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Every person leads a double life—a guarded inner self and an external unmasked one. In the minds of others, however, this duality is seldom so neat, especially if a person is successful. Because success opens pathways for external projections. My pursuit of Tarun Tahiliani for an interview was an attempt to get past these revolving doors of self-identity, marketed identity and assigned identity. Tahiliani has just opened another sprawling bridal boutique in Delhi’s Mehrauli area (a luxurious flagship store in Mumbai was launched last year in Colaba), taken yet another bow as one of the finale designers at the recent Amazon India Fashion Week and recently branched into home interiors. All testimony to the fact that after 27 years, Tahiliani’s work continues to be relevant to the industry.
In March 2013, right after Tahiliani’s Coombhack collection, inspired by the drapes of sadhus at the Kumbh Mela, was shown in Delhi, a debutant designer asked me why the fashion press was biased towards top designers. What else could explain the repeated space given to those like Tahiliani?
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TT—as Tahiliani is known in the industry—has indeed got a lot of attention as one of India’s first designers. But that perhaps clouds the fact that his work began to acquire depth and distinction only in the last decade.
Knowing there would be plenty of articulate conversation given TT’s gift of the gab, but unsure whether there would be something beyond the formula of entertaining shows, lavish stores and bridal couture, it was a relief to find him at his newly-opened store near Qutab Minar amidst a new kind of fuss. He was attending to a famous south Indian film-star’s son whose house he is designing and the talk veered to his Obeetee carpets from a recent collaboration. Dexterously woven to suggest a run-down finish in hues of pearl white and khaki-beiges, with design that simulates artistic, rich floorings, these carpets sync with TT’s current phase. He is deep into experiments with subtlety, all without abandoning his signature excess. He appears locked in a (mostly winning) battle with the overdone idea of India Modern to define his current work. And more than anything, he wants to revitalize his relationship with himself.
A person’s identity is also about certain consistent characteristics. In TT’s case, it is his forthright opinions, his choice of a black wardrobe for himself, his fondness for former supermodel muse Mehr Jessia Rampal, his love for rajnigandha and mogra flowers, his eye for fine art. Then there are his inventive structured saris, draped dhoti pants, finely tailored gilets, sensuous cholis, and his persistent gaze on delicate embroidery, especially Chikankari, for his creations.
He loves food—Sindhi curry is an all- time favourite—but is usually on a diet (he has just lost 12kg).
Now 54, TT grew up with a privileged education and lifestyle in post-colonial Mumbai, followed by a business degree from Wharton and a stint at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York. He launched his own label in 1995, eight years after he opened Ensemble, India’s first multi-designer fashion store, with his wife Sailaja in Colaba, Mumbai.
Over the years, a conscious return to “India” for his design identity has mutated to “India Modern” as a business and creative strategy. If you follow his brand, the Venn diagrams his creations make between bridal wear and non-bridal luxury prêt give us a veritable map of what wealthy India buys. That includes his collaborations with Obeetee, other ventures into interior design, and forthcoming work with jewellery brand Azva to create “ornaments that don’t look like a commodity”.
Left-handed, right-brained, boisterous, flamboyant, funny when he wants to be and a smart strategist, TT is a true shaukeen (aficionado), as a fellow Sindhi like me would say. During this interview, he kept popping spoonfuls of dairy creamer, perhaps to balance out the sugar dip spurred by his new diet, and getting up from his chair to proudly point out the intricacies of his garments. He fondly picked his favourites among young designers and made a case for Indian women finding their own style, one that needn’t be totally Indian or totally Western.
Notes from the designer’s new bridal boutique
Tarun Tahiliani’s new bridal boutique near Delhi’s Qutab Minar is his fifth store—he now has two in Delhi, two in Mumbai and one in Hyderabad. The exterior is painted white, glass doors give way to a space where rajnigandha flowers bloom in glass vases, alongside antique mirrors, Art Deco chandeliers, and wall borders studded with mother-of-pearl details that create Chikankari-like simulations. The 12,000 sq. ft store houses bridal luxury, occasion-wear, menswear, a couture section and silver, gold-plated jewellery studded with semi-precious stones as well as embellished clutches. Screens playing loops from Tahiliani’s couture shows and photographs of his brand campaigns hang on the walls. On a small round table are framed photographs of Tahiliani’s mother Jaswanti Tahiliani, who died in 1979, when he was 17. It is an intimate touch; a personal note amidst the excess.
Tarun Tahiliani bridal boutique, Style Mile, Kalka Das Marg, Mehrauli, New Delhi.