BY ALIA ALLANA
A drone skirted the three chandeliers in the dining room with infinite mirrors. Four models in chikan paired with tulle and braid fringed shirts and a silk opera coat stared at it warily. Standing beside the cameraman was Tarun Tahiliani, a man who fulfils many roles: designer, director, cheerleader. “Dance and have fun,” Tahiliani encouraged the models so they swayed and spun in Raj Mahal, a palace in Jaipur converted into a Relais and Chateaux boutique hotel. Tahiliani, once called the Emperor of Fashion, the Karl Lagerfeld of India, was shooting his Fall/Winter 2018 collection. Nothing was off limits for his “big foray into social media”. He had spent weeks planning the message that would be put out to his 3,94,000 Instagram followers. In the adjacent room Ipshita Barua who handles Tahiliani’s PR, was having a meltdown. The palace management was concerned about the drone. There were two unmanned trolleys with decades-old single malt scotch, and the doors to the 1959 Ford Thunderbird were open. “Anything could happen,” she said.
The shoot was a harmonious orchestra with people converging from across India and Dubai to transform Tahiliani’s vision into reality. “India Modern”, he called it. “India is the traditional and the modern in that it is moving.” Everyone repeated it like a mantra. The next night, after another 15-hour day Tahiliani sipped a gin and tonic through a straw. “When you see Pakeezah even today, made over 16 years on a shoestring budget with this alcoholic actress, it is still beautiful. Meena Kumari, Jaya Bhaduri, Nutan, they told real stories. There was a beauty in their lyrics, in their cinematography,” he paused, “Having a drone is like having a new toy. It doesn’t make it better. All it does is allow you to say, ‘wah kya shot hai bhai.’”
He looks back on his decades in fashion, an industry he pioneered, lost his way in and lost friends too. He talks about Isabella Blow, the English editor who committed suicide and Lauren Scott who was with Mick Jagger for ten years and who woke one day and boom: She’d hanged herself in her New York apartment.
“You think, my god, what did she not have? It’s like they don’t believe in today’s mass world,” he said. “True eccentricity developed more in a world where you read and imagined and went with your imagination.”
He was finally inspired and out of the dark at a time when fast fashion threatened art, in an industry where new technologies disrupted centuries of tradition and designers with millions of Instagram followers overshadowed established ateliers.
“What people don’t realise is that chic is not surface embellishment. Real chic is born from inside. Before, everybody had an identity but today we are looking for one. Everything is homogenised now because of society and mass media. I work harder today than I worked 20 years back. The game is harder, the stakes are higher. That’s the reality,” he says as he strides to a private soiree at the City Palace.
If the fashion industry were a country, it would have the seventh-largest GDP, bigger than India and Italy. In 2016, the industry was about $2.4 trillion in total value; India and the United Arab Emirates are expected to be the highest growth countries in 2017, though they lag behind China and the United States in size. As Indians become more affluent, they are projected to become the third largest consumer base by 2025 according to “The State of Fashion,” a 2017 report by McKinsey and the Business of Fashion. Of the five household income categories (elite, affluent, aspirers, next billion and strugglers defined by BCG in its 2017 report, “The New Indian: The Many Facets of a Changing Consumer”), the top two income classes are growing the fastest. In less than ten years, wealthy urbanites will be responsible for one-third of total consumption valued at about $4 trillion by 2025. India’s luxury goods market has been growing by more than $255 million a year, on par with the United Arab Emirates (2014). When growth in the global luxury goods sector slowed down in 2015 because of falling demand in China and Russia, India remained a bright spot among Asian and BRIC countries. Metros contribute 56 per cent to the market while 44 per cent of the revenue comes from small towns that have underserved clients with deep pockets. Indians are also changing how they shop. Luxury, once mostly imported, is sought locally as more people are willing to pay extra for made in India products.
A Tahiliani lehenga with hand embroidered French knots, delicate glass drops and shimmering Swarovski crystals can cost lakhs of rupees.
Luxury has become a thing of definition and projection, but over time you develop an eye and once you’ve worn something beautiful you are not going to go back to wearing something that is ghastly and polyester. Luxury is not driven by mass needs or problems.
“Luxury is driven by the needs and ability of the rich to pay and their patronage. Earlier it was the royal families and the aristocracy, now it’s a wider base of very rich people. Luxury has become a thing of definition and projection, but over time you develop an eye and once you’ve worn something beautiful you are not going to go back to wearing something that is ghastly and polyester. Luxury is not driven by mass needs or problems,” Tahiliani says as we walk to the dargah in Mehrauli where a line of people waits for the charity of others in the holy month.
Tahiliani has a wad of twenty-rupee notes and even before he pulls it out, a group encircles him. A woman calls out to him, another asks after his wife and two sons. A regular here, he gives out note after note.
Tahiliani moves in and out of the lives of beggars and aristocrats, new moneyed Indians and Saudi Royals. “I’m never bored. I can be enthralled with anyone’s stories. People are interesting until they get caught in a projection and then it ceases to be interesting. We get impressed too quickly and that’s why the nouveau riche want to show their wealth so they wear jewels like bibs and that’s not great taste.”
