Tête-à-tête with Tarun Tahiliani, the King of Couture

tarun-tahilianiFirst came the design studio in 1990. Then came Ensemble, India’s first multi designer boutique. Now several couture, diffusion and prêt-a-porter creations, some unique designer collaborations and a multitude of awe-inspiring fashion week collections later, Tarun Tahiliani is out with a ravishing new couture studio in New Delhi. Naturally, our curiosity was piqued. So we set out to find if it may not be premature after all, to call the renowned fashion designer the couture king of the country. And here’s confirming-

We understand that despite the so-called ‘target audience’ no artist wants to stop at any particular level. Which is why in our tête-à-tête, we would like to begin by learning your view of the Indian fashion scene vis-à-vis the international.
Well, I think if one needs complete and total artistic freedom, then perhaps one should be an artist in the true sense of the word. I think in fashion one has to always balance one’s own ability to design or want to design or desires or what direction to take the 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. It works in many different levels. I can look at a painting on the wall and it can be disturbing or give me joy and 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 very different kind of perspective.

Would you say you always incorporated European sensibilities in your garments? Since you were the first to be invited to showcase at the Milan Fashion Week, the mecca of fashion. Or did that have more to do with the global palette getting more Indianised by then?
I’ve always incorporated European sensibilities in my clothing. Because having grown up in South Mumbai and abroad, even though I find in retrospect it a very disconnected upbringing into the rest of India, we just had a very western bias in the way we thought, in what we read and in a funny way in the way we lived. I can look back and see that it was a very colonial existence or post-colonial existence, but that’s what it was. Because we were more western and I studied abroad, my ideas of fit and technical embellishments were very different. We liked tailoring, we liked things to fit beautifully, finish was always an issue and could not be compensated by the righteous use of colour or embroidery.

We all know that we live in a cyber age. That brings us to your website, rather your eponymous label’s website. We’re aware that the website in question is all about your creations. Would that mean you agree that in India a designer’s success relies primarily on promoting his work and not banking on his celebrity?
I always have thought that people should rely on their work and not on their celebrity. I mean that’s the silliest thing. The celebrity can enhance the interest in one’s work, but to rely on celebrity and play that game and be a slave to it is the silliest folly. I think the designers abroad, who’s work I really like and admire and who do really well are celebrities last and I respect them for their work first and foremost. We all know great work does not come by sitting at parties and blowing air kisses at other celebrities, it comes from one’s studio or whatever field and banging it away, that is your safe space. For me it is very important to come to work and when I go home I’m still working at a different level in a private space. I could be sketching, thinking about things. I’m very engaged in my work, it’s the point of my existence, so this whole celebrity thing is a by-product. It definitely has some perks; it’s very annoying most of the times. But fortunately, fashion designers are not treated like movie stars anyways, so it’s not like we have any extreme situations anywhere.

Do you think lesser is made of Indian designers as opposed to say a Karl Lagerfeld whose each move is tracked and each habit worshipped by fans all over the world?
Well the reach of someone like Karl Lagerfeld is way more because he does his own label, he does Chanel, which he has reinvented and which is one of the biggest luxury brands that this planet has ever seen, it’s probably the finest luxury brand in its category for certain, and it has a legacy. He does Fendi, he was doing for a little while, one or two other labels, and he has his KL label, besides his collaboration with H&M and the others. Karl Lagerfeld is not normal, he is an institution, he is a manic ball of energy. He is someone who is erudite and connect cultures. He’s proved what it is to be ageless, he might have white hair but when one looks at Karl Lagerfeld, he may be in 70’s or 80’s, one doesn’t think of age one thinks of a contemporary being, bustling with brilliance, ideas and connectivity, which is why Karl Lagerfeld’s every move is tracked. I don’t think any Indian designer is even close in age, experience or able to offer these many cross overs.

Coming to your own recent moves, how is it that Mumbai’s Ancestry was inducted into your own Couture Studio in Delhi? We, of course, recognize that couture to casa is almost a natural progression but what we’d also like to grasp is the extent of your own personal interest in antiquities.
Mumbai’s Ancestry was inducted into my couture studio in Delhi for a simple reason, that I have always loved their collections. To me they are one of the most avid and finest collectors and I have always been a great fan of the glassworks of Osler, although they also have some incredible pieces from Baccarat and other glass companies. This is not really couture to casa; this is more out of convenience. We had this space and we talked to them for a long time to bring them to Delhi and we had done an exhibition together, so this worked out. Their products are unique, their products have heritage and they needed somebody with a little bit of comfort to place the products, because they are very expensive and needed very special care. This is how this evolved. I’m not really involved with it in terms of a Tarun Tahiliani Casa.

