A CHILD OF PRIVILEGE, it would have been all too easy for Tarun Tahiliani to travel the world as an oil field equipment salesman, with a fancy business administration degree from Wharton, and his naval admiral father’s vast network of contacts. Instead, the designer fell back on an old passion for art, kindled by his late mother, one of the country’s first trained engineers, who wanted the young, polio-afflicted boy to have a rich interior life.
The result? Just as the TT logo resembles pi and suggests infinite possibilities, the designer has had an unusual journey with many firsts. The first to open a multi-brand designer store in India even before liberalisation in 1987; the first Indian designer to have a solo show in Milan, Italy, in 2004; and one of the first Indian designers to import the boning necessary in the construction of a bustier. More than that, it is a life that has married India’s rich tradition of craftsmanship with a modern sensibility honed in the West.
He wears his honours lightly. As he says, “When we started, I didn’t think we would achieve anything. That wasn’t the point. We simply wanted to create a store that we truly believed in, one that was world-class. We had the space at a relatively low price and aimed to design it with an international perspective from day one. This included maintaining high-quality offerings, even though they were Indian made, as we aspired to establish a world-class reputation. Our goal extended beyond products; we also wanted the ambience and space in the store to align with international standards at that time. This meant providing clothes with the space to breathe and allowing viewers the luxury of observing them from a distance without the sensory overload typically associated with cluttered spaces.”
At 61, his career highlights are captured in a book as sensuously beautiful as his garments. Tarun Tahiliani: Journey to India Modern (Roli Books; 348 pages; `5,995) is as much a tribute to his aesthetics as it is a history of fashion in post-independent India. Much like the Indian tradition of rafoo (mending), he has constantly reinvented the past to showcase to the present. As much as his clothes are a public performance, they are also an intimate conversation between the designer and the wearer.
Belonging to the first wave of designers in the country, Tahiliani began work at a time when Indian fashion was taking its baby steps, with the late Rohit Khosla mentoring him. The work that was usually hidden behind foreign export names and marketing labels was coming into its own. The National Institute of Fashion Technology, which started producing trained designers, began in 1986 in a shopping arcade in Samrat Hotel, Delhi. The Fashion Design Council of India, which started the now ubiquitous fashion weeks, was established in 1999 (Tahiliani was one of the founders). There were no rules for these designers when they began, just old catalogues of mentors such as textile wizard Martand Singh, their own travels within and outside India, and a sense of style influenced by centuries of India’s diverse history.
Fashion was an adventure then, an exploration of cut and silhouette, of embroidery and embellishment, and of fabric and weave. It is what took Tahiliani from the colours of arid Kutch to the many hues of saffron at the Kumbh Mela. And it is what prompted him to go back to school, Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, in 1990, three years after Ensemble, housed in the gorgeous colonial building, The Great Western Hotel, Mumbai, had taken off.
As he says in the book, “I have had to find inspiration in real life. If you look at the photographs of tribal India, and you look at the sadhus, no two are alike. That is the genius of India. I’ve gone on parikramas around Tiruvannamalai, tripping on the music. I have ridden a chariot in the Kumbh. It was wild and hysterical. Everybody is fantastical, from the way they do their hair to the flowers they use.”
It has invariably sent him back to the drawing board, literally, with new ideas to sketch. He credits his mother for that. “My mother played a pivotal role; she was an enthusiast with a love for beautiful things. Despite her background as an engineer, she briefly worked as a model for saris. My exposure to Gujarat mud walls and pieces of sculpture, as well as contemporary Indian artists, was inadvertent. Our upbringing wasn’t typical for a naval family, given that my mother came from a business background. Subsequently, the Doon School didn’t have a profound influence on me, except for its wonderful art department where I spent hours. There was a supportive teacher who encouraged everyone to express themselves as they wished. I did a lot of sketching during this time, creating drawings of wonderful processions. When I eventually won the best artist prize for the school, I recall a professor asking me, ‘Where do you think you’re going to get drawing high fashion models?’ The truth is, I didn’t know or care; I simply drew what I liked.”