Four decades ago, when Tahiliani, 55, was a young boy there was no new money nor was there a fashion industry in India. Ritu Kumar had a boutique, Cottage Industries Emporium was considered a designer store and Nita Ambani would go to Bhuleshwar to buy her bandhani (tie-and-dye work from Gujarat). When Ravissant opened at Kemps Corner Tahiliani’s aunts would go there with awe because they sold chikan kurtas for Rs 2,200. Socialist India was a grim place and even for the moneyed it was unfashionable to be flashy. The only people that sold Levis jeans were the hippies on Goa beaches. Tahiliani wanted Versace, Armani and Prada.
“I didn’t want to be Indian, I thought we were Western. We went to the Jesuit school, we only spoke Hindi to the boys who served us at the Willingdon Club and the drivers in that South Bombay accent,” he says mimicking that accent. When he returned from Wharton Business School, India was warming up to Western capitalism. “People were saying bye bye khadi and hello brocade,” he recalls. The Palanpuris, the Indian diamond dynasties set the bar for Bombay weddings held in stadiums with gold fountains. The bride and groom would descend in helicopters and “it was absolutely vulgar and shocking”. Tahiliani had fallen in love with Sailaja ‘Sal’ Murthy, an Indian economist raised in New York. “Society meant nothing to her, she didn’t know the pecking order nor did she care,” he says. When they married, Sonia and Rajiv Gandhi attended the wedding.
Access to the good life didn’t translate into satisfaction. Tahiliani was stuck in a deadbeat job selling oil field equipment and the couple was “quite broke”. Sal had got into modelling and would often ask why the best Indian products were available abroad. In 1987, he accompanied her to a shoot in Jaipur where he met Rohit Khosla, India’s first haute couture designer. Khosla had “galvanise(d) an entire industry that really had nothing going for it; in the India of the ’80s, fashion wasn’t a profession,” writes fashion journalist Varun Rana. With Khosla’s encouragement, Tahiliani and Sal opened the door to Ensemble at Mumbai’s Lion’s Gate on December 12, 1987. It was India’s first multi-brand boutique that stocked Rohit Khosla, Neil Bieff, Abu Jani, Sandeep Khosla and Amaya.
Ensemble brought an international way of selling luxury to fashion. In the beginning people were intimidated by a store that looked like an art gallery. “They were used to exhibition-cum-sales. It was bazaar versus high fashion,” Tahiliani says. “Once Shabana Azmi picked up a beautiful Asha Sarabhai garment priced at Rs 8,000 and threw it on the ground because it stung,” he says. Ensemble’s clientele became the super rich and the NRIs but it wasn’t something Tahiliani had planned. The photographer shot the first campaign free because they were making art and “when Mohini Bhullar (then editor of Bombay magazine) saw the catalogue she rang. ‘Who are you, what is going on here?’ she asked.”
The next week they were on the cover of Bombay magazine. It was a creative and wild time. Ensemble hosted India’s first ever fashion show and the ones that followed were like rock concerts. Despite the fanfare, business was bad the first year. “In the first summer we sold brocade and nobody wears brocade in the summer. We had to learn everything by doing it ourselves,” he says. Three years after opening Ensemble, at 29, Tahiliani began to feel frustrated. He had always sketched but wanted training to design. “I wanted to learn to drape because back then nobody could. They could barely make a sleeve in India,” he says. In 1991, Tahiliani enrolled in the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York while Sal worked with her father. A year later he began fantasising about India. He dreamt of Rajasthan and peacocks, of an exoticism that he had begun to see from his travels across the country. “It became clear to me that I wanted to preserve the identity of India at a more cerebral level,” he says taking a deep drag on a cigarette.
It’s a very privileged life, five star hotels, very rarefied, but after travelling through villages, I began to see beauty in a different way; Indian beauty rather than Indian-speaking Anglicised beauty.
“It’s a very privileged life, five star hotels, very rarefied, but after travelling through villages, I began to see beauty in a different way; Indian beauty rather than Indian-speaking Anglicised beauty,” he says. “I began to notice how different people wore textile in a different way and what defined us in India is that we could lavish any amount of care on a piece of textile.” He used to get jamawar (an elaborate weaving style used in Kashmir to make pashmina shawls) done on chiffon that could take more than a year to make, with five people working on it in Kashmir. “They were so exquisite and so weightless and they thought it was normal. They were not spoilt by social media or soap operas. They were self-contained, in the late 1980s,” he sighs.
By then his family were fighting over Ensemble. “I felt Delhi was more Indian,” he says and relocated and started a small studio in Chirag Delhi in 1995.
Around then, Minal Modi (industrialist Lalit Modi’s wife) approached Tahiliani to design her clothes for a society wedding. “I want to look like I am wrapped in a turban,” she said. So he made patterns on her body and that’s when he first understood what couture really meant.
Tahiliani’s star was in the ascendent. Jemima Goldsmith wore Tahiliani couture for her wedding to Imran Khan and he was the first Indian to show at Milan Fashion Week. Bhawna Sharma, one of India’s super models walked that show. “There was a power cut and we did our hair on the streets. The stylist covered our hair in sugar syrup. It was a mad time, those were the days of wilderness,” Sharma says.
