The Indian Renaissance Man: Tarun Tahiliani’s fashion grammar

The celebrated designer weighs in on the sartorial leanings of Indian consumers, the evolution of sensibilities, and things that need to change 

Rashmi Rajagopal Lobo Published :  26th May 2017 11:56 AM   |   Published :   |  26th May 2017 11:56 AM
Tarun Tahiliani

Tarun Tahiliani

Earlier this year, designer Tarun Tahiliani drew the Amazon Indian Fashion Week Autumn/Winter 2017 to a close alongside his protégé, Amit Aggarwal. If you thought Tahiliani’s designs were timeless, classic, soft and fairytale-perfect, it was all the more evident when starkly contrasted by Amit’s more futuristic, contemporary and edgy aesthetic. To say that Tahiliani makes his bride feel like a princess would be an understatement.

“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, from our own techniques, learning the basics from the West, then moving forward,” says the designer.

Selections of Tarun Tahiliani's latest designs

In a profession where highs and lows are all a part of the game, for Tahiliani, the year 2017 started on a high. In January, he launched his 12,000 sq ft store in Delhi’s Mehrauli, complete with mother of pearl and onyx inlays, temple architecture-inspired fixtures, jaalis, jharokas, and a view of the Qutub Minar.

Extending his eye for luxury into home decor, the designer also released a line of handmade carpets for the Noida-based brand, Obeetee, inspired by Lucknowi chikankari, Rajasthani miniature paintings, and his own works of art.

Ahead of the launch of his prêt collection, an extensive line of chikankari tunics, draped dresses and Swarovski-embellished crop tops, we caught up with the designer to chat about Indian fashion, his journey as a designer, current projects and more. 

Give us your thoughts on the current state of Indian fashion.
There is no doubt that fashion has progressed by quantum leaps and bounds in the last two decades. There are fashion weeks, trends, glossy magazines, some multi-brand boutiques of note and a thriving handloom scene. Designers have started their own stores, and brands have been established. 

Yet, I have this sinking feeling every time. I sit at an airport or at a mall that somehow women looked more elegant 20 years back. That the humble sari, which has been tossed off for the light dress, did more to soothe the Indian curves, and that while clothes are more practical today, something of feminine grace is lost. That authenticity is missing as ‘aspirational’ Indians move from Juicy Couture to ‘jewelled’ Indian couture in a breath, devoid of any style of their own, which everyone seemed to have before there was ‘fashion’ — when the humble drape caressed the curve, which I now have to go to the Kumbh to see. Is pop culture the end of the civilisation as I knew it? I wonder. 

Where do you think we stand globally?
I think India is having an international moment, and all eyes are on us. We’re slowly becoming an economic powerhouse, but in terms of international fashion, I think we are at least 10 years behind. But things are slowly changing, so I think we have the potential to catch up to it. But if Europe is the bar for us to compete with, we lack vision on an economic scale. We don’t think grandly. We also suffer from inefficiencies and need to be much more professional.

How has the industry changed over the years?
I suppose, we have our own views on fashion evolution. It means different things to different people. The Indian fashion industry has become much more strategised and cemented. As Indians become wealthier, their standards are more exacting and the industry is gearing up for just that. 

India’s propensity to consume is gaining an international audience, and this is changing the competitive landscape. It has certainly become more organised and a little more professional, and obviously, the market has exploded. But we still have a long way to go in terms of being more business-oriented and there’s still room to get more organised and professional.

What’s really heartening to see is that there are so many younger designers who are going places and are doing well in the handloom and textile industry, which has become more organised. I think handloom was very localised in terms of weavers, with a certain look from a certain area sold through certain channels. There has been a lot more creative freedom and other regions are experimenting with textiles alien to their region, especially if they are more lucrative. 

How has your own aesthetic changed along with the times?
It is nice to have 25 years’ experience under one’s belt, to be clear about what one is thinking, and apply the techniques and methodologies to get where we want to. We have established a culture of work 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 are what make me feel like a senior designer in the context that I have learned a lot from younger designers who’ve built rapid businesses, used Bollywood and also been clear from the outside about who they wow. I am clear that I am equally excited about ready-to-wear and not just bridal, and we are going to build on both lines.

What other projects are you working on? 
Indians are on the cusp of a new way, which is a wonderful fusion of the two worlds our mind space inhabits. And this for me is the next big thing — where a true confluence in ideas results in a contemporary Indian style that is not “ethnic” or “Western”, but is a true synthesis and has a global identity and relevance. 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 have structured draping. I can tell you now that at the age of 54, 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, 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 stylised. I’m on a less is more trip! I am constantly told by my team — “This is not possible” and then somehow — it is! It’s miraculous.

What made you venture into interiors? How different is it from designing clothes?
I was always inclined towards home design, amongst other things, and what a house should look like. I am a crab or Cancer by nature and I spend a lot of time at home. So it must be comfortable, aesthetic, it must work through the seasons, it must be warm, and enveloping. It is where I spend most of my time when I am not at work, and since my eyes are attuned to seeing good design, it is important that my home fulfils these requirements.

I define myself as an Indian renaissance man. I am interested in different streams of art, their expression and technique — and all points lead to a new direction of how to contemporise our skill. It is rather pathetic, if we were to just rely on the great design of our ancestors because frankly, they lived another life and we must adapt to our life as we know it today. That’s how I define myself. I like the layering, the patina of Indian dust, and the fact that we still have artisans who are willing to put hours and days of work. These are great skills, and it is a great privilege to be able to work with them.

Tarun Tahiliani’s Spring Summer ready-to-wear collection, Chasme Shahi is priced at Rs10,000 upwards. At Collage Shop India, Wood Street, Bengaluru. Details: 25566818.