Ever since Ensemble – Tarun Tahiliani’s first boutique store opened in 1987, the quintessential Indian designer has become the last word on exquisite bridal wear so traditional, so regal, and yet, so cutting-edge, that he’s attained a peerless stature in the order of designers amongst whom he ranks. Irrespective of whether it’s wedding season or not, Tahiliani’s gorgeous studio in Gurgaon is always a hub of activity, with the crème-de-la-crème of the city trying to get a foot into the door for a fitting session.
“In conversation with Tarun Tahiliani in which the master couturier talks about his design philosophy, love for Delhi and its heritage, what luxury means to him, his romance with nostalgia and admiration for yesteryear actress Meena Kumari.”
What has been the one, biggest highlight moment of your career?
I think there were at least a couple. The first was when we started on Ensemble which wasn’t as much about me, as it was about promoting Indian design. At the time there was such a lacuna when it came to showcasing Indian design and the store received such a great response. It’s not like it made money to start with, but it just kind of grabbed people’s attention…it became quite a sensation.
Then there was my first solo show in London which was just amazing. We had the city’s high society sitting there and that’s the night I actually met Philip Treacy, India Jayne and other people from that sphere. I think that was very exciting, and very nerve-wracking.
And then I think doing my first ready-to – wear show in Milan. I was the first Indian designer to do that. And now, the next thing I am working on – we have opened stores, built a studio, and we’re trying to get this bridal couture studio done which will really redefine the whole experience in India and bring it to the equivalent of any luxury company or couture studio anywhere in the world.
Amazing! And Delhi is so totally ready for that right…
India is ready! Indians are out of control… I mean people spend all these millions and then lie in bed wracked with a fever for weeks after because it is so exhausting (laughs)! It’s one thing if you have to go for one wedding but sometimes now you have to go to five in a night because there are mahurat days.
Have any new materials been introduced in your collections in recent times?
We work with a lot of new materials all the time, but people come to us for our techniques. The base material might be quite simple – just the usual silk and tulle. We have started working with a lot of hand-woven brocade but it’s really about what we do. We create our material because Indian fashion has traditionally been about textiles. Our job as designers is to continue that tradition but give it a modern shape and form.
If you were to choose a person from the arts, past or present to represent your brand, who would it be?
Tough question. I think because I am a romantic, I have a vision of this…in India, amongst the actresses that would have to be Meena Kumari, because for me, she just exemplifies sensuality. Even somebody like Picasso who reinvented himself so many times while staying true to his original talent.
How do you refresh yourself creatively?
I exercise and go away on trips. I am also a huge museum fiend. I’m off to Washington DC for my son’s graduation and all I can think of is what museums I want to see. In a country like India there is so much sensory overload Tahiliani’s main studio space on the first floor. all the time. There are ugly urban centres everywhere…but it is possible to take just about anything if you open your mind and convert it into anything. But to do that you have to be able to see it through your eyes…
You’re resolutely Indian in your creative approach…
Creatively there’s just so much to draw from our culture. I love the drape form – love the way the Indian traditional dress is, because it is draped…the way a sari or a dupatta is draped is simple and yet beautiful in its simplicity. Even the men wear drapes – the dhoti, turban, everything was draped. Sadly this tradition is dying in our country: you see it mostly with the sadhus and the fakirs, how they take bits of fabric and drape themselves, and carry that off with a waistcoat…that’s always exquisite to my eyes.
What elements according to you define luxury?
The prerequisite and essence of luxury, and sadly, one that’s often not adhered to, is if things feel fantastic, then forget how they look. For me, the first thing about luxury is how it feels on your skin if you close your eyes, not a projection of what you are showing to somebody. The way it hangs on your body, the way you can move, the way it caresses you, is paramount. Fashion works on many different levels: on a basic level, you are covering yourself for modesty or the elements. The next level is how it livens up your life a little bit…luxury is purely what it feels like. Finally, luxury is the connect between who you are, and your ability to dress that way. Luxury is being able to express yourself. Does it sit right, does it feel right, does it belong to this time and most importantly do you revel in wearing it?