Later, Aishwarya Rai, Nita Ambani, Katrina Kaif and just about anybody who could afford him wore his creations. “In India, they think if it’s expensive its couture. It’s total bullshit. People think that if it is bridal it’s couture. I think we have a new definition of couture in this country. They don’t understand the meaning of it. People who make organza shirts call it Bobby and Manju Grover Couture. Just getting it measured and made to fit you is not haute couture,” he says in outrage.
Couture is French for dressmaking while haute means high. These garments are one off pieces that are made to measure for a specific client. The term was first formalised after World War II in 1945 to prevent misuse of the name and is a legally protected term—and fashion houses are only granted the designation by the French Ministry of Industry.
To be haute couture, a label needs to maintain a Parisian workroom with a minimum of 20 employees, and it must produce at least 25 outfits per season. These pieces are constructed almost entirely by hand, and prices regularly range in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for a single piece. Each season the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture (CSHC) meets to decide which guest designers get to show during the haute couture calendar in Paris though these designers are not formally included in the couture club. They merely have the privilege to show alongside the likes of Chanel and Dior.
The intention of couture is to communicate in the manner that fine art does, to further beauty. The designer conveys the same artistic expression that a painter or sculptor does, thereby justifying the price. Some pieces can cost as much as a Rolls Royce. In 2000 the lines between fashion and art were further blurred by a collaboration between British artist Tracey Emin and British fashion designer Vivienne Westwood. The result was an Emin art piece titled “I’ve got it all” in which the artist is grabbing money in a tiny Westwood dress. Westwood used that image as an advertisement that questioned not just art and fashion but the commodification of both. Emin was criticised for degrading art by interacting with the triviality of fashion.
“Fashion is not something that exists only in dresses. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, it has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening,” Coco Chanel once said. Once relegated to the super rich and their soirees, couture is accessible to all in the age of social media where Angelina Jolie’s leg in Versace couture or Jennifer Lawrence’s fall at the Oscars in Dior couture is hashtagged and shared around the world. Despite the visibility, the clientele of these pieces as Bruno Pavlovsky, the president of fashion at Chanel called them, remain “the happy few.”
In India, this translates to Bollywood and business royalty. Tahiliani says, “I’ve never cared about or been enamoured by Bollywood”, but there is a brick wall with pictures of the rich and famous in his creations.
Balvir Nad the “Masterji” or the expert tailor at Tahiliani Design Studio in Gurugram talks about this wall with pride. His work plays a crucial role in dressing some of India’s most beautiful. Tahiliani’s design studio is a red three-story building in the heart of textile land where export houses have plastered signs that read “no child labour employed here”. The studio is sleek and minimal, his office is at the back filled with light that filters in front from the top.
Unlike his stores that are dark and dramatic, his work space is uncluttered and natural. It is as big as a fashion college and inside, Nad slaps his cutting table with conviction. “This is hot couture,” he says.
Upstairs in the Design Lab, models have already started slipping in and out of the new collection, ahead of the shoot in Jaipur. A small makeshift changing room has been erected for the women. The men change in the open. Everyone is waiting for Tahiliani. Aseem Kapoor, the design head, scrutinises each piece. He tugs on a gilet, fixes a concept saree and points out how the kalidar kurtas blend military detailing with aari (an extensive needlework technique using beads) work and metal accents. The end result is statuesque garments from the Hussar range. The collection celebrates the separates, the ease of wearing a draped Tahiliani top with a pair of jeans. He points at a jumpsuit printed with trompel’oeil stripes inspired by miniatures, etchings, manuscripts and carvings from the age of Renaissance. “TT can blend past and present, that’s a gift he has,” says Kapoor. He seamlessly merges artistry with nuanced contemporary silhouettes. A dhoti will retail for over Rs 10,000.
Tahiliani’s arrival amps up the energy. Models rush to kiss him, he offers the women who have been eating apples and bananas a bowl of chips and starts a commentary with statements such as “socialism was bad for the embroidery” and “it’s too stylised, people won’t understand it.” Tahiliani is a big talker with a big personality and a tireless drive. Six hours into the fittings, when last minute alterations are still being made, the initial excitement around the clothes has waned. Instead there is lukewarm enthusiasm as models change in and out of outfits while tailors pin them in what is back breaking unglamorous work. Kanika Gupta brings feathered jewellery. Tahiliani fusses over beaded chokers that cover the whole neck. Rows of shoes are lined up and occasionally a pair goes missing, people get rattled but nobody loses their cool.
When someone screws up, “the team” takes the fall. Tahiliani is painting dyed stockings that aren’t dark enough with a deep blue marker which stains his hand, models struggle to understand how to wear outfits, the intern works super diligently in the hope of getting hired, and someone brings cup after cup of coffee while a runner is walking up and down with a European sized mannequin wearing a very Indian lehenga. On another mannequin is a swatch of a spring print, of the firmament at night with silk thread flowers scattered on it.
