Tarun Tahiliani, fashion designer extraordinaire and bridal couture légende, freewheels his observations of the evolution of the Indian fashion industry in his quest to reclaim its inherent traditional grace…

I am an Indian who was brought up with a strong English influence and live by the mantra – India Modern. I grew up in Bombay, in a post-colonial, socialist India, where the elite clung to Jesuit schools and piano lessons and the craft of India shriveled up from a lack of design, innovation and proper patronage. Slowly, a new philosophy began to develop out of this bleak environment—one that was awakened to India’s truly great heritage and that understood that contemporary designs could give India’s rich traditions a new voice and thus, a new resonance. I started my professional career with a degree in Business Management from the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania. After returning to India, I saw a vast potential in the fine clothing and couture industry that was evolving in the country, and in 1987, opened India’s first multi- designer boutique, Ensemble.

Ensemble kicked-off the whole idea of homegrown Indian couture. I started the store with my wife to promote the best of Indian designs because I thought it was odd that after 40 years of independence we were still sending our best products abroad. We knew that the way clothes are made is important – in other words, how they fit, not just how they are embroidered. The store became a sensation heralding a fashion and retail revolution in India. Thereafter, I founded Tarun Tahiliani Design studio.

When we started, people were simpler and they were used to going to tailors to make their clothes, very often in Mumbai, so that was a problem. I remember people coming to our shop as we were relatively economical compared to what clothes cost today and getting shocked because they went somewhere and bought five meters and took it to a tailor. Today no one wants to go to a tailor, unless it’s specialised like women who make beautiful cholis. So there was a struggle. I also think we had not understood what merchandising meant. So even if they walked into a store in summer, they would find the store full of beautiful brocade ornate clothes and we did not understand that we have got to sell cottons. I think now, it’s changed a lot.

But also that value of the brand has become very important. People are much more brand conscious. Back then India was coming out of socialism and if someone had a Chanel bag it was a big thing because everyone had to think local and buy local, and very few people could afford to go abroad, especially with the foreign exchange regulations. And people were more uncomplicated; it was the far end or faded reminiscence of Gandhian values. Top industrialists drove in Ambassadors; the Mercedes was a big deal. Today it’s a different culture.

Indian bridal wear is a niche market in the sense that only Indians and the Indian diaspora across the world have an interest in buying Indian bridal wear. Nonetheless, Indian bridal wear probably accounts for 70 percent of an Indian designer’s repertoire. Indians spend much more on their wedding wear than the rest of world. I say that simply because Indian bridal wear is not just one bridal outfit. It’s an entire trousseau which Indian parents literally start collecting as soon as a girl is born – in terms of gold, shawls, sarees! Weddings are the one time that Indians dress up. The pageantry of the past, the customs, the traditions, the song and dance, all go into making Indian weddings the most celebrated moment in an Indian’s life. As critical mass, we buy couture only for weddings, which are lavish. The scale of the big Indian wedding has definitely become immense, and we see it up close and personal on a regular basis.


On the other hand, our ready-to-wear label is for people to wear on a day-to-day basis. I think the first great proponent of ready-to- wear was Yves Saint Laurent, when he stopped the old Paris tradition of just having a couture salon and opened a store on the Leftbank, sometime in the early 1960s. He was spot on because ready-to-wear became the rage. With people’s current lifestyles, unless they have a very specific giant occasion, they don’t have the time to sit and choose the fabrics and go for multiple fittings. There’s no need for this lifestyle, that was originally the preserve of the very rich, who would necessarily not do very much else. In today’s time, people’s lifestyles have changed, people move much more, they dress much more, they don’t necessarily want to repeat things, they need ready-to-wear, it is the need of the day and companies like Zara have taken it to yet another level. One doesn’t need to have couture on day-to-day basis. Obviously, it is not the same thing as getting a tailored suit. When I go to the Chanel’s ready-to-wear show now I feel they have so many couture elements or rather details, that they have used to distinguish even their ready-to-wear from other people who copy them. So the market has now become complex and the bulk of the world is going to wear ready-to-wear except for special occasions.

With this great increasing affluence in this world, there is again a great need for bespoke for the super fine luxury market.

Indian fashion is known for its rich and diverse heritage, where each province has its own traditional apparel. Indian fashion designers tweak these various trends in the most innovative ways and give them an indo-western touch. The respective customs and traditions give the designers a huge plethora of options to experiment with. The end result is an element of ethnicity that works as a crowd puller in the markets; a right cliché to woo the international soul. A lot of Indian design is being noticed, being looked at for inspiration and India is a rising star for its unique style. I think India is having an international moment and all eyes are on us. We’re slowly becoming an economic powerhouse, but in terms of international fashion, I think we are at least ten years behind. But things are slowly changing, so I think we have the potential to catch up. When it comes to Indian fashion there is a visible evolution. Once you get comfortable in western outfits people get used to the fit and proportion so they start enjoying well cut and fitted clothes which are easy to move around in. There is a shift to lighter outfits. As an Indian fashion house we understand that we need to be more accessible to the changing demographic. Indians now understand western principles of cut and construct, fit and finish and we will have to deliver! As Indians become wealthier, their standards are more exacting and the industry is gearing up for just that.

There is no doubt that fashion has progressed by quantum leaps and bounds in the last 15 years. There are fashion weeks, trends, glossy magazines, some multi-brand boutiques of note and a thriving handloom scene. Designers have started their own stores, and brands have been established. Yet I have this sinking feeling every time I sit at an airport or at a mall that somehow women looked more elegant 15 years ago. That the humble saree that has been tossed off for the light dress did more to soothe the Indian curves, and that while clothes are more practical today, something of feminine grace is lost. That authenticity is missing as ‘aspirational’ Indians move from Juicy Couture to ‘jewelled’ Indian couture in a breath, devoid of any style of their own, which everyone seemed to have before there was ‘fashion’– when the humble drape caressed the curve which I now have to go to the Kumbh to see. Is pop culture the end of the civilisation as I knew it, I wonder?

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