Getting back to your Couture Studio, we do think it is revolutionary in the sense that Ensemble was when it opened- ahead of its time and yet a much-needed addition. Do you believe Delhi was in dire need of a space dedicated to ‘bespoke’ or are you testing new waters by initiating a new trend?
When one is in fashion, one has to respond to one’s instinct which tells you what is the next thing. I’ve never really taken the route of phoning around celebrities to get my clothing noticed. When I see people who can only shoot on celebrities, to me it indicates a certain and a great insecurity for them to think that their clothing would be worthless if it was not shot on the likes of a top industrialist’s wife or a movie star or a movie star of yesteryear. In fact, while it does get you instant recognition in terms of what it is, I think it is more interesting to see a photo and think “Oh wow, what is she wearing” and then go through that process of discovery. When we do our annual shoots we also incorporate real people and real women into our shoots to show how different the clothes make them look. That’s very important to me. So yes, when we started Ensemble, I was driven by the fact that there was a burgeoning Indian fashion explosion, but also what bothered me was that beautiful things made in India were only available abroad and that we were still terribly colonised and offered our best produce to the Western world, which is why I started Ensemble, to say “Listen, we need to bring the best of Indian designs first to our own shores and change our own markets.” This process, this revolution, this cataclysm that Ensemble set off has resulted in very different consumer retail today with top end stores and all kinds of luxury and a fantastic dynamic design industry. Moving forward, for the uber rich, who like luxury and want to be very quiet and who value their privacy, we now need spaces where they don’t come into retail stores to order clothes and try things for their most important occasions in full view of people they know. People want privacy and more privacy than just the small fitting room affords you. Which is why we set up the couture studio. It is a different product offering. The ready-to-wear will end at a certain price point which is commercially acceptable and the couture will go beyond that dimension to anything. Part of this has been bridal but there are mothers of the brides who dress up, there are families, people have other occasions and now we are also in the process of introducing our menswear bespoke services. This will be in conjunction with a Saville Row based company called Whitcomb and Shaftesbury, so we have a new label “Tarun Tahiliani exclusively by Whitcomb and Shaftesbury”, where these will be exquisitely tailored pieces done in the bespoke Saville Row tradition but with a more contemporary Indian twist to the design done by me. For me this is our most exciting and latest product offering. Having tried their pieces, I can say that I have never worn things that are so comfortable and make me feel so good, fit and slim. There is something in the way these pieces are made, basted and tailored which is unrivaled to anything that is available here.

And speaking of trends, we’re curious to know why you chose that particular stretch of Chattarpur. Was it for the out-of-the-way exclusivity that should come with the words ‘couture studio’ or do you foresee the area as the new shopping ground for looks such as yours?
I’m afraid I did not choose that particular stretch of Chattarpur for any other reason, except that it was the only place I could get a very large space that made economic sense. I’ve always liked the area around Qutab Minar. If I had my way, this should have been in the centre of Delhi. But now the centre of Delhi doesn’t afford any new big commercial space that is legal and so we just decided to go with this, for now. In the next three four years we will look to find a permanent home for the studio.

At this point, it is only fair we ask you more about those looks. Do tell us about your latest collections be it the chanderi and chikankari from WIFW, the European chintz from the previously concluded LFW or the looks housed within your couture studio.
We use myriad ideas – from sorbet colours to arcane techniques. With emphasis on prêt a porter, it focuses on exquisite separates that can be paired up to create various permutations and combinations that never gets old. It takes you from the delicate land of European chintz to indigenous Bidri work to Jamawaar and abstract art. The multiple influences are translated into everything from a T-shirt and pencil skirt to a lehenga, kaftan or a sari because despite being Ready -To -Wear one style does not fit all. Moving towards a more relaxed glamour it effectively uses summer cottons and sushi voile, fine thread work and chikankari that belie comfort in fashion. An understated elegance that brings to the fore the importance of dressing up in the day – be it ombre chiffon saris or kimkhab kurtas in sheer gossamer silk. A cornucopia of colour teeming with vitality is an essential for our climate. Indigo, mustard and fuchsia frolic creating shades of the sunset. Bombarded by colours that personify the joie de vivre of an Indian festival; almost as a corollary there is the brahmanical restraint of black and white, ivory and beige.

Lastly, a lot of film personalities are walking examples of your craftsmanship on several occasions. Who would you like to call the epitome of brand Tarun Tahiliani or rather, how would you describe them?
A lot of film personalities do wear our clothes on the red carpet. But more and more red carpet is becoming about what stylists choose and that’s why people look so generic or look fakely styled. I think it’s an interesting phenomenon in this age of celebrity and mass blogging etc., it’s a big game. People are dressing people to walk in these things to get publicity. We’ve always been very fortunate that a lot of people have worn our clothes out of choice and to me that is the greatest endorsement. I think modern Indian women with great independence, great style and women who also like understatement and who are believers in the line or who reflect “All that we were and more”, our brand’s philosophy. A bit belongs to the past and the bulk belongs to the present.

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