As a teenager in the Communist Calcutta of the 1980s, in my mind’s eye there was just one store for men’s clothing: Chotirmall and Sons. We would visit it usually in the fortnight before Christmas, and my brothers and I would choose a shirt each. This was just how it was before Rajiv Gandhi started limited liberalisation of the economy in the mid-1980s.
So splashing out on designer clothing is somewhat alien to me. A few years ago, a generous friend gave me a blank cheque for a milestone birthday to buy a Tarun Tahiliani bandhgala. By then I had as many bandhgalas as there are days in the week and instead chose billowing silk black dhoti pants, more Arabian Nights than rural Indian. The dhoti pants happened to be on sale, prompting an exasperated phone call from my friend.
The one exception has been a brief addiction to the shirts of Richard James, a Savile Row designer in London. I still have a few, some in a luminous teal, purple or blood red, bought at sales for a fraction of their retail price. My problem with spending with abandon is one that Virginia Woolf explained almost a hundred years ago: “The spending muscle does not work naturally yet. I feel guilty; put off buying when I know I should buy.”
I had just that feeling recently when I wanted to buy clothes at Tasva, the new Indian menswear joint venture between Tarun Tahiliani and Aditya Birla Fashion and Retail. Tasva is an Aladdin’s cave, ranging from wonderfully contemporary—and comfortable—takes on juttis that do not bite your heels to understated (as well as over-the-top) achkans and sherwanis. Minutes after walking in, I was looking at a minimalist velvet burgundy-coloured bandhgala sold with black pants and wondering how it could be priced for as little as ₹9,999 (when similarly classic looks would start at six-eight times that at Tahiliani’s boutique).
The kurtas I liked came with churidars with stretch material. The kurtas, one in the bluest of midnight blues and the other in pistachio, featured jaali open-chain sewing or appliqué patterns that sat high on the chest, looking like a dress shirt for a tuxedo. The kurta and churidar sets start at ₹3,999 and have a median of ₹5,999. As Polonius advised Laertes in Hamlet, “Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy, But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy; For the apparel oft proclaims the man.”
Polonius makes many good points but his principal one is buying what is affordable. So much Indian designerwear for men hitherto has been essentially an extension of wedding wear, and this comes with once-in-a-lifetime prices to match. Cash registers at designer stores seem to count from ₹80,000 and upwards. Personally, as a middle-aged man I would rather spend that on a holiday than on a bandhgala to wear to someone’s wedding.
This is why the move into the mid-priced market by retailers such as Reliance Brands, partnering with Rahul Mishra, or Sabyasachi and Tarun Tahiliani teaming up with Aditya Birla Fashion and Retail, is good news. Brands and designers are focusing on comfort and accessibility to come up with stylish, competitively priced Indian clothing that can be worn anywhere, not just at weddings.
Tahiliani attributes the prices to the economies of scale the Aditya Birla group’s production network can tap into as well as the use of blended fabric. Tasva uses Khadi but also cotton/silk and synthetic blends, without losing the sense of luxury. While there is plenty to satisfy your inner Mughal (quilted achkans with floral patterns inspired by those medieval fashionista pharaohs, for instance) and your wannabe Rajput, Tahiliani has for the most part turned away from ornate Jodhaa Akbar-styled wedding wear. “The costumes of royal India have been done, done, done,” he says. “Those conventions might be what parents and grandparents want but the youth of India don’t think like that.” This is a much needed step back from maximalist Manyavar, the undisputed wedding-wear kingpin.
For those who want to see more Indian men at dinner parties and in the office in kurtas, Nehru waistcoats and bandhgalas, it’s reassuring that brands and designers are making clothing that can be worn anywhere. I tried on an olive green bandhgala that would have worked well with jeans or chinos. The churidars have zippers and stretch fabric. Indeed, there is much at Tasva that could plausibly be part of any man’s wardrobe. Broadening the ready-to-wear market in style and price points will give more men reason to wear clothing such as kurtas to dinner parties.
At the height of Delhi’s summers, I would almost always wear a kurta or a loose-fitting, kurta-style shirt and britches or Sri Lankan sarongs, all of which breathe so well. These looser-fitting clothes also fit the typical Indian male better than Western, “slim-fit” Italian cut shirts and suits.
The accessibility of stylish Indian clothing might even bring out the designer in us. I spent the months after lockdown choosing ikat weaves and batik prints for masks and recently made a grey muslin shirt, decorated with a weaver’s board-game of white crosses of jamdani embroidery. The material was bought at a Dastkar stall from Bengal and sewn by the tailor down the road.
Perhaps because I had been trying on swanky achkans and regal shoes, the experience momentarily went to my head. I fantasised that Tasva—as well as the country-spanning networks of Manyavar and Fabindia and ready-to-wear new entrants Rahul Mishra and Sabyasachi—could dramatically change the way Indian men dress.
And what could be a more worthwhile aesthetic project for India @75 than smartening up the Indian middle-aged male?
Rahul Jacob was the travel, food and drink editor for the Financial Times in London and is the author of Right Of Passage, a collection of travel essays.