Tahiliani’s story is also about the women who have inspired him. The lithe Tanya Godrej (now Dubash) who wanted to dance at her own wedding and didn’t want to be weighed down by a heavy lehenga. The elegant (late) Minal Modi (who would go on to marry the first commissioner of Indian Premier League, Lalit Modi) and wanted to be draped like a turban. And the soulful Mehr Jesia, who would be his clotheshorse, wearing everything from his experimental designs to his completely finished pieces.
The sari has been a north star in Tarun Tahiliani’s career, especially how to drape it in a way that is accessible to the modern Indian woman. He has studied its many avatars
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Tahiliani’s story is one that mirrors India, as it moved from the socialist khadi of the 1960s and 1970s, to the rich brocades of the 1980s, and the synthetically fabricated textile of the noughties. His constant has been the drape, which has allowed the bejewelled bride to dance at her own wedding; global stars to wow on the international stage; and the well-travelled socialite to stand out from the crowd.
The sari has been a North Star in his career, especially how to drape it in a way that is accessible to the modern Indian woman. He has studied its avatars, down to how Jnanadanandini Devi, Rabindranath Tagore’s sister-in-law, wore it with pleats and a tunic. Such historical nuggets are a pleasure in a well-researched book, put together by Alia Allana, with its nod to the French who exported chiffon to India and Empress Noorjehan who brought Chikankari to the country.
In his work, you can see hybrid fashion at its finest: from a digitally printed tunic to a corset with a drape and Swarovski crystals on Chikankari. Increasingly Tahiliani has found himself moving towards Indian handloom and homegrown crafts and weaves, the gotta from Hyderabad, brocade from Banaras, Kanjeevaram from Tamil Nadu, Chanderi from Maheshwari and Patola from Gujarat.
His drape and shape legacy has taken him from a tiny studio in Opera House in Mumbai to Chirag Dilli, then Mehrauli and now Gurgaon, embodying both the easy elegance of Mumbai women and the luxurious opulence of women in Delhi. He has understood both, and even given the men something to equal their partners, with smartly cut achkans and an assortment of pants. The world has changed since Tahiliani began, socially and culturally. The world he inherited, with artists Anjolie Ela Menon working out of a studio in his parents’ garage in her early years and actors like Simi Garewal spending long hours in his company discussing fashion, has altered completely. The pandemic has had a sobering effect on everyone’s business dreams, making some more compassionate towards their craftspeople who were abandoned by all, and highlighting the importance of handwoven over Chinese looms in Surat.
International tastemaker Fern Mallis’ friend, who called him India’s Valentino with a touch of Bob Mackie thrown in for good measure; first port of call for Middle Eastern princesses and Bollywood actors; and citizen of the world, Tahiliani is as prone to drinking whisky till 4 am as he is to getting back on his desk at 9 AM, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. With 23 million craftspeople in the country and a fashion industry expected to grow to $115-125 billion by 2025, Tahiliani knows he is on the cusp of a dream his compatriots once had— the rediscovery of the past to wear it on our bodies in the present as a celebration of who we are.
As he told me, “In hindsight, one might say it was the first this and the first that. However, at that time, those thoughts didn’t really cross my mind. It wasn’t about being the first solo Indian show in London at a grand gala event for HIV research. I believe I was the first Indian designer to showcase in Milan. It was an exhilarating, heady, and nerve-wracking experience that compelled me to raise the bar. I was about to present my work on the same runway where fashion icons like Armani, Versace, and more were showcasing their creations. Starting in fashion relatively late and lacking formal training until later, I often felt slightly inadequate. The trepidation with which I went to Milan to showcase was palpable. However, we pushed ourselves, received many well wishes, and even garnered support from the Italian press. They guided us to tweak our sensibility, and the entire experience was incredibly exciting.”
It’s that adrenaline, that excitement, that keeps him focused on his art, one sketch at a time. What continues to inspire him: “I am inspired every day by the fact that I have much more command over what I am doing. This inspiration drives me to create more structured drapes, drawing from all that I have observed in this amazing country. Most importantly, I am motivated to layer these inspirations in a contemporary Indian way, allowing me to feel a sense of Indianness while adapting it to the modern life I lead. I eventually stopped showcasing in Milan because I struggled with ideas for their winter season. I believe a designer excels when designing for the life and lifestyle they experience. That’s why my focus is currently on my surroundings. As it becomes more contemporary, I hope to share it with the world, much like the Japanese shared their aesthetic.”