There’s one big problem in Indian fashion: Many designers have not archived their collections. If they don’t keep a record of their sketches, swatches, look-books, fabrics, or the karigars (craftspersons) they work with, it’s difficult to trace their development. This, in turn, will make it almost impossible to map the history of Indian fashion, Divia Patel, curator of the South Asian department at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, had told Lounge last year.
That’s why a forthcoming book documenting the journey of Tarun Tahiliani, the man and the luxury fashion brand, becomes important. Tarun Tahiliani: Journey To India (Roli Books), which releases on 16 November, is co-written by Tahiliani, and Alia Allana, an investigative journalist at Object magazine. Understandably then, it’s part memoir and part deep dive into how a boy, born in 1962 in a Sindhi household in Mumbai, went from attending art and piano classes in polio braces during school, to studying business management at the US’ Wharton School of Business, selling oil-field equipment, and then going on to become one of the architects of Indian contemporary fashion.
Photographs, sketches and anecdotes create a vivid documentation of close to three decades of the designer’s work: from co-founding Ensemble, a multi-designer boutique that introduced the concept of luxury retail to India in 1987, to presenting his first solo show in London in 1994, to founding the Tarun Tahiliani Design Studio in 1995 in Delhi, to starting Tasva, a more accessible menswear brand in partnership with the conglomerate Aditya Birla Fashion and Retail Ltd.
What shines through is Tahiliani’s constant experimentation with his craft to shape traditional textiles and embroideries in a way that fulfils the demands of the consumer and also results in timeless designs. Whether it’s his anarkalis, paired with embroidered gilets that look like they belong in a miniature painting, rainbow-coloured jewels cast as clasps or bajubandhs, or jewelled trompe l’oeil T-shirts with medieval Mughal miniatures, chikankari corsets or Kanjivaram saris fashioned into dhotis, Tahiiani likes to carry the past with the present.
There’s also a section dedicated to the iconic “concept sari”, a brainchild of Tahiliani that re-imagines the nine yards into a piece of high fashion (in the form of pre-stitched saris, form-fitting petticoats with slits, fluted corset-style blouses) and is now part of many designer collections.
The concept sari took shape around the year 2000. “It was when I sold an embroidered petticoat still commonly seen in the South, and worn with a long chunni for the body. If you attach this chunni, or drape, to the base, you can start doing different things, using pre-pleated fabric, for example. In a way, it was conceptually a sari and that was where the term emerged,” Tahiliani recalls in the book.
While offering insights into a designer’s lab, the book simultaneously tracks the history of Indian fashion and design. In a Q&A section, while talking about his favourite technique of draping, Tahiliani explains: “I think embroidery came with Islam. It’s not something that belonged to Hinduism because I don’t know of any indigenous embroideries that we did. We wove fabrics.... I think thdraping itself is something that stayed certainly in a country that has the sari and the dhoti, that’s the basis of everything. Unlike the Greeks and the Romans, who basically had the toga and the Doric chiffon, our tribal communities have so many different iterations of the drape. There are hundreds of thousands of turbans, saris and dhotis. Till we learned some tailoring from the British—the Mughals only brought in the basic jama—there was only draping.”
No entrepreneurship story, however, is complete without a mention of learnings and failures. This is where Tarun Tahiliani: Journey To India leaves you wanting more. Tahiliani is one of the few early Indian brands to have striven to remain relevant and maintain a loyal global following. In fact, it’s one of the few luxury houses from the 1990s to have received corporate funding. Surely, it wasn’t an easy road. While Tahiliani does talk about wasting several opportunities “because I jumped around like a chid”, specific details would have been useful.
Another section that needed more space was Tahiliani’s interactions with karigars, perhaps the backbone of any design story. The book does offer instances of his interactions with artisans and his design team, but only as a sprinkle.
Nevertheless, it’s a valuable book for anyone who wants to learn about Indian fashion, told through the story of a designer who has built a solid brand in the fast-paced fashion industry while staying true to his design vocabulary. It gives the world a taste of India’s treasure trove.
Tarun Tahiliani: Journey To India (Roli Books) releases on 16 November.