He is considered to be one of the original luminaries of the Indian fashion industry and has a number of firsts credited to his name — such as setting up Ensemble, the country’s first multi-designer store, and he also showed at India’s first fashion week. Since then, he has consistently made a strong case for Indian heritage, craft and textiles but he has also always infused his distinctive sense of design in them, that is now famously known as “India Modern”. Bollywood and brides love him alike, and internationally he has been worn by the likes of Lady Gaga, supermodel Karlie Kloss and even Jemima Goldsmith. Interestingly, this master couturier also makes a strong case for a sartorial lightness of being. Excerpts from Sartorially Speaking with Tarun Tahiliani on t2 Instagram Live, that saw the veteran designer engage in conversation with Anannya Sarkar.
You have had a very unconventional start in the industry. So tell me how does a Wharton grad get interested in fashion and then eventually land up in FIT in New York and then Ensemble and everything else that happened…
It must seem quite mad but simply because when this Wharton grad went to college there was nothing in fashion. Everyone must remember that India was mostly a textile country where women wore saris and there was a textile industry. Fashion was like a strange and unknown nomenclature. No one thought about Indian fashion as “fashion” because it was timeless fashion. We were a society where you could pull out your great-grandmother’s things and wear them today. Most people wouldn’t do that abroad without looking like they were in some kind of costume.
So I think that I just ran with the time. My parents were very keen that I go to IIT but I couldn’t do that as I was not interested. I went to business school and then I came back to India as I had to join the family business. And in a year or two, I said I can’t do this for life. It’s not my thing. By chance, I went to see one or two amazing fashion shows. My wife had gone to see Pierre Cardin, who was coming to town and he had done this great show and she went to try and help and she ended up modelling and I watched the show. In fact, I will never forget standing there next to Abu Jani and we were both wide-eyed. I had never seen anything like it. Then my wife had the idea of starting a store because India was ready.
There are moments in the country, or a group of people, let’s say, because it’s hard to generalise India, where people are just teaming up for the next thing. We were the young generation then and now it is your generation that is looking to study or experience life differently because you are so exposed to the world. Today, you all are global citizens because of the Internet, even if you never leave Calcutta or wherever. But at that time, there was a big difference from one city to another, leave alone people who grew up here versus people who went abroad. So your education, where you live, which city, what strata, really defined much of you because it was a simpler world and that is what you lived within.
Suddenly at that moment, it felt like the younger generation, people who were in their 20s and 30s, wanted more than the handloom sari and something was going to burst and I think that Ensemble hit just at that moment in time. We also wondered why so many beautiful clothes were available abroad but not in India, to Indians, made in India. And we thought that it is really odd that 40 to 50 years after Independence, the best produce still goes off to the white man across the world and Indians shop at “export rejects”. They still call it “export rejects” in every city. So Ensemble was cataclysmic in changing many different things and mindsets. It was a space that showed fashion as art as it deserved to be in a beautiful setting where the clothes were given space to breathe. The designers that were there in the beginning were encouraged to find their Indian identity, they were there because they had their own identity, I won’t take credit for that at all. So from then on, we went.
Very few people wore western clothes. There were jeans and one or two people who did dresses. Everyone wore salwar kameez or saris. Everyone still went to tailors, it was a different India. Very lovely though I must say, great taste — I sometimes miss it because sometimes, too much choice and too much exposure leaves people dazed and confused.
File image of kaarigars working in Tarun’s Gurgaon work studio
Your love affair with drapes is well known and you are also someone who has made Indian heritage, its craft and textiles, very modern, fusing them with practicality. You also tell very interesting stories. I remember you told me about your lovely wife Sal at her mehndi when she was unable to move her hands because the armholes were not tailored properly. Another story of the bride who couldn’t carry the weight of her lehnga. So now you have lehngas that are light with pockets in them. What lead you to create this Indian Modern sense of aesthetic?
I think the India we opened Ensemble in was at the end of a long, dry run of socialism. As you know, India was socialist, we followed the Five Year Plans, and it was our need of that day. Gandhism was still somewhat prevalent, big industrial families still roamed around in Ambassadors, so the kind of show and scale and pomp that you see today just didn’t exist, it was frowned upon. Income tax rates were very high, so technically, no one could afford to live like this. And then in the 80s, India started to open up under Rajiv Gandhi, then the Asian Games, colour television... and the West was always in love with India but India was allowed to partake in more of the West.