A tailor is pinning a drape tulle neck line on to Palak Gupta, the model so that the proportion is just right. “There is a delicate balance of sheer and skin,” Tahiliani says and he never wants skin to win. Dayana Kavernma gets fitted in a panelled gara border contoured dress while the male models, Nitin Gupta and Prabhjot Singh, are smoking downstairs and claim they don’t make enough money to ever afford any one of these pieces and anyway, it is not fashionable to be fashionable. The models take a selfie and Tahiliani orders, “No images on social until the campaign is out,” and everybody agrees.
Tahiliani’s customers have evolved and their tastes have changed. “To be honest I’ve never really bothered, I’ve just gone on my own trip but now for the first time I’m trying to get data and there is a vast world,” he says with a wave of the hand. The first focus group discussion he held was in 1990 at the Sea Lounge in Taj where six women were asked what was missing and what could change in the clothes. The second one was held when his son returned from Wharton Business School two years ago. His son was keen to understand the customers. “We were kind of all over the place,” Tahiliani says.
For about a decade, during the early aughts, Tahiliani’s star descended and he moved out of relevance. With the arrival of new designers such as Rahul Mishra, Rajesh Pratap Singh and Masaba Gupta and a slew of others who had technical training and an urban cool, he seemed dated. “It was like when Coco Chanel came back in 1953-54. They booed her for two seasons and walked out. She then chopped the tweed skirt and suddenly she was hot again,” he says.
After spending days in bed, soul searching and meditating Tahiliani addressed reality: “There is a whole world of competition around you now and you got to be cognisant. The Internet and perfect competition has put pressure on us.” Then he came out with a collection called the “New Democrazy” and was firmly back in the game.
“I love Rohit Bal’s clothes. I mean he stayed static but now it’s kind of the same, similar prints. I like Pero very much, I like Arjun Saluja very much. The younger designers have had a full education, they have had four years in art school, they have learnt the ropes, they have interned, they didn’t need to learn so much by falling on their face. I was a big fan of Manish Arora but his work hasn’t evolved. I liked what Rahul Mishra did in the beginning but it’s much of the same old. He’s trying to be trendy while he’s doing embroidered lehengas so I don’t see the connect. Someone clever like Sabyasachi will take a mangtikka and put it in a way that will make it into a trend that he owns. I don’t own it. You don’t own it. But you can market it to people and make them think you own it,” he says.
The new market has challenged every designer. Tahiliani has become stricter to stop people from pirating his designs. He also has a prêt line—ready to wear, more accessible clothes. “The prices of brands have become much tighter,” he says.“The upper middle class is buying it but how do you define the middle class?” First the lawyers and doctors, professionals in well paying jobs began shopping for his prêt line. “They buy more carefully, they buy one or two things but they will treasure it,” he says. He talks about a “lovely Parsi lady” who bought one customised outfit every year for her birthday. “It was a special treat,” she would tell him.
Everyone except for one model turned up at the airport on time for the flight to Jaipur. For Tahiliani, the airport is a place to gauge what India wears. He marvels at women in tight kurtas with a slit that reveals clingy lycra churidars where you can see cellulite. He notices how most women wear similar Swarovski studded chappals. “It’s all heinous and who looks the best, the 65-year-old grandmother,” he says showing pictures on his iPhone as proof. The grandmothers are in kotadoria, (A uniquely patterned saree from Kota) some have flowers in their hair and kajal in their eyes. There are two women on the flight in cotton petticoats, a kurti and a striped kotadoria wrapped around them. “They are big and ungainly,” he says but they look “graceful”. He finds it sad when people become “totally imitative”, when young girls and middle-aged women in short skirts display their bums and their panty lines. “They think they are being very Western and cool and you think poor thing, you have given up something you could look so lovely in,” he says.
How did the Indian woman go from her grandmother wearing a sari everyday to today’s pant-shirt world? Writing in 1752 in the Political Discourses, the philosopher David Hume states: “If we consult history, we shall find, that, in most nations, foreign trade has preceded any refinement in home manufactures, and given birth to domestic luxury. The temptation is stronger to make use of foreign commodities, which are ready for use, and which are entirely new to us, than to make improvements on any domestic commodity, which always advance by slow degrees, and never affect us by their novelty.”
Richard J. Barnet and Ronald E Muller write in Global Reach: The Power of the Multinational Corporations: “Throughout the underdeveloped world global corporations are thus successfully marketing the same dreams they have been selling in the industrialised world. Stimulating consumption in low-income countries and accommodating local tastes to globally distributed products is crucial to the development of an ever-expanding Global Shopping Center.”
India crossed its own Rubicon in 1991, when the country opened its economy. It allowed global fashion to set up in India; New York and Paris to decide what a section of Indian women wore. It forced ever changing western ideas of beauty and self-image.
“So now it’s all about the ball gowns,” Tahiliani says. Women come in requesting giant trails that almost always get wrecked because India is not “some palazzo in Rome”.
The Raj Mahal palace is equal bits divine and disturbing. Tahiliani came across it because someone was “bitching” about it on a group chat saying it was “totally over the top.” “I said ‘oh my God, it’s divinely over the top’. To me it has this lovely blend of the past and India. It is modern and a bit kitschy.”
