As Ensemble, India's first and seminal fashion boutique, celebrates 30 years, we look at the personal style of the woman behind it
The flagship store of Ensemble, in Mumbai’s Lion’s Gate area, feels like a museum at the moment, with a part of its ground floor, first floor and mezzanine level lined with exhibits by Indian fashion designers—ranging from the emerging Love Birds to established Rohit Bal. Posters of models from the 1990s—a stunning Mehr Jesia, and a youthful, striking Aishwarya Rai—hang high up on the walls. When Ensemble first opened 30 years ago, it gave a retail platform to the fledgling Indian fashion design community of the time, and, over the years, has both mirrored, and shaped, the course of the industry. A walk through this exhibit reveals some of the values and ideas it has nurtured along the way.
Yet when Tina Tahiliani Parikh, executive director of Ensemble, walks in, its primary role of a retail store becomes evident. As Parikh sits down to talk to Mint Lounge about her personal style within the larger landscape of fashion in India, she is acutely aware of the customers around her, constantly talks to them and makes sure they’re being helped, lends advice to those looking at themselves in mirrors, trying to make up their mind about an outfit. “This is my life," she says, and she clearly loves it. Parikh talks to us about her instinct for fashion, one that she didn’t think she had. Edited excerpts:
Ensemble was started by your brother Tarun Tahiliani and his wife. Tell us how you came to be associated with it.
I was a student at Stanford when I heard that my brother and sister-in-law were starting the store. At that time, the idea of fashion was so far removed for me. But I was in India that summer, writing my economics honours thesis and heading to Maheshwar (Madhya Pradesh) for research. It was 1988, and the first major Ensemble fashion show was held at the ballroom at Taj Mumbai. I walked into that show and the music started. I remember so clearly, it was Philip Glass. The first model to walk out on the runway was Shyamoli Verma, wearing a draped black and white woven skirt by Tarun, and she had a long plait that came down all the way to her ankles. When she walked out, honestly, my hair stood on end. It really touched me. Then I went to Maheshwar, to a community of weavers (Rehwa Society by Sally Holkar), I lived in Sally’s home and I remember standing on the banks of the Narmada. There were these sari borders carved by Rani Ahilyabai Holkar, who was the patron and revived the Maheswari sari. There were these temples and aartis being sung. It was a moment when I felt so strongly that our country is really special.
For me, the journey with Ensemble (she joined in 1990) has also been about the same thing. It became about discovering what my country had to offer, both in terms of textiles and talent of artisans, but also how our designers are taking it forward in a modern way.
With the entire gamut of fashion at your disposal, what is your personal preference in dressing?
I constantly come across so many styles and ways of dressing but I’m very clear about mine. For my day to day life, it’s always something that’s comfortable, that breathes, that’s probably non-embroidered but an interesting textile; something like how (Goa-based designer) Savio Jon does Shibori. I like draped clothes, shapes that are cinched at the waist, well cut and simple. I’m a lover of Indian textiles, one, because of the collection I’ve inherited from my mother-in-law, but also because of my work at Ensemble. I love the way chiffon drapes. I think it is so glam. I love the new linen saris, dhoti pants; this cool India modern vibe that’s taken root.
What about accessories that play a role in your personal style?
I love my mother’s pearls, I love long beautifully crafted earrings. I hardly ever change my rings, and wear the same ones year after year. I have two watches, one that I’ve had for over 25 years and another one acquired a few years ago, and I only wear these two, always. I love belts. I believe one must invest in shoes. If I find a good comfortable pair, I’ll buy the same one in different colours. When a pair wears out, I’ll go and buy the same one again. My white shirts never let me down, and I wear them very sparingly, because you know how in India white becomes grey quite easily.
Can you pick out one or two things from your closet that are close to your heart?
I have this stunning temple (border) sari in burgundy red with gold that I’ve inherited from my mother and a Chikan sari in beige with shadow work in ivory that my brother gifted me. I pull them out every year or two and they never let me down.
Tell us of a shopping destination that you like going back to.
There’s a flea market in Paris called Clignancourt and I just love shopping there. I’ve gone back several times, though it has been a while now. I once bought a super-chic old skin bag—I would never buy a new skin bag. I’ve bought jewellery, an old Buddha that sits in my living room, I’ve bought lights. A thing of beauty is a joy forever and it doesn’t have to be just garments. I hate malls by and large. When I travel, I shop as little as possible. It’ll usually be something specific I need, which I will acquire quickly, and then spend the rest of my vacation with the people I love, reading, just soaking in a place. That’s my idea of luxury now, rather than dashing around acquiring things.
Do you find yourself scouting constantly, not just for Ensemble but for your personal collection?
In my life, as and when I see beautiful things , I acquire them. For instance, the earrings I’m wearing, I was having dinner sitting next to (jewellery designer) Hanut Singh, and he showed me things on his phone and I bought them. I don’t actively dash off to buy things.
- Tina Tahiliani Parikh
For me, it’s about the emotion that a thing evokes in me, what it feels like, rather than just what it looks like. After all this time, when you see something, you instinctively know this is right or wrong.
Tell us of a recent gift that you’ve absolutely loved.
The Shibori piece (pictured), I got it as a gift from (designer) Divyam Mehta and I just love it.
Everyone looks to Ensemble for what’s trending, for its curation. What do you look to?
That’s a good question and it’s got a complex answer. I look to the books I read, the places I travel to, the plays and films I watch, to the conversations I have with people I meet; designers, architects, artists, non-designers. And I look to my team: I have one or two people who are really cool and switched on. It all comes together in a very subtle, organic way.