Inspired by the draped form of the sari, Indian designer turned passion for fashion into international acclaim
Tarun Tahiliani’s journey to becoming an Indian fashion design legend has been a procession of fluid form, color and texture, drawing on his understanding of tradition but embracing the freshness of tomorrow.
Thanks to a combination of talent and sheer business sense, he has seized opportunities and made the most of Indian consumers’ rising spending power, particularly in bridal wear.
Brought up in a well-to-do family, Tahiliani’s father was a four-star admiral in the navy and his mother was the first female engineer in Mumbai, on India’s west coast. She was also a cover girl for the Indian women’s magazine Femina.
Tahiliani’s mother died of cancer at a young age and his father remarried. Young Tahiliani grew up with arts, music and theater.
“I grew up in Mumbai, in a post-colonial, socialist India, where the elite clung to Jesuit schools and piano lessons, and the craft of India shriveled up from a lack of design innovation and proper patronage,” Tahiliani said.
After graduating from high school at The Doon School, a boys-only private boarding school at Dehradun in northern India’s Uttarakhand state, he studied for a year at St Stephen’s College in Delhi, then moved to the United States to study economics at Vassar College in New York state.
“I have always sketched fashion, from the age of 4 or 5, as far as I can remember,” Tahiliani said.
“When I was in school I won the best artist prize (drawing) large processions. They were just processions of people, but when I look back I liked to draw clothes and these were sketches of different kinds of things — clothes, shoes, bags, turbans, elephants, horses.
“I’ve always loved the idea of the Indian procession, with all its color and texture that one sees in miniature paintings, and it’s very much a part of Indian folklore,” he said.
Tahiliani continued his studies, pursuing a master’s degree in business administration at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
It was during this time that he met his future wife, Sailaja, who was studying economics at the same school. She was a fashion model then, and once walked the catwalk for the famed Italian-born French fashion designer Pierre Cardin.
Tahiliani headed back to India to work in the family’s oil field equipment business. His wife continued to model and worked with Indian fashion pioneer, the late Rohit Khosla.
Tahiliani did well but came to realize that marketing oil field equipment was not his passion.
Observing the opportunities in the fashion industry, in 1987 he opened India’s first luxury multi-brand designer store.
“I saw a vast potential in the fine clothing and couture industry in the country,” he said. Togther with his wife and Khosla, he opened his first shop, Ensemble.
They chose unknown fashion designers to provide the couture. In fact, Ensemble started a revolution in the industry, opening opportunities not only for designers but for Tahiliani himself. It became a tool for him to realize his talent and passion for fashion.
“The thing I knew from the very beginning was that I was attracted to the draped form and that the sari, as worn on the body, would have an incredible influence on me, (the way) it wraps and molds different people.”
Although the shop became an instant success, selling fashion for other designers was not enough for Tahiliani.
In 1991 he left to study fashion design at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. Three years later he started his own label, Eponymous, and organized his first solo show in London.
That first collection, The Rubaiyat, was well received by critics. And in 1995, British heiress Jemima Khan wore one of his outfits for her wedding, winning him wide acclaim.
“I felt I was ready, but I don’t understand how we did that, because we have a heightened vision today of what we want to do and how we would like to work. So that was very exciting,” he said.
Describing his inspiration, Tahiliani said: “Sometimes it’s from a beautiful inlay work I have seen in a fabulous monument or sometimes from something as simple as a beautiful kanjeevaram weave.”
Kanjeevaram silk saris are traditionally made by weavers from Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu state, southern India.
He said he goes through a creative process before embracing an idea.
“It’s often about a time or an artist’s work that talk to me at many levels, both aesthetically and sociologically”.
There is an air of romance in Tahiliani’s collections for this season, blending modern and traditional styles. He said his collections for 2016-17 were inspired by artworks of contemporary British artists the Singh Twins, and Mrinalini Mukherjee, an Indian sculptor who died last year.
“These artworks spoke to me at different levels, from color, form, meaning and draping. Once I have settled on this, we do mood boards and collages. We call in the painters, choose the colors and apply them to the fabrics we work with. Sketches, toiles and embroideries follow. It’s super fun and exciting.”
For his spring and summer collection, Tahiliani used colors such as sunset ombre, yellows to blues, oranges to reds, and pastel shades in blush, pink, cream and beige.
For the fabrics, sushi voile, cotton silks, crepes and cutwork jamdanis (fine hand-woven textiles) embroidered with floral motifs and lifted with crystals and fine lace have been used to create light and breezy styles.
While he started with casual and formal outfits, along the way he got hooked on fashion outfits for bridal wear.
Indeed, Tahiliani’s bridal wear is the most sought-after among his collections. He noted that bridal trends are moving away from “bling” and multicolored ensembles to a more sophisticated palette.
“As Indians are exposed to international fashion, people are looking at comfort, lightness and structure rather than heavily embellished outfits that restrict movement and inhibit the fun that one would like to have at one’s wedding.”
He added that while Indian brides’ tastes have evolved, so has the style of the garments.
“There is a visible evolution,” he said, citing the influence of the Western fashion industry.
“People have gotten comfortable with the fit and proportion of well-cut and fitted Western clothes which are easy to move around in. The shift to lighter outfits is a key trend.”
Tahiliani is bringing that “lightness” to his bridal line, using cuts, couching and fine threadwork.
“New styles find expression in a lightness of form, a playfulness and whimsy that moves away from Royal India and the bling and bauble of the past to an effervescence and lift that brings finesse to the structures and silhouettes.”
The spending power of Indian brides has also been transformed over the years. “As Indians are getting wealthier, their propensity to consume has gone up,” Tahiliani said.
“A bride who came to our stores earlier would spend about 4 to 5 lakhs ($6,000 to $7,500) on their wedding attire, but times have changed.” One lakh is equivalent to 100,000 rupees.
“A bride is now very comfortable spending 8 lakhs but the increase in spending power has also meant a more exacting customer in terms of fit, finish and quality of product as the new Indian has become increasingly aware of global standards of quality.”
For Tahiliani, fashion works at many different levels.
“I can look at a painting on the wall and it can disturb me or give me joy. It’s a very different kind of engagement than what one does with the clothes one wears, which is why fashion needs to have a different kind of perspective,” he said.
“So I think one must live in the present and be fluidly modern. One can be traditional, but I hate the idea of the past. Tomorrow must have freshness.”
1991-1993: Fashion Institute of Technology, New York City
1985-1986: Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania
1982-1984: Vassar College, New York State
1981-1982: St Stephen’s College, Delhi
1980-1981: The Doon School, Uttarakhand
2003: First Indian designer to showcase at Milan Fashion Week
1995: Jemima Khan wears his outfit for her wedding
1994: Solo debut fashion show, London
1987: Cofounded Ensemble multi-designer boutique
2007: Womenswear Designer of the Year Award
2004: Best Womenswear Couture Designer Award
2001: Moet Chandon Fashion Tribute Award for Designer of the Year
How would you define fashion?
I think in fashion one has to always balance one’s own ability to design with the fact that it has to find an audience, and also the fact that people have to live their lives in the clothes. They don’t live in isolation — they have to get in and out of their cars, be able to sit, be comfortable.
What is your latest fashion show about?
The Last Dance of the Courtesan is a bridal couture collection. It is a tribute to the highest elements of culture, dance and poetry.
Date of birth: Feb 6, 1970