Your affinity for Delhi’s heritage is well known. Not too many people move back from Mumbai…
Oh I love Delhi. I moved here from Mumbai, which no one from that city can understand. First of all I love the fact that there’s a 1000 – year-old history and all these monuments and amazing parks. There’s so much culturally, there are so many interesting people. I love the seasons, I love the trees and the birds. It’s a great city because it has space.
Your take on Western influences in culture and fashion?
There are a lot of influences from the West. Let me just backtrack – the Italians love to be Italians; the French love being French… Tahiliani and his team getting creative in one of the nooks of the building. unfortunately, in India, because of our colonisation, I think we had to become westernised to get ahead, so we started speaking different languages. Three days back I went to Laila Tyabji’s house who is the founder of Dastakar. In the entire house, not one thing was brought from abroad. It was the most exquisite home I have ever seen. She only wears handloom saris and depending on the colour, matches them with chappals and beads. It’s so feminine and beautiful…she just wears kajal and to me that’s great Indian style.
Have we moved on since?
Luckily because of Indian fashion, especially bridal – people want to be very Indian. So how does India get reinvented in its contemporary way? I feel I am Indian when I speak in English butifIamgoingtomakeashirtthenIwantit to fit as well as a western shirt would. But the work will be Indian, and the tailoring should be as good as what you can find anywhere in the world. The Indian should never be a compromise or an excuse to be chalta hai. That’s not okay. We come from the oldest, greatest civilisation.
How do you think fashion in our country has evolved since you started?
When we opened Ensemble, there was sticker shock because at that time people were used to shopping at boutiques, or at exhibition-cum -sales. There weren’t even dress rooms. You had to try your clothes over your existing clothes, the tailoring was terrible and people were making the transition from wearing saris to tailored clothing. Today the younger generation in their teens and early 20s, will wear micro miniskirts and think it is fine. There’s much more freedom, and exposure to the world. But in a way that’s good because it’s creating a revival of India. Everyone rushes out there and wants to be western and then comes back to their Indian roots.
What role do you think fashion plays in shaping a city’s contemporary culture?
I think fashion is super important. It’s one of the signs of vitality shall we say, because in a contemporary culture, what do great cities do, what do they have? They have a lifestyle; the city provides the lifestyle and what does lifestyle mean? It means how people live and what they pursue in their free time…the restaurants they visit, theatre, sports…in the historical mode it’s about how they celebrate and that is where fashion is always a big ticket. Delhi is also sort of becoming the fashion capital just like Mumbai has always been the film capital. You have a strong summer and winter, so you need different styles. It’s also becoming a destination to shop for your wedding because most of the designers are here – it’s a bit like Milan in that respect.
Serious fashion weeks are here. It has huge tourist traffic because it’s the Capital and due to its proximity to the traditional tourist hubs of Jaipur and Agra. On the other side, south Indian cities are becoming quite fashionable. In Kolkata they still like to go to the tailors… Mumbai is much more casual because of the lifestyle and much more stylish.
What are the three things that everybody should own to make their wardrobe complete?
For women something as simple as a fluted blouse sari is wonderful because you can dress it up or it wear it in the simplest way without doing anything, like a black dress – very versatile. A white chikan shirt is amazing because it goes with anything. You can dress it up or down. I think truly stylish people whether it is Maharani Gayatri Devi or Jacqueline Kennedy, were always simple and always had great quality. They never needed to wear 20 things on themselves. When people do that here, even though I know that it’s a bit to do with Indian culture, it just seems a very nouveau thing to do. You feel you have got to clutter yourself and show a hundred things.
For men, a beautiful achkan or bandhgala in beige linen or black wool, because you can’t go wrong with that. Lovely white kurtas in the summer are fantastic.
Have you ever had to forfeit any of your artistic ideals to stay in business?
You always have to balance. People want to buy a printed shirt between this price and this price so you have got to work with that. That’s a realistic thing. You have to balance business with creativity and as you get more and more experience you learn how to do that. You keep your couture for your crazy ideas but with your ready-to-wear you create balance. Designers like Armani and Lagerfeld do that beautifully.
What do you still want to accomplish in your lifetime?
Oh my God you might just bump me off in my 40s! I want to develop couture in a much more refined way. I want to be able to do a ready-to-wear line which is much cheaper and produced more economically and make that available all over the country and eventually all over the world.