Tahiliani’s design head, Kapoor echoes the idea as he walks me through the new collection. A kurta isn’t just a kurta, it is the story of India in a kameez, the marriage of different states, of different cultures in one item of clothing. “India Modern,” he says imitating Tahiliani. Kapoor and Tahiliani have been working together 14 years.
One kurta has traditional kamdani (a kind of gold and silver thread embroidery) work out of Lucknow combined with a digitally printed bodice that is draped. There is a touch of Swarovski in a technique Tahiliani has learnt over many years. There are three techniques in one kurta and this is what makes a Tahiliani piece “unique and cool”.
The key, though, is to do it in a way that is production-friendly. “We can really produce hundreds of this,” Kapoor says as he moves through pieces on the rack in the hair and makeup suite. Another kurta is part embroidery and part digital with a mix of different fabrics put together to make one whole. The’re is thread work, computer and handwork. Fringing adds weight and the embroidery is the finest thread work. The gota (an applique technique) is from Hyderabad, the net from Lucknow and the lace from Gujarat. The kurta is homage to the skills found around India. “It will come at a certain price because it’s not one thing or the other,” he says.
Midway through the tour de collection, the intern rushes into the hair and makeup room in a state of panic. There is a stain on the kurta that will be shot next. “Take it to the laundry,” Aseem directs her. Things go wrong all the time. A bulb is missing on the chandelier and it messes with the shot, the many framed pictures of the royals on the mantelpiece interfere with Hormis Antony Tharakan, the photographer’s vision, and the lighting is not and can never be absolutely perfect.
Tharakan shoots everywhere, all rooms are open and access is never denied despite the management having meetings in huddles voicing reservations. Models have posed on the stairs, “broken and angled” their bodies near the piano and walked back and forth across the foyer as a drone hovers above them. Countless cigarettes have been smoked at the entrance and a marble ashtray is full of butts. Again the management disapproves and smoking has been moved to the lawns under a tree that provides shade from the mean Rajasthan sun.
In the room where the shoot is taking place Tahiliani sits on the floor and directs the models. In the background an erratic mix of house music, Donna Summers and qawali is playing. Tahiliani is constantly cracking jokes to lighten the mood. The models are getting tired and Sharma, one of India’s most famous older models now working as a stylist orders them to drink water, stay hydrated and take two minutes off. “They are the ones in front of the camera,” she says. “They need special attention.”
Sharma is sharp with jewellery, picking pieces without thinking, transforming a black shirt by adding an embellished elastic armband that makes it look part Victorian and part Rajasthani. The models give it their all, the finest jewellers in Jaipur have brought diamonds and pearls for the shoot, and the management refreshes the beet juice and serves canapés at tea time. The jewellery, like the rooms in the palace, like the clothes being modelled, will be on sale once the shoot is over.
Indian style has long oscillated between nouveau riche and neo-royal. One relied on lineage to justify access to luxuries and the other newfound wealth. “Most Indians just want to be royal. How many royal costumes can you look at? There is nothing new in royal India so you are looking at the same hundred portraits. Western fashion changed every century and portraiture documented it. There are a million things to refer to. Our own history besides this period has been destroyed. Being colonised and then socialist we didn’t build a history. The history was fighting somebody off for two hundred years,” he says. Tahiliani is a history buff with an opinion on everything, from Nehru chic to how he would dress Modi. Neo-royals continue to be inspired by the courts, Nawabs, maharanis and courtesans. A Ravi Varma painting is their muse. This is a fantasy that imposes traditional hierarchies by the elite.
The nouveau riche are striving for validation and desire to be among the elite. “I’ll never forget Minal Modi saying, ‘I don’t need a logo. If I put my hand into a bag, my hand knows if it’s luxury or not from the way it feels. When I see someone wearing five logos, I know they don’t know.’ Look at Ralph Lauren. They had a small polo horse and now it’s huge. It covers the man from his pectoral to his rib cage. The nouveau has to scream it,” he says in disgust.
But the new entrant, the middle class, is changing the game one purchase at a time. This is India’s big prêt-à-porter moment. Prêt or ready to wear is factory-made fashion. It is not necessarily mass-produced but is available to a wide variety of customers and comes in different sizes. These are pieces off the rack and not meant to fit perfectly nor do they require a tailor. They may take inspiration from haute couture but lack its exclusivity.
Prêt-à-Porter collections show twice a year in India at the Autumn/Winter and Spring/Summer fashion weeks and cater to climate as well as economic changes. The most famous fashion weeks where Prêt-à-Porter is shown are the big four: New York, Paris, Milan, and London and are open to celebrities, press and fashion bloggers while haute couture is on an invite-only guest list.
In India, the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI)is responsible for organising the Amazon India Fashion Week. Tahiliani has shown at these since the beginning. But the fashion weeks have got out of hand as each city hosts its own, over-populating an already confused market.
There is no company that can chase trends and fill up wardrobes faster than Zara. It is the reason two mothers in my daughter’s parent-teacher meeting are wearing the same thing, why so many young girls at the mall look like each other, the reason Indian prêt is forced to come into its own.
