When I first look at the projection of the TT logo on the brown-stoned façade of Dubash House in Mumbai’s Ballard Estate, my memories pull me back to the first time I visited Tahiliani’s Mehrauli store in Delhi.
The stark walls hid an opulently filled 12,000 sq store that has a view of the Qutub, which, Tahiliani tells me, he often likes to visit for walks with a ₹40 ticket. Surrounded by stores of the biggest Indian couturiers, the couture complex made me think about how most designers feel shortchanged in Mumbai in terms of space.
Determined to change this and claim a luxury of space, Tahiliani decided to move out of his Colaba flagship store. Located in the wooden balconied Villar Ville on Mumbai’s iconic Apollo Bunder waterfront, his previous store location was extremely close to his heart. His grandparents lived in a duplex there, he lived there as a baby after his birth, and it was his home for many years — in between moving houses due to his father who was in the Navy — even when he moved back from the States after his education.
Even though he loved being around the Taj, the residential-wing-turned-store had small rooms, which he found insufficient to fit his lehengas, which he (seriously) jokes are getting bigger by the day. Ensemble, India's first multi-designer store, is also just around the corner, laid out in another old building which belonged to a machine tools company.
I enter the store with these thoughts in my head, welcomed by two Kathakali dancers who stand out against the luxurious high-ceilinged new space. The man of the hour seems lost in some corner of the never-ending store, and I take a look around while trying to find him, straining my ears to spot his deep voice among multiple conversations that are underway among groups of magazine editors, stylists, merchandisers and friends.
Tahiliani has worked in collaboration with Divya Thakur of Design Temple for the flagship Mumbai boutique. In addition to archival prints and exquisitely embroidered Mata ni Pachedis and Pichwais, the use of Indian stone floors for certain segments are telling of Tahiliani’s signature style; a modern interpretation of the many arts and crafts of India.
His entire range – textiles, occasion-wear, ready-to-wear, couture, and accessories – is housed in spacious sections which are as large as boutiques in their own right by Mumbai standards. The luxury-pret section tempts buyers as you enter the store, then there is a Sari Bar and ready-to-wear, followed by accessories, menswear, a bridal salon, and spacious fitting rooms upstairs, with grand stairs that will help you imagine your wedding entry as you try the outfits.
I finally find Tahiliani in one of the sumptuously custom-carpeted fitting/consultation rooms. “We’ve survived the pandemic. And there was so much more online interaction and we could sell to people around the world. This store will provide that post-lockdown space connect. I have been transported to the most beautiful stores I have visited in the past even when shopping online as there is a strong association. Marble or orange onyx isn’t luxury for me, the volume of space is. These big halls afforded that… plus it is beautiful here in Ballard Estate,” he tell me.
Tahiliani says how so many years ago when they opened Ensemble in the late 80s, people were wary and commented that no one will come to that part of the Fort Precinct. The glorious Fort area had shrivelled in a way, he says, though real estate prices were still off the charts. There was then a revival post the ’90s, and the art districts of Kala Ghoda and Colaba became the new fashion hubs of Mumbai with many designers opening their flagship stores.
Tahiliani says Ballard Estate is his next leap of faith. We are interrupted by the Kathakali dancers who are ready to change and leave for the day. “My son got married two months ago and they performed at the wedding and were loved by everyone. He is also a hip-hop and contemporary dancer,” Tahiliani exclaims and shows us a photo of the artiste on his phone in a very different avatar. “They need the money to continue their art, which can’t be sustained just through village fairs,” he rues.
Even when he was studying abroad, he says, it wasn’t the members-only clubs of Bombay or lunches at Taj that he missed. He missed Rajasthan and its many crafts, the boats of Benaras and the hills and ghats. Despite studying in Jesuit schools and leading a Westernized life, he missed engaging in the history and the arts and crafts of India. “The identity of a true brand is the reflection of the journey of a person [who leads it]. The brand reflects how you engage and react,” says Tahiliani.
Were there any apprehensions about opening a massive store post the pandemic, I ask him, and he says the pandemic was amazing once he got over the fright and shock and the suddenness of the lockdown. He spent time with his family on a farm after years, so much that he felt that they were dysfunctional before it. He read a lot, exercised and was feeding 2700 people every day, twice a day. The mass migration of labour and craftsmen deeply affected him. “It was so close, it made me realise that you need to stop taking things for granted. Only look at your life and stop petty comparisons,” he explains how the pandemic made him more determined to strengthen his brand.
For this, he needed to house the brand in a building that echoes the kind of lifestyle his brand stands for. The fact that a good product can help him break even in two days of sale was an added incentive. And this building also transports him back to the beautiful stone avenue he witnessed at Gianfranco Ferre’s last show for Dior, says the designer.
Having survived covid (he got both the Delta and the Omicron variant), Tahiliani says he believed that the pandemic would make buyers go back to simplicity. But brides were running towards the heaviest pieces instead. This buyer behaviour pushed him to reassess the brand too, and consciously not slip into patterns that were set till 2020. Last year, Aditya Birla Fashion and Retail Limited (ABFRL) announced a strategic partnership with Tahiliani and launched contemporary men’s ethnic brand, Tasva, which has eight stores currently, with a goal of 50 for 2022 says Tahiliani.
“The discussions with ABFRL had started before the pandemic. I am going to be 60 and it is time to do different things. I am madder than my children put together; in fact, I ask them ‘how are you like this with a father like me?’ The Indian industry is responsible and smart, these are public limited companies and are answerable to shareholders. So things have to be transparent, we [designers] need to deliver results, and it [corporate takeovers] can be a game-changer for Indian fashion,” he says. He adds that ABFRL made him realise that there is a market in every city for well-priced ready-to-wear. And with Tasva now up in full force, the company will now work on the luxury couture segment, of which it has acquired a 33% stake (set to increase).
“If you do not work in an organised environment, which most of us [designers] didn’t, it’s more stressful in the long run. I want to see this go long term, and it is so much more [to do] yet easier to manage now. It’s like working with professionals, which wasn’t how the industry worked before. And I enjoy working with Kumar Mangalam Birla. He is a visionary and he is so calm.”