However, what happened and what we noticed when Ensemble opened is that people had been deprived of beautiful Indian things. So a lot of families had old collections. There was the most beautiful textiles. Embroidery became the new thing that people had just been deprived of. Ritu Kumar had done the wonderful Tree of Life show, people like Abu Jani did the most exquisite embroideries. Rohit Bal came up. Rohit Khosla and me were not so much about embroidery. Anita Shivdasani and Anil Kapoor’s wife, did beautiful things at their label and India was the embroidery hub of the world. So this had to seep out and it became more and more Indian and more and more experimental and we were embroidering on textiles, on saris, on plain things, and it really was fabulous.
Fast forward 20-30 years, a few years back I noticed that the brides, they can’t walk. I’ve had women tell me that they have worn things from leading designers and their backs felt like they were breaking. They never want to touch those clothes again. And the culmination was this bride’s lehnga, thankfully not by us, which snapped on the stage and fell off in the middle of her reception and that is a horrific thing to happen for a girl. So I think that it went too far.
And also India expanded politically and financially and industrially and there was a lot of new money. And a lot of new money, as opposed to old money, wants to show it. So there is no balance. So the houses become hundreds of thousands, the clothes become hundreds of kilos, the jewels go down to practically the ankles, it’s not necessarily comfortable. I think of modern Indian people who are secure, who are educated, who celebrate our heritage, but we have nothing to prove. So there’s a very nice balance and I think as we designers get more experience, we’ve learnt how to manage the two worlds but if someone doesn’t have fun and if someone wants to run up and change at 11pm because she can’t bear to be in her outfit then I’ve failed as a designer, I don’t care how beautiful the design is. You know, let it be on a haathi, let that embroidery be on a wall hanging — and in today’s style people are running around in stilettos, they want to dance, they jump around, and I think it’s our job to give them clothes that they can wear and have fun in and be beautiful.
Also, we want to be sustainable. You can’t wear clothes once, you must break up the clothes, wear them in different ways. So I’ve always been in that respect a modernist. I love India more than practically anybody I know but I want to see a balance. I love the past but I live in the present. I am Indian but I speak in English and it doesn’t make me alien. I said no to any kind of marble in my house. I wanted to prove a point that we could live within our milieu. Nothing wrong with marble, I’m just saying for me. And so part of your life as a designer is to keep experimenting with different canvases, with your clothes, with your house, with your anything.
It’s so much about lifestyle and that’s what I engage in. When I went around with the guy who was creating the garden in my house, he sent me to this woman who would import from here and there and I would pay Rs 8 lakhs and I said you have got to be crazy, I want desi trees. And he said, “Aap toh horticulture nahi pasand kar rahe hai” and the whole point was that you have got to get something foreign and I said no you don’t. I’ll take what I need to from the West. I would like to take their work ethic, I’ll take their bonings, I’ll take their pattern makers who come in and help me fit things more beautifully, and their construction — these are things alien to us, like they take embroidery and colour from us. But we must live in the now and be a great amalgamation. The whole is always greater than the sum of the parts. I mean, the Mughals created the best from what was Hindu and Islamic and they created a new fusion and we’re still always fusing. We are connected to the West and I don’t think that Indian is a big banjara and multicoloured and I don’t know anybody who dresses like that or who wants to look like that. I mean, look at you. You’re clean, you’ve got a bit of kajal, you’ve got a lovely silver necklace on a cutaway T-shirt. That’s India and modern. And that’s why you could wear a sari with that or you could wear jeans. And I like that versatility, I’m a little done with costume. I think even brides and grooms have fun, dress up, but let clothes be real so that you can have fun... that’s my point of view, anyone is free to do what they want.
How do you explain the modern sense of design to them, how do you strike that balance? Of course, to sustain all of this business, sustainability is also very important, so how do you do that?
Indian fashion, because it has been handmade mostly, and mostly on natural fabrics, has always been sustainable. We’re the most sustainable till we started switching to this poly-film and everything synthetic with chemicals. You just have to explain to them to be engaged with their own craft. The person who is doing my chikankari doesn’t need to know what pattern I am doing but they have to understand why I want it a certain way. Why we need it lighter. And they should take joy as kaarigars and as artisans in what they do. If everyone went to work every day and did what they did better, and engage, that is the best journey whether you do it as a journalist or somebody does it as a painter — to push your own boundary, to see your wheel of evolution evolve. And people who are really into that, they’ll move up in whatever way they are destined to.