When Zara, owned by international clothing giant Inditex, opened its first store in Delhi in 2010 retail history was written. The store recorded the largest single-day sale by an international outlet. By 2014, with an annual turnover of Rs 405 crore, Zara earned six times more than the second largest brand Louis Philippe and a bit more than the largest department chain Shoppers Stop. Zara’s success was attributable to its ability to chase fashion trends around the world and to move a catwalk design from runway to shop floor in two weeks.
Tahiliani isn’t blind to this and spoke to mass distributors such as Reliance Trends but didn’t take it further. “The clothes were like a mass pile, it hadn’t gone into the fashion. It was utility with pretence of glamour in a nice air-conditioned environment. The way it was stacked and packed would hurt us,” he says.
Others haven’t taken such an enlightened approach. Designer Raghavendra Rathore, partnered with Shopper’s Stop to launch a new co-branded line as early as 2004.
Dana Thomas, a fashion and culture journalist, in her book Deluxe writes: “Corporate tycoons and financiers saw the potential… and turned their sights on a new target audience: the middle market, that broad socioeconomic demographic. The idea, luxury executives explained, was to ‘democratise’ luxury, to make luxury ‘accessible’. It all sounded so noble. Heck, it sounded almost communist. But the goal, plain and simple, was to make as much money as heavenly possible.”
“Fast fashion is a derivative of prêt, technical differences are nominal but their impact is very different. Fast fashion is for a much larger mass audience than prêt. With the democratisation of luxury that happened ten years ago, prêt has become more luxurious. The main point of difference is pricing and the number of drops per season. Emporio Armani would have a drop every two months, whereas Zara has a drop every two weeks,” says Rana, the fashion journalist. The immediacy that fast fashion has brought has accelerated the luxury sector too. There are more fashion cycles and a greater number of collections. Burberry, a British luxury fashion house, led the change by moving away from traditional seasonal collections and allowing customers to buy off the ramp, breaking with a tradition where collections were only available months after their debut on the catwalk. This pressure has seen unprecedented turnover and changes in the biggest houses, from Yves Saint Laurent, Lanvin, Oscar de la Renta to Balenciaga. The need for speed has led to an increase in allegations of plagiarism.
Employees have stolen sketches from Tahiliani. There was one who would scan the sketches and send them to copycats across the country. In another instance, collections in stores have been bought out and mass produced by cheap spin-offs. To understand how fast fashion companies manage to stay ahead of the curve, Kapoor has travelled to Surat, at the heart of the fast fashion industry, to see how they do what they do.
Factories in Surat are investing in machinery used to copy western and Indian designers. Kapoor noticed new production techniques in the several visits he has made. He learnt about digital printing on a sheeted basic stretch jersey. There was a technique to take a tulle, print it digitally and get it crinkled. Surat’s innovations will come in handy for Tahiliani’s team. “We look at something and think, ‘how can we get a computer to design this’?” he said.
It takes about six months to get the collections to the store, what was envisioned for spring-summer goes to fall-winter. “We’ll always do a craft orientated thing but a little bit of business is good as well. That’s when the computer came in and that started off with Surat. Ready-to-Wear is about numbers, about selling and getting the piece to many people,” he says.
But there is a lot of copying. Rohit Bal, one of the grandest couturiers of India, said, “It is despicable, it’s rampant and people who are doing this are living off other people’s creativity and talent. They are cutting into the business. They are making cheap copies and selling the product at an extremely low price. They are thieves and scoundrels breaking the law.”
The shoot started late because of confusion about the hair. Tahiliani has flown in a team from Dubai and despite his fondness for hair with texture, Shin Desu, the hair stylist has blow-dried the hair straight. Once the crisis is resolved, the middle parting is too severe so they have to start again. When the mangteeka is placed in the centre it looks too conventional and is placed on the side. Then Tahiliani notices that one of the models’ nail polish is chipped and he cannot have them photographed like that.
Tharakan, the photographer, is stressed because there are too many people directing him. He’s looking for Barua, the PR person, who is under pressure because the shoot won’t be done in time. Abshishek Gupta, a member of FDCI, designer, musician and all-round creative mind had been called in to do “interesting things”.
This translates into taking beautiful pictures for Tahiliani’s Instagram feed on his iPhone. The account is a product of months of deliberation. “I’m being told my shoots are too stylised, you need to simplify more than this and I said, if I have to simplify more then it’s not going to work because fashion shoots are very stylised and people have to put them in context.” But that doesn’t work anymore, art and creativity have submitted to Instagram.
In an industry where fusion has lost meaning, Tahiliani asserts that his garments are neither Indian nor western. The flapper dress is a kurta, the dhoti is a pant. “That’s why I have a hard time with the department stores because they don’t know how to display it and where. I’ve said, fuck it, this is who I am and this is what I’m going to do,” he says, “Problem is they are always giving me references from the west. We need to be more knowledgeable about our own history.”
He faults Indian magazines. “Indian Vogue is the only Vogue that doesn’t have a national personality. Italian Vogue looks like Italy, English Vogue is very English. We want to be western,” he says. On another occasion he asks “What does our Vogue magazine promote? What is that black dress of Kendall Jenner in the May issue? It is aspirational. And I reckon that dress is not even available in India. English Vogue can’t carry things unless you have a stockist in the country,” he says.
