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Real fashion for the real Indian woman

As Tarun Tahiliani celebrates 25 years of his eponymous label, he looks at offering real fashion solutions to suit the lifestyle of the modern Indian woman in the coming decade

Tarun Tahiliani at his atelier in Gurugram
Tarun Tahiliani at his atelier in Gurugram

One has to navigate the dust and grime of Gurugram to reach Tarun Tahiliani’s atelier. But once there, the grating noise gives way to a certain quietude. Exposed brick walls and trees lend the space an earthy feel. Inside, the play of light on bricks creates an ombre effect—Tahiliani’s favourite technique. The walls on each floor display prints by modern artists, some of them bought from the National Gallery of Modern Art and the National Museum. The most striking is the Mother Teresa series by the late M.F. Husain on the second floor that also features a maze of rooms. In one of the rooms, Tahiliani is arranging garments on mannequins and examining the details on hand-painted skirts. Snatches of fabric, interspersed with his sketches, are arranged on the floors and walls. Having just celebrated 25 years of his eponymous label—with career highlights such as dressing singer Lady Gaga for the F1 after-party in 2011 and supermodel Karlie Kloss in 2016—Tahiliani is already looking at fashion for the next decade. As we settle down for an interview, he shares ways of making everyday dressing cool for women. Edited excerpts:

How do you envision fashion for the coming decade?

Fashion is an answer to what society needs at that time. We are not dressing people at a basic level—for heat, cold or modesty. It is more subliminal than that. Indians have become more global and the global world has come to India. Within this, women have evolved even more rapidly. They are emancipated, educated and equal. The manner in which they now view their bodies and the way they dress is all relevant to the fashion of today. There is no hypocrisy. A girl who is comfortable wearing a low-neck top and shorts is equally at home wearing a lehnga. It is an exciting time to be in design. When we launched (the multi-designer boutique) Ensemble in 1987 (with wife Sailaja), we did a lot of things that were ahead of their time. We had to stop doing them as there was no market. But now, it is time to go back to those.

What are your plans to take your visual vocabulary one step ahead?

I am always trying to find solutions so that we are neither overtly Indian nor overtly Western. I don’t think that’s cool. The Italians that I know are always Italian and the French are always French. Even if we wear a dress or a pair of jeans, we need to find a way to have that Indian identity about ourselves. For some it may be achieved by wearing a nath (nose ring), but it is not so clearly established. Designers are now working on defining that and offering real solutions to people. There are many challenges in this process. We are still in a decorative space, working with bridal wear and evening wear. We use a lot of Indian craft. While I want to continue with that, in the next decade it will be much more fun to dress all of India and see people cool all the time, rather than being overdressed. I think the word “overdress" should cease to exist. We need to find that “India cool" thing. It hasn’t become scaled enough yet.

Which elements from the 25-year journey of your label do you plan to take forward?

As part of our celebrations, we had created 25 new looks, which encapsulate different things from the past. Take, for instance, this multicoloured skirt, which is still being worked on. It has been hand-painted and will be made into a lehnga. Garments like these might refer to some things we did before, but are absolutely contemporary versions. In the archive room (during the 25th anniversary celebrations), we had showcased three-four pieces, which were milestones in our journey, such as a Kanjeevaram lehnga, which was the first-ever draped lehnga, and a concept sari. Now, if you look at this pink garment (pictured above) here, it is a new concept sari. With these 25 garments, I am showing things that have stood the test of time and represent what the atelier stands for. For instance, we always do ombre—I like the technique— and Swarovski straps. When there is so much crystal already, everything else needs to be plain. You don’t need to overdress even if you are going to your sister’s wedding.

Every atelier has a signature. How has yours evolved with changing times?

We do a lot of drapes with embroidery. Everything that we have done so far— except for the long flows, which get very heavy and don’t suit the modern lifestyle —is even more relevant today. Take concepts such as the chikan separates or the structured drapes, garments with a one-sided dupatta attached. Unless you are someone who wears a sari every day, you won’t know how to handle too much fabric if you take a Metro to work. One of fashion’s key jobs should be about giving solutions that suit your current life.

You run around a lot more than your grandmother. The scope of life has increased. You can’t dress the same way as women did 20 years ago. My mother used to change saris thrice a day, which then had to be washed and starched. You can’t do that now. She was so excited when she got her first polyester sari—it didn’t crush all day. Technology changes things. A churidar can be so comfortable because it stretches, and the way we construct it. You don’t need so much fabric gathered in one place. When people had limited means, they did it to make the garment look fuller. But today, the ideal of beauty has changed. Fashion doesn’t exist in isolation. Today, thanks to the internet, many worlds exist. You and I could be sitting in the same room but our experience of life would be different. That wasn’t the case before. All this changes the way you think and dress.

How are you making drapes lightweight and comfortable?

It has taken us a long time to achieve this. When we started, if you wanted something draped, the masterjis would gather the sari folds to resemble little curtains in the movie theatre. They didn’t know better back then. It has taken years. In India, we have the legacy of weaves and embroidery, but structured draping is a very European concept. We now have people who study draping. I can explain it conceptually and sketch it, but now we have technical people who can execute it to the last detail. Some of the new pieces, like the pink concept sari, which is ombre in reverse, has a little wire to structure it. It is like a sari pallu but very modern.

All the pieces that you see here, like the embroidered black shawl, are examples of structured draping. You can drape with very thin fabric but not with thicker materials like zardozi. They become heavy and stiff. Drape needs a certain softness and for fabric to be supple. I just came back from a place called Ranakpur in Rajasthan. You see such amazing examples of drapes there in the garments of the old men and women—be it the safas or dhotis. But then you head to Udaipur, located 2 hours from there, where everyone is in export rejects. That old style of draping will be gone in 10-15 years.

We now have a tendency to over-drape fabrics in India. Look at the Oscars this year, when everything was plain, with minimal embroidery but with structured drapes. That created magic. The same fabric can be tied in so many different ways. There is no need for such heavy embroidery. Don’t make embroidery an encumbrance.

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