I have always thought that if you gave people a wonderful work environment, which is what I try to do in my factory… I can’t have beautiful clothes and luxury made in a horrible sweatshop, pee-stained, filthy setting — I want to be able to put things up on the dummy, I want to be able to see it.
I want them to understand, and their engagement helps me create because I’m not the kaarigar. I’m the mind, I sketch, I do some drapery, I visualise, but I’m nothing without all these hands — the pattern-makers, the embroiderers, the drapers, the finishers, whoever involved in that chain, the designers who work with me. And that to me is the excitement of it, so if everyone came in and did the same and brought the best of their skill to something then the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts. And now the pandemic has freaked people out. The weddings have 50 people, the girls always have a lot of pressure to be the most dressed. They’re like ‘oh we can’t wear this then the guests will be more dressed’. But who cares? I mean as long as you’re looking amazing, I don’t give a damn about who is dressed in what, you know. So that is freedom — they’re buying more beautiful fine things. There’s going to be 50 people in a room and everyone’s looking to see the quality, you don’t need this stadium bling to stand out when someone sees you across 5,000 people.
I think that everyone’s in tune with themselves, everyone is a little calmer, everyone’s pace, everyone’s speed, everyone’s voice is a little calmer. And so they evaluate and buy things differently. We have all understood that there is no escape. We are all part of this world, if the glaciers are falling off or if in British Columbia people are dying of heatstrokes, it’s not like you and I can escape it because we have air-conditioners. So I think that the stillness has changed my life. I was on the treadmill, I was running. There was one thing after another. I am a much happier person going to work. My business is obviously badly impacted but we are working on new wonderful things, it will come back but we have had the stillness to sit and work and we have worked with joy and everyone will see the difference. So finally it is about my journey with what I do.
You talk about stillness but I know you have your hands full. How challenging has it been converting the tactile world of fashion into this hybrid model of virtual and real that we exist in now?
It is a hybrid model but the younger generation is so used to the digital world that maybe people like us who are not used to it say that no, no you’ve got to touch and feel. I associate a feeling with things. Maybe the younger generation goes more by the look. So they’re more concerned with logo and look. Of course, it’s all a choice. So I think it is tactile but what do you do? This is in the event you can’t get there and if you’re talking to a lovely bride in London then you don’t have a choice. You look at things, you gauge and you learn to trust something or the other. If you’ve had the experience of a brand then of course you know what it stands for. And look, no one’s shopping for eveningwear clothes now because there’s nowhere to go. Or if they go then it’s such small groups that it’s very calm so the only people who really shop are families who are going to weddings.
Unless they’re buying kaftans because this is lounge clothing where people are at leisure. They say it will come back and China’s bounced back with luxury, but China’s luxury isn’t about beaded, bridal eveningwear. It’s about bags and shoes and basic clothes and we know that they’re an extreme brand-conscious society, I don’t even know what local Chinese fashion is.
So I think that you know this is a process. It’s a forced stillness. Even though I’ve been very busy, I’m not going out at night, I sleep early, I get up, we leave at 7.30 in the morning. It’s a stillness of a different kind. You see fewer people, there’s less sensory overload. I went to one Zoom cocktail and I never went back (laughs). It’s too confusing, too many people talking. We were locked down for four-five weeks, I got Covid, I went to the hospital, I was again locked in the house. So I’ve had a huge period where I’ve been forced to be still. And that’s been very therapeutic.
It’s a horrible thing to say and I feel terrible saying it because so many people I know personally — and it’s no secret about what this country has been through — have had life-changing, disastrous experiences. I can only talk about myself and I don’t want that anyway to be insensitive but that is the truth. That compared to the way I was running, the stillness has been amazing and everyone listening to this, value that and never give that away because that’s what this pandemic forced us to learn. Easy for me to say at my age and maybe 25-year-olds don’t do this but my kids aren’t the same way now. They’ve changed. They want to hang out with three friends, they want to be still. And I think it’s a very nice thing, so we’ve got the best of every world. And anyway we need to save our world, it’s not going very well at the moment.