He wasn’t alone in questioning Vogue’s choice. Social media was aflutter about it and columnists were on it. Vogue India was forced to respond: “In the last 10 years, Vogue India has had only 12 international covers, including Kendall Jenner, in 2017. Therefore, statistically, 90 per cent of our covers are Indian! And we are proud of that.”
Ragini Ahuja, who designs under the label Ikai said: “We are all more global now—well travelled, well read and more aware. The contemporary silhouette could be a classic white shirt with kimono sleeves or a boxy kurta with hard-core leather details. Today, we are all free to dress how we desire. We believe in creating utilitarian art—oversized boxy silhouettes are adorned with geometric graphic illustrations. And we believe in using the traditional/local techniques in the most non-traditional ways.”
She won the country awards at IFS17 in London. One of her pieces was a present-day version of the sheep skin cape inspired by the Drokpa community of Ladakh. Her Instagram is full of stars, Shraddha Kapoor in a pinstriped shirt, Sonakshi Sinha in an Oxblood Stripe Suit and leather fringe bracelet or Jaqueline Fernandes in denim on denim.
When the shoot finally started it took place in the darbar room where Adil Ahmad, the creative director of Good Earth’s interior design division had plastered the room with wallpaper. It drew upon India’s rich heritage, when the only people who shopped were the royals. Royal Chic. That’s what the industry called it. It was a tried and tested set. Aishwarya Singh and Dayana Kavernma moved their bodies in the few poses they had mastered. The furniture had been moved back and the team leaned on the sofa as they watched Tharakan direct the models. Tahiliani was boisterous and excited. He had settled in and found his groove. “It’s beautiful,” he said.
Aseem fixed Nida who was in a sari draped gown, while Palak was in a beaded version in thread and bugle beads of vintage silver. Dayana perched on the hand of the chair exposing her entire leg. “Can we sit a little less of that leg?” Tahiliani asked Bhawna. “I’m 55, I’m very conservative.”
Gupta followed the models around. He was a man of few words, and called them by crooking his finger. Nobody knew who he would call or where, and when he shot with his iPhone he did with the same enthusiasm as Tharakan. For an industry finding its identity in fashion, “royal chic was the style statement of India,” he says. “I think it’s passé. I think village chic is very important. You see people who have nothing but have so much style. I think when you are completely covered and carry yourself, that is sexy, more than revealing anything. We are not comfortable flaunting our money or being super chic, everything is so confused in modern India.”
Tahiliani’s aim now is to make clothes more accessible. As ready-to-wear in India improves in cuts and silhouettes, he is getting ready to expand. He has built one more factory where the embroidery is done. They have bought another two plots of land. “One day I’m going to take over the entire block and make it nice. It’s so squalid. There has to be a certain standard of luxury,” he says.
“Everything can be made more mass market. But by definition of mass you have to become simpler and simpler and more A line, less stylised and I like stylised. I’m interested in creatively fulfilling my mind first. So if I have to go to work and do little T-shirts then why do you need me? That’s mass market, I won’t sell something with my name because it’s just plain. So I have to work that out. I would love to do simpler kurtas and simpler dhoti drapes but you know they are intimidated to go into the shops,” says Tahiliani.
He has thought about approaching Fab India. “They have 140 stores and stand for a certain value and have tried a line of clothing called Fables and it’s not really cool. I’d love to be creative director of that and do four days a month or six and it’s something I’ve thought about. They have the distribution,” he says. Such joint ventures have been seen from Karl Lagerfeld (who designs for Chanel and Fendi) and H&M but it has a fair amount of critics.
“‘Fashion,’ in the sense now being co-opted by the high street, used to mean designer fashion; that is, something made by a creator who puts care and thought into what he or she is creating. It means carefully crafted designs made with attention to detail and aesthetic sensibility. But somewhere along the line, the definition of ‘fashion’ shifted. I invite anyone to argue that fast fashion brands produce ‘fashion’ in the original sense of the word. They may sell decent clothing at affordable prices—but not fashion. Providing access to affordable clothing is a noble goal. But, alas, this goal was perverted a long time ago by the rise of irresponsible consumer behaviour that has transformed the act of shopping into a leisure activity. Real style is a matter of taste. And taste is a matter of experience. It takes effort and knowledge. Buying into a style, quickly and cheaply, inevitably leads to the disposability of style. It’s like reading the Cliff’s Notes instead of the book,” writes Eugene Rabkin, editor-in-chief of Style Zeitgeist magazine in the Business of Fashion.
India’s big prêt moment—even before Zara—was in 1994. In a July 15 story written that year, “a recent study by the apparel consultancy firm Technopak shows that just 1 per cent of the country’s total 15 to 24 population of roughly 175 million spends Rs 1,200 crore a year on ready-to-wear garments. And it is estimated that this urban focus figure is likely to rise to Rs 1,800 crore by the turn of the century. As of now, designer-wear does form a minuscule segment, but market-smart designers are hopeful of weaning away much of this crowd.”
