Designer Tarun Tahiliani calls draping one of the most exquisite ways of fashion as it never looks the same. By Team Viva
He recounted our history of being invaded and how, as a result, amalgamated cultures came into existence. A certain confidence and pride reflected in his understanding of the diversity of India. He shared that if two hundred years down the line, he was parachuted from an aircraft, he would know which part of the country he had landed in, not just by tasting the food or noting their language, but also through how people draped textiles on themselves. That was Tarun Tahiliani talking of his origins as a designer. Addressing an audience at the India International Centre (IIC), he said, “Because we have a draped tradition, we have sarees and the dhotis. There were also turbans and pagadis. Each region slowly developed its own style.” The beauty of the drapes, according to him, is that unlike Western fashion, which can be moulded as per any and every body shape. They have their own signature. “The same saree worn by three women would look totally different, whereas three women walking in the same Prada dress would create a crisis in the party.”
He also listed some of the greatest movements and events which led to a transformation and evolution in the Indian textile industry over the years.
Made in India
The designer feels that even though his roots were not planted in fashion, he found himself incapable of committing to either engineering or the Navy. Defining his growing up years in terms of the fashion trends of the time, he said, “When I was growing up, India was still a textile industry. Women mostly wore wonderful sarees. There were murmurs of some big textile shows like the Vishwakarma and there were great festivals of India done by Rajiv Sethi.” However, something that failed to escape his observation was the absence of textiles in India. “When I travelled abroad I would see the most beautiful things which had the label ‘Made in India.’ There were scarves and textiles but none of them were available in the country. I found it to be really odd that even after 30-40 years of independence, we were saving our best produce for the White Man.” And perhaps it was the very moment which highlighted his passion as he told us about how he remembers shopping at fashion streets with export rejects in south Bombay. “Though there were tailors, the idea of the developed retail hadn’t really come to fore.”
He recalled that the idea to birth the Ensemble, his first official label, in 1987, came to him when he realised the need of bringing those textiles he saw abroad to the country. It can be traced back to a cover of a magazine daily, in which Feroze Gurjal had posed in a hot pink salwar and some silk, with a short jacket and a huge turban — all styled by Rohit Khosla. It was the time he had moved back from New York and thought that maybe it was the time for him to launch a store, through which he could encourage people, who produce things in India, to be present in the retail environment. “We wanted Indian talent who designed and worked for Western labels to think about coming back and develop their own identity here. And when we started, we did not know what we were doing. But there was this massive crush at that time where people were desperate for this whole richness inspired by costumes of royal India,” said he.
Keep it natural
And while he also shared about his escalation into the fashion industry, he also lamented the simplicity of the tradition, “We always talk about colour and embroidery in India but actually the way people drape a fabric is the most exquisite thing to me because it never looks the same. It’s a kind of a language, an identity that unfortunately is disappearing very fast.” He said that he finds only a handful of people in sarees, and only at the airport, while the middle-aged and the youngsters bounce in and out of ‘bonkus’ fashion. “All the women who are over 60 or 70, look the best because they wear sarees. They look comfortable. Today, most middle-aged women are wearing high-slit kurtas with some tights which don’t leave much to the imagination.” The transition from being an Indian and the attraction towards the West is huge and doesn’t seem to settle in the near future.
“When people are naturally Indian, I don’t think you can go wrong. If you are comfortable and know what to do, you’ll look great. So, we are using that in this massive effort to be Western and to change ourselves. It takes time to set yourself in your own skin,” said he.
Talking about how Khadi India tried to acquaint high fashion connoisseurs with itself, he agreed it worked for a while. But Khadi is quite an expensive fabric now as compared to what people can easily buy. “I realised that it is not meant for high fashion, which in India is meant for a lot of cutting, seaming and embroidery. Khadi’s beauty is in being a textile. The more you cut and shape, which is unfortunately what fitness and Western influences demand, it flares to certain stress points in the outfit.” To further prove his point, he talked about the infamous Nilambari sarees. “In Benaras, earlier I’d find only two to three Nilamabari sarees and now they have 20-30 saree stores, which are about 60,000 in number. They are exquisite and women are buying them. But if you cut them up, it would not work. A lot of such fabric is meant to be loose and layered, which is why I keep going back to draping. It’s effortless, sensuous and beautiful. Everyone’s trying to be something they are not, if we leave things the way they are, they work.”
Milan to Kutch: no limits
Being the first Indian designer to feature his work on the ramps of the Milan Fashion Week, he may as well have put Indian high fashion on the map. “Though the clothes might look like cliché, we wanted to bring these in a modern way. And because printing had happened and we had begun the draping, we started by digitally printing miniatures and necklaces.” The collection boasted of an impeccable representation of the modern India, which included a Golconda necklace, printed on a little tee and could be worn with a saree, a dhoti, or a pair of jeans.
But how does he grapple with what works commercially and what is agreeable to his artistic instincts? Tahiliani said he is unsure of how he does it. “Sometimes I look at things and I can’t believe we did this.” As the label grows in magnitude, decisions reside not only on the designer’s shoulders but also on the company. “This time I’ve decided, if I don’t like something for the couture week, it’s not going.” The constant tug war to appease the market and also stay true to oneself is never ending, “At the end of the day, you’ve got bills to pay, there are about thousand people who have to be paid,” he said.
His immense knowledge of fashion is inherent in his experiences, “Fashion took me to places, I was uncomfortable with or just curious about and taught me how to love what really mattered in India and not some supremist imposed identity.” His visit to Kutch in 2011 collided him with some exquisite looks that the locals adorned. “There women wear 20 metres of fabric tucked into a nadha. It’s not even stitched. Another thing I found, which I particularly loved, was a man wearing a lungi held by a little fanny pack and a shirt and a tank top underneath!” The Kumbh Mela was mind-boggling, eye-opener for him. People were in one colour, usually in shades of red or saffron. “If I were to put them on the Paris ramp of John Galliano, even the wildest, the most fantastical imagination and the ability to make those things come to life.”
He continued with the message to stay true to oneself, “We just have to be who we are. We have to be comfortable as there is no ‘one’ answer for India. The diversity is not limited to what region we belong to, but also what our exposure of the world has been.”
He added that we need to fight this “bollywoodisation,” and do what feels good and right. “This is how I did it. And I hope we can do that more and more and touch people, help them or push them to engage with what our great heritage really is and not the Bandra-based Bollywood version of it,” said he.