This is a landmark year for Tarun Tahiliani. As the designer turns 60, he’s writing a new chapter in his 25-year-long career. It started in the last few weeks of 2021, when he wrapped up a unique day at Varanasi’s Darbhanga Ghat—men of different ages, shapes and sizes standing in front of the two-centuries-old Brijrama Palace, dressed in Tasva, Tahiliani’s first ethnic menswear label.
Its launch signals the desire of a designer, known globally for bridalwear, to stay more relevant by growing in a space that’s becoming popular in the pandemic era—luxury meets affordability (Tasva prices start at ₹1,599). It’s also the first venture between Tahiliani and Aditya Birla Fashion and Retail Ltd (ABFRL) since the conglomerate acquired a 33.5% stake in his luxury demi-couture business for ₹67 crore in February. As part of the deal, ABFRL will help launch 70 stores and hold an 80% stake in the new label.
“I was just kind of fed up trying to run a business,” says Tahiliani. “I wanted to expand but every time we did it we could not manage it,” he adds, referring to the prêt label, OTT, he launched in 2008—he couldn’t manage the production side. It was Aditya Birla Group chair K. M. Birla’s idea that they start the ABFRL-TT partnership with menswear. “Men’s is a much more structured organised market within Indian clothing. Menswear has more or less four things—sherwanis, bandhgalas, kurtas and kurta shirts. So it made sense for me,” says Tahiliani.
It is this pragmatism, creativity, self-awareness and ambition to try something new that has helped Tahiliani, a Wharton graduate, achieve success as a designer and businessman. In the list of the architects of Indian contemporary fashion who started in the 1990s, like J.J. Valaya, Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla, Rohit Bal and Suneet Verma, Tahiliani was the first to represent the country at the mecca of fashion, Milan, in 2002. He arrived at a good time too; the world was finally paying enough attention to the talent and grandness of the Indian fashion industry. And here was a man who was showcasing jewel trompe l’oeil T-shirts with medieval Mughal miniatures, tone-on-tone chikan separates, saris and bridal lehngas to an audience sitting in the Palazzo della Permanente. When it comes to clients, he’s now creating wedding dresses for their next generation, like the late Minal Modi’s daughter Alia Modi. Small wonder then that he’s the only designer from the early 1990s to have received corporate funding so far.
Where the magic lies
Tahiliani’s love for Indian crafts while growing up in Mumbai has been captured well in the media. “I was the son of a navy admiral and my upbringing was fairly Western but Indian crafts always seemed just so mesmerising,” says Tahiliani.
Part of Tahiliani’s artistry, however, lies in his balancing act of bringing commerce and traditional crafts together and selling the customer a slice of India drenched in muted luxury. “It’s his belief in the fashion industry that works for him,” says former supermodel Mehr Jesia. “And that belief comes from the phenomenon of Ensemble, with Tarun bringing all the designers under one roof for the first time.”
Started in 1987, Ensemble was a Mumbai store that housed many designers, from Rohit Khosla, Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla, to Tahiliani’s own designs under his then label, Ahilian. A brainchild of Tahiliani, whose day job then was running the family business of selling oilfield equipment, and former model Sailaja (known as Sal), his college sweetheart-turned-wife, Ensemble now enjoys a steady client base in Delhi’s Khan Market and Mumbai’s Lion’s Gate.
In a sense, his journey started with Ensemble—an idea Sal came up with. While shopping for clothes for their wedding two years earlier, Sal, who had spent most of her life in the US, was struggling to find anything worth wearing. “She couldn’t move her arms in anything. The cross-backs were too tight,” he recalls. At the time, tailoring shops were where most brides went, unless you could afford to buy a Ritu Kumar.
Sal is his secret weapon, smiles designer Suneet Varma. “She was his muse but there’s something so real about her, she was never enamoured by the glamour.”
In a profession where it’s perhaps easy to get carried away with the hedonistic side of fashion, Tahiliani had Sal to keep him in check. “You had the media chasing you, and we were being flown to London to do these fantastic shows. You do get a bit carried away. But she was stabilising; a bit tough,” he laughs.