It took almost two decades for the industry to institute changes that would start catering to a burgeoning middle class. This comes at a time when the branded garments segment will grow to 48 per cent of the overall readymade segment in 2019, from 35 per cent in 2014.
The market for readymade is estimated at $45 billion; the domestic market is around $27 billion. The Indian branded apparel industry is estimated to be $10 billion in size and growing at 10-12 per cent a year. Between 2010-2011 and 2015-16, modern retail’s share has increased from 7 per cent to 16 percent and this is set to grow to 37 per cent of the retail trade by 2021. Even online retail is expected to grow to $44 billion by 2018 from $13 billion in 2014, with apparel accounting for 31 per cent.
Unsurprisingly, some of the country’s biggest designers are launching new, more affordable labels. Rohit Bal boldly said in 2014: “I can’t do cheap clothes for women. I think women should be dressed richly in expensive and beautiful clothes.” Since then Bal has opened new stores across India with a price point at about Rs 30,000. He said people now look for value for money. “We will change as the market changes,” he said over the phone. “We still make beautiful clothes but we tone it down so it does not cut into our look and not take away from quality. But we have noticed that people buying this are still buying haute couture. It’s not that they stop buying it. They want a less expensive alternative. It’s better we do it than someone else.”
Designers such as Manish Arora launched “Indian by Manish Arora X Koovs” on Koovs.com that sells shirts and joggers for Rs 1,965. The Indian aesthetic is prevalent in all the pieces. Raghavendra Rathore, the “king of bandhgala” has launched the Imperial Clothing Company which derives inspiration from the aristocratic styling of Imperial India at an affordable prêt price of Rs 4,000.
In a bid to address the problems faced by the sector, Minister for Textiles Smriti Irani launched Textile India 2017, a mega textile fair to showcase designs from across the country. The biggest names in the business, including Anita Dongre, Manish Arora, Manish Malhotra, Rajesh Pratap Singh, Rahul Mishra, Ritu Kumar, Rohit Bal, Sabyasachi, and Tarun Tahiliani took part in the initiative. Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the fair.
Tahiliani was dazzled by some beautiful khadi and anti-fit. “There was a beautiful coat by Rajesh Pratap, a young Assamese designer did fabulous draped dresses. Textiles 2017 inspired you and made you think of fabric in a new way,” he said. But there was disconnect between the government’s reading of fashion and the reality of the fashion industry.
“It was a cool show but I didn’t understand the point,” he said. He questioned the timing, “Whose cycle is this, to hold a fashion event in the end of June during the monsoon in Gandhinagar. We were not clear on what this was. But this government is smart to use the designers to project an image. But it could have been better. A designer could have been given a region to work on. There is no connect to the world of luxury fashion.”
Cover Story at Infinity Mall in Mumbai’s Malad has one aim: to sell and sell fast. It is a fast fashion brand by Kishore Biyani’s Future Style Lab, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Future Group. The collection is inspired by the big four fashion weeks of Paris, London, New York and Milan. Designs look like they belong on a 20-something’s Instagram feed or in Zara and H&M stores. Cover Story takes a page out of Zara and H&M’s book. It will be refreshing 10 per cent of its collection every week and phasing out 10 per cent as well.
“Our intention is to build stores that are as large as those of H&M and Zara, right now the stores (Cover Story) are smaller,” Biyani told Mint in April.
Does this worry Kapoor? “I think Indian designers will have to get more and more creative. You can’t compete with them in T-shirts, they can do numbers, their turnaround is so fast so the game has to be upped. The customer will not forget the refinement. I can’t compete with a draped T-shirt with Zara but I have an upper hand on a digitally printed T-shirt with Swarovski. I see the biggest celebrities wearing Zara. They are going to Zara for the basics but Zara can never do a refined chikankari,” he says.
After a long day of shooting, the doors to the City Palace were opened for Tahiliani and his friends for a private soiree. Canapes and all sorts of drinks were served and for this Tahiliani wore a white shirt. He’s seldom if ever seen without his trademark black shirt and black trousers. “I want a uniform. I do things all day. Fashion allowed you to slip into a role. When it starts becoming problematic, an issue for people and for everyone around is when it starts becoming hierarchical to the point. There are many beautiful things in my cupboard, hundreds of shoes and I wear two. It’s like some terrible museum and I’m giving it away slowly. I don’t want to make choices,” he says.
Colette, one of the most magnificent museums of fashion, a Paris institution, a launchpad for young designers and a shopping destination for industry insiders and tourists alike, will close its doors on the Rue St.-Honoré in December. Ensemble re-opened this year with a brand new store and a carefully curated collection by Tina Tahiliani (Tarun’s sister) with designers from across India.
“People say, why are you still involved in Ensemble, you’re breeding your own competition and that’s not true and there’s a whole world of design. And I have always believed in taking an Indian designer and putting him out there. I’ve never been interested in being the enfant terrible. In our 50s we need to graduate to another role,give back to society in a responsible way,” he says.
That night as people took turns playing house music, Tahiliani danced the most without a care in the world and slipped away before everyone else. “Never overstay your welcome,” he said the following morning as he was back at work.
(Cover story of the August 2017 edition of Fountain Ink)