Talking about your designs, they’ve also become a little lighter with the chikankaris and the last few collections that you have done…
Well, it has to follow life. If people are in that state it stands to reason that they will buy gentler rather than more projectile fashion. They will buy for themselves, they will buy luxuries that you feel on your skin first, not what you buy for somebody else. That’s a projection. The immersion of luxuries on your skin. We ran a campaign called Love and Re-love. How to take all your old clothes... and they looked amazing, people went nuts. So we’re saying that use your old things, reuse them, because that is what makes this planet sustainable. There are 90 billion pieces of clothing going into the ground. There’s nowhere to put them, which is ironic because of how many people that have no clothes. I’m just saying that if you love and re-love, don’t discard, buy less but buy better. Buy quality instead of 20 crappy things, which you’re going to wear once because you want to show it on Instagram. Let’s make it cool. Let’s say ‘hey, you know what, I’m wearing this, I wore it last week, I’m wearing it again and I love the quality’. It’s bad for the numbers in fashion but so be it, we’ve got to think past ourselves.
So, you know, I always used to love the separates and the lighter pieces, and we’re bringing them back. Our bridals and everything that will launch soon, we have worked on them again and there’s almost nothing, maybe one outfit, that weighs more than 4-5kg. They are weightless, they’re gossamer and they’re breezy. We’re going to run campaigns to show people how to use each of these pieces in different ways. You justify by the beautiful quality and our job is to give ideas, we’re the world of ideas.
I also hear that you’re working with khadi from Bengal...
Oh my god, the most beautiful ones! I found them by chance. I like slightly thicker fabrics because I like tailoring so I don’t like limp things because you have to start lining and topstitching the whole thing, which is okay, very beautiful but a bit warm in summer. We found some things that were tasteful and beautiful. Their feel is beautiful and they tailor like a dream. So we’re using it in our luxury line and also in our new line that will be launched in October.
Do you think ready-to-wear separates are more accessible fashion and the future of fashion, now that the pandemic is here to stay?
I don’t think that they will not shop the way they did for their special occasions. If you look at your grandmother, your great- grandmother, I dare say everything was in a set, so she kept her choli, she kept her sari, she mixed and matched as she went along, and so the same Bengal sari could look different, and anyway the way you drape it looks different on different body shapes. There is so much confusion between Western, Indian, ethnic, that people don’t know how to style unless they are very stylish or have a strong sense of personal style. So while these separates work in a slightly more Western context, we’ll have to have a lot of patience and teach people how to style themselves with them. But I think the people who are buying luxury, will buy it with a view. Women tell me we pull out your clothes in 15 years and we can still wear them and the quality is good and they’re timeless. I want my fashion to be timeless. India was timeless. We are still timeless. Suddenly in the last 20-30 years with too much Westernisation and Bollywood, we seemed to have skid off the rails. I’m looking at all these posts of actors posing in Western brands and I’m thinking, what is this, you know, I mean, I have no idea what anyone is trying to prove. Well you know, maybe I’m old-fashioned, I accept that too, but our style in this country is a timeless style and whatever we do it’s very beautiful to honour that and do that if you feel like it. We have beautiful textiles, we have the most incredible embroidery. The textiles we use were more Hindu, the embroidery was more Islamic, although a lot of the weavers are Muslim. And over the years this has amalgamated into something so beautiful. It’s Indian. It’s beyond anything else, it’s something that is beautiful that has come out of the earth from the melding of all this. I just find it fantastic so I hope we keep this. I’m a little tired of seeing people suddenly look like they’re in a Gucci campaign and the next day they look like Jodhaa-Akbar. I mean it’s like you are living your life like a costume party. I think people with true style have their style whether it’s Western or Indian. They find their style. And I think as we grow more and more confident as a country... and your younger generation has a lot more confidence so it’s beginning to happen.
I was at an assistant’s wedding yesterday — very small with 50-70 people. There were many women just wearing beautiful earrings and simple colours. Very contemporary. I was shocked. There were a lot of women wearing beautiful, simple things. It suddenly looked like we had gone back to the ’90s. The fit was modern, the shapes were modern, the lehngas were extravagant but there was a control. There was no excess from the bride and that was very beautiful to see.
(Sat in on the chat)
Pictures courtesy:Tarun Tahiliani