It was Sal who pushed him to return to school and study for an associate’s degree in fashion in New York where he majored in sportswear—a experience that made him look at Indian wear differently and start his label Tarun Tahiliani.
“I think he’s a workaholic,” says Sal. “Plus his attitude of just getting things done has worked for him.”
In his 25-year-plus career, Tahiliani has worked with crafts ranging from ari to zari but it’s probably his work with chikankari he is most known for. Celebrities ranging from Lady Gaga to Karlie Kloss, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Jemima Goldsmith have chosen his aesthetics for special occasions, especially the sari-gown or the sari-dress.
“When we talk about Tarun, we talk about his design, his mastery over the drape, but I don’t think we celebrate his fearlessness enough. Or his madness,” says Nonita Kalra, former editor-in-chief of Elle and Harper’s Bazaar India. “This has played out in a brand that has not only stood for India but a brand that has defined modern India.”
From Mughal digital printed T-shirts to corset-style sari blouses, his design vocabulary worked in tandem with the way India was opening up post-liberalisation in the 1990s. When he started his label, the bulk of his clientele consisted of non-resident Indians but as the domestic market grew, Tahiliani was among the first designers to realise the real money to be made was at home. He opened his flagship store in Delhi in 1995.
Learning from mistakes
No journey is complete without some hiccups. Among the major firsts for Tahiliani was the Milan show. “We got a fantastic response, we were in every paper, but we had only thought that far. We had not thought about what to do next. Perhaps Milan came too early,” he says.
It did, however, make him value what he had at home. “I marvel at someone like Rahul Mishra today who manages to do the lehnga and do what he does at Paris couture (week) and does a good job. We did not have the exposure or the wherewithal or anything to do it.”
Another major learning curve came in 2012, when his autumn-winter show, inspired by the Byzantine, received bad reviews. “It was a mess and I had no time to edit,” he admits. Editing has always been one of Tahiliani’s weak points; his shows tend to be longer than those of other Indian designers.
“Overenthusiastic with ideas...maybe I should do six collections a year. The thing is we go between saris, Western things and lehngas. We have so many categories of clothes in the show that I do not know what the answer is. Now I am working on a presentation where I aim to show 35 outfits.”
That Tahiliani is willing to admit his weaknesses is also one of his strengths. Last year, he was called out on social media for fat-shaming, essentially making clothes for people who are only a certain size—something true of most designers. In his stores, sizes range from small to extra-large; everything can be customised for couture. He says he’s working on increasing the size range and dedicating a line for curvier women. “Just grading up is not the answer,” he says.
Talking about social media call-outs or bad reviews, he says: “Tarun at 30 would be much more hassled and much more upset. Now it is like water off a duck’s back. Today’s news, forget tomorrow, move on.”
A new fashion
Tahiliani believes it’s important to grow his couture business. He sees the Indian wedding as one that keeps Indian craft alive and one that will always be the mainstay of India’s high fashion. He’s on a mission to make his clothes lighter, and therefore more modern, by playing with different textures and fabrics.
Besides, he’s trying to solidify his presence in India by adding six Tarun Tahiliani stores to the present four. His deal with the Birlas was structured in two parts, one for the creation of a new business and another for the buy into his existing business. While there have been suggestions that the valuation Tahiliani received was low, the designer says: “ I am happy with what I got. Now I have the vehicle with Aditya Birla fashion to build both the luxury and Tasva. A women’s-wear prêt line will happen but in some time.”
Tahiliani is no longer part of Ensemble—his sister Tina has been taking care of it since the early 1990s. As for whether his sons Anand, 33, and Jahan, 31, will take charge of his couture brand, he says neither need enter the business. “Leena Nair has been made CEO of Chanel. Anand does not have to be CEO of Tarun Tahiliani. My sons are free to choose what they want to do; if they are not interested, we will find a professional to run the company."
But there is still time to think about succession. “I think I am finally in control of my faculty. I have a clear vision. I am being helped by these fantastic minds at ABFRL, bringing the whole company up to a level that we can function at, that can take this new fashion to much farther reaches.”
Sujata Assomull is a journalist, an author and a mindful fashion advocate.