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Tarun Tahiliani

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Designer Tarun Tahiliani on the Business of Fashion
Tarun Tahiliani
01 st Jan 2011

Designer Tarun Tahiliani talks about about setting up Ensemble in Indian fashion's early days, his move to Delhi and his rapport with FDCI

No one person can be held responsible for how a whole industry evolves. But then, nascence is a critical time that requires a few people to think ahead of their times and make decisions that seem prudent only later.

Tarun Tahiliani's career as a fashion designer of opulence is two decades old. And older than this is Ensemble, his multi-label store in Mumbai and Delhi, which he started with sister Tina in 1987, a few years before setting up his own design studio in 1990. “Ensemble had its 23rd birthday last week,” Tahiliani reminds us gently when we meet him to discuss his latest exercise in brand extension.

Tahiliani belongs to the first generation of Indian designers — people who brought in the concept of luxury fashion and designer wear to India. The period since his first solo show at the Dorchester Hotel in London in 1994 till the present has been an eventful one for the Indian fashion industry.

Detail in retail

How did a Business Management graduate from Wharton School of Business change course? And if creativity was the pull factor, how did the role of promoting fashion, through the multi-designer stores, take precedence?

“I started by setting up Ensemble because at that time I really felt there was this horrible retail. There were a few nice stores — there was Ravissant, which was beautiful; then Veena Modi had a beautiful store called Obsession. But besides that there was nothing. It was only the exhibition-cum-sales,” recalls Tahiliani.

Designer stores came with their starting problems. “Arrey, yeh to khali hai” was people's reaction to a place whose every pore wasn't stuffed with merchandise, he recalls. Then there were issues that sprang from lack of experience in merchandising. “In summer, because it's beautiful, you fill the whole shop with brocade outfits that no one can buy. That's what happened, because you were just choosing things that looked beautiful.” Then followed lessons in summer and winter.

Every “terrific Indian designer”, from Shahab Durazi to Anu Mafatlal to little-known names, he says, has been through Ensemble's doors. At a time when names were yet to reach their current stature, what criteria applied?

“We wanted to see quality. They must have a point of view as designers. They must have the ability to experiment. All these people had it. And they still do. It's just that some of them have got a little older and a little plastic. That happens everywhere; there'll be younger people doing funkier things. It doesn't make them bad. They (the older designers' clothes) are beautiful. And they have a different style. There's no better. Quality is measurable. Design, however, is a subjective thing.”

Soon, the design bug dug in, and Tahiliani started his own label, Ahilian (‘Tahiliani' without the ‘t' and ‘i', he points out). Sensing a need to train himself in cut and design, Tahiliani enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York. He took a year off to study, though he kept coming back every time he had a week off to run his studio.

Dilliwala in 1995

Once back home, the Bombay boy decided to turn a Dilliwala. “Because my dad was in the Navy I've always lived in and out of Delhi. I've been to St. Columbus for one year. I studied at St. Stephen's for a year before I ran away because I found it too conservative,” says Tahiliani.

Delhi, he says, was a tough city to come back to. “I just literally landed with a suitcase. In 1995 no one even wanted to rent to an Indian because the rent control laws were not like they are now. They thought you would squat in tenancy. Finally, I found a very sweet landlord. We lived in Panchsheel,” he recalls.

Soon, there was a “horrible little studio” in Chirag Delhi. “But it was sweet; that's where we started.” It's with an obvious sense of pride that he mentions the present grand space in Gurgaon's Pace City. The first store came up in Mehrauli's Ambawata Complex. Then ones in Defence Colony and DLF Emporio opened. Plans are afoot to open a 9,000 to 10,000 sq ft bridal store.

The move to Delhi, according to him, happened because he decided Delhi was “more Indian.” “It has summer, it has winter, you walk around and there are beautiful monuments.”

An era of brand extensions has also seen Tahiliani's fashion house move with the times, with tie-ups with Levi's and Ferns ‘n' Petals to the just-announced one with Timex.

The Tarun Tahiliani-Timex watches, he explains, are the result of a two-year gestational period, which started when Kapil Kapoor of Timex came across some Tarun Tahiliani jewelled T-shirts at Tijori at The Oberoi and got the idea of a partnership. The watches (read brocade straps and jadau pieces), according to the designer, cater to his philosophy of design needing to meet a purpose.

“We're speaking out of our Indian idiom of jewellery and creating funky, functional things,” Tahiliani says, lamenting how women wearing saris and lehengas seldom have a timepiece to match. Also, he says citing the example of fashion jewellery brand Amrapali, the controlled “Indian-ness” of an accessory gives it a more global appeal as opposed to that of a traditional garment. Product development on the watches took two years. “That's the right way to do something; take your time,” he says. “You can't rush it and say it has to be ready in six months. In a way, I feel we did that with Levi's... Find your USP, make the brands fit.”

Tahiliani's recent equation with the Fashion Design Council of India, of which he is incidentally a founding member, has been cause for speculation. There were reports of his unhappiness over a day slot at the Fall/ Winter edition of the Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week earlier this year, while he remained a notable non-participant at FDCI's couture week in July, his bridal exposition running parallel a stone's throw away. Then he sprang a surprise by being chosen the finale designer at WIFW Spring/ Summer 2011.

The basic problem with the FDCI, he says, is in terms of its structure (see box).

The difference between the younger lot of fashion designers and the predecessors, he says, lies in the older generation being more versatile, with the younger ones bearing a strong stamp, “which is fantastic.” “You can tell a Gaurav Gupta. You can tell an Amit Agarwal; I love his work. Atsu is very nice; he's very simple and very tailored... sometimes it looks Italian,” says Tahiliani, adding, “Atsu trained with me, so did Amit Agarwal, so I'm obviously biased.” Guru Cool!

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Tahiliani's recent equation with the governing body Fashion Design Council of India, of which he his incidentally a founding member, has been cause for speculation.

There were have been reports of his unhappiness over a day slot at the Fall/ Winter edition of the Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week earlier this year, while he remained a notable absentee at FDCI's couture week in July, while his bridal exposition running ran parallel a stone's throw away. Then he sprang a surprise by being chosen the grand finale designer at WIFW Spring/ Summer 2011.

Problem of structure

"The basic problem with the Fashion Design Council of India , he says, is in terms of its structure. The Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), as Fern Mallis kept saying from the beginning, was set up by designers for designers. So, they sat around the table, and they would argue and fight and personal agendas would come in and they'd become political. Then they hived it off and made it a separate body that just runs fashion week, so no politics is allowed. That's the right way to do it. However, the flipside is there's no standard, because anyone can show; you pay, you show. He adds that In India, despite the politics, there is no separate body that takes care of the fashion weeks. But, unfortunately, because there are so many fashion weeks, every council is trying to get anybody, so the standards have fallen."

Still together, still the foremost

“But I still think the FDCI is the foremost body, whatever unfortunate circumstance or events, fighting and politicking happen. I think Sumeet Nair (the former executive director) was an excellent man to run it, and he was shafted out. But that's water under the bridge… I should give credit to Sunil Sethi for one thing; that he held it together at a time when we could have collapsed."

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