truly great heritage and that understood that contemporary designs could give India’s rich traditions a new voice and thus, a new resonance. I started my professional career with a degree in Business Management from the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania. After returning to India, I saw a vast potential in the fine clothing and couture industry that was evolving in the country, and in 1987, opened India’s first multi designer boutique, Ensemble.
The idea of homegrown Indian couture, started at my store with my wife to promote the best of Indian designs because I thought it was odd that after 40 years of independence we were still sending our best products abroad. We knew that the way clothes are made is important – in other words, how they fit, not just how they are embroidered. The store became a sensation heralding a fashion and retail revolution in India.
What or who has been your inspiration?
Art, architecture, interiors, history, travel, Maharaja’s – My inspiration comes from many things. Sometimes it’s from beautiful inlay work I’ve seen in a fabulous monument, other times my inspiration can be something as simple as a beautiful kanjeevaram weaves. Ultimately, however, my inspiration comes from India’s rich traditions of craftsmanship—particularly when it comes to things like embroideries—that we have in India. Nothing is more amazing than beautifully executed, intricate, fine technique.
What colours are you partial to?
Beige, Greige, Roan – the patina of subcontinent dust.
Tell us how brand Tahiliani stands apart, and has carved itself a grandiose identity?
The Tarun Tahiliani brand has set out to create the ultimate “India Modern”: a brand with a view in the present moment, but, ultimately much steeped in the Indian traditions of draped form and the techniques that millions of Indian craftspeople imbibe with love. The silhouettes combine western notions of cut, construct and finish but using Indian heritage and craftsmanship.
Continuing the eternal innovations in the draped form, signature to us , we endeavour to present collections that are a distillation of our Couture sensibility and yet – competitively priced to stand on their own anywhere in the world whether it is style or price or fit.
Tell us about your bridal line? What are this season’s styles and colours for the Indian Bride?
Bridal couture represents the highest realms of craft and fit. The “Last Dance of the Courtesan” is a tribute, and acknowledgement of the highest bastions of culture, poetry, dance and finesse as practiced by the courtesans till a little over a century ago. Refined and seductive but never overtly erotic the research of the same has resulted in this collection for the contemporary diva with all the values described above.
The new collection encapsulates the allure of the fabled Indian courtesan and my love for draping and layering while reflecting the artistic pursuits of a courtesan and her refined royal splendor. With the use of modern techniques in fabrics like sheer silks, reshams and tullé; the ensembles become lighter, giving ease of movement. The silhouettes combine western notions of cut, construct and finish but using Indian heritage and craftsmanship to create ensembles that are reminiscent of the sophistication and charm of the courtesans – so that one can dance in the mind and the body.
When it comes to the colour, there is no ‘it’ colour. Brides should only do and wear what suits them and they are confident carrying it off. They should choose colours according to what suits them. Bridal trends are moving away from blingy and multi-coloured ensembles to a more sophisticated palette of creams, pastels, beiges and golds with red and of course pearlised summer tones.
You are passionate about drapes and the use of tradition in your creations. Tell us more.
All Indian fashion came from draping of textile. Rather than the appeal of a fitted sheath dress, draped garments rely on the allure of romantic drapes and layers. I love it as an aesthetic and I am obsessed with draping.
The form and structure of my silhouettes are contemporary and western in terms of cut and construct, however, the detailing remains traditional in technique. The idea is to take traditional Indian fashion and take it forward to modernity. For example, the structured drapes of my collections are an interpretation of the organic drapes of various Indian draping techniques.
Which markets overseas are big for your work?
Western Asia or the Middle East is a very important market for Indian designers because of the similar tropical climate and the fact that they like colour and easy fluid clothing. Very often our constraint with the west is that we have nothing for their winters, while we are good for summer and resort. Indian designers have very little for people to wear in the west in winter
What is your dream project?
Just starting it in Goa
What are your future plans for the brand?
It has taken me years to formulate a cohesive idea for my label. I know that I want it in the draped form, I want it to be India Modern, I want it to be fluid and I want it to have structured draping. I can tell you now that at the age of 53, whether I keep going, for another 5 years or another 30 years, none of these ideas will change for as long as the brand continues to be. Depending on what my eyes see, they may be updated and modulated to change with the times and but they are the constants of our brand and what makes us who we are.
As the years pass, and things get more and more overdone, I am constantly plagued by the next step. How do I reinvent myself? How do I change the design aesthetic to stay rooted to its culture yet be modern and wearable? I have considered reworking various aspects of design – reinventing the silhouette, reducing the amount of fabric to make something more wearable and chic, experimenting with embroideries, creating my own brocades. Now I’m working on making things less embellished, more stylized, now I think I’m on a less is more trip! I am constantly told by my team – “but – this is not possible”. And the then somehow – it is! And it’s miraculous.
You also design a jewellery line. Tell us more.
The genesis of my collaboration with Shri Hari Diagems is I was taken to meet Mr.Vinay Gupta by a friend who is helping me with my accessories collections for the use of his jewellery for a shoot. Not only was I pleasantly surprised by the array offering delicate beautifully made things that were done, in the whole, I would say Mughal jadau style but I was also pleasantly surprised at the variety of materials used and the accessibility of the price points
Having worked with him on some shoots, I began to play around with the idea of a line of special chokers and stackable jewellery and we had already been doing this for the silverline and the gold line and since Shri Hari Diagems’, Mr. Vinay Gupta was very open to the idea, we decided to do a pilot collection which we will put out at our shows and in our stores and see how it went.
What are the improvements you would like to see Indian Fashion Retail?
The Indian fashion industry has become much more strategized and cemented. India’s propensity to consume is gaining an international audience and this is changing the competitive landscape. It has certainly become more organized and a little more professional, and obviously the market has exploded, but I think that we still have long way to go in terms of being more business oriented and there’s still room to get more organized and professional.
Who is your muse?
Fashion is my muse.