Soniya Kirpalani has great memories of the Tahiliani family as their parents were close. However, the Dubai-based filmmaker truly met Tarun, the designer, around the time he launched Ensemble. “I was mesmerized when I walked into that store. Tarun, Rohit Bal, Monisha Jaising, Abu Sandeep, Sonnu Shivadani, Krishna Mehta were stalwarts weaving a new fabric of fashion,” reminisces Soniya. “At a time when India was producing her best for global markets, they were challenging this by ‘Make in India, For India, By Indians’.
It was perhaps the beginning of a long and intense friendship. Soniya attended almost every significant show of Tarun’s – from his first India show to the first time he wowed Milan. “One day he called me his fashion victim! That hurt,” she laughs.
All of their interactions and anecdotes will soon make it to a film that Soniya is making to shine the spotlight on everything that can make India proud. And who better to embody this spirit than Tarun? “To me, he is one of the few brands that truly are all about MAKE IN INDIA. Challenging the government, challenging destiny he still stands,” says the proud friend and confidante.
Thus when Soniya met Tarun at his exhibition held in Dubai last month, it opened the floodgates to a conversation that gave an insight into the genius of the designer – from his creative process to his brush with luxury, from his childhood to his famous clients and his trysts with the taxmen. Honest, candid, fun and surprise revelations… we were all ears as the two friends indulged in a candid chatathon.
Soniya Kirpalani: Do you remember the very first time when you knew you had the love for luxury, lifestyle and fashion?
Tarun Tahiliani: As a child, I remember being taken on a Dakota, an old Douglas aircraft to a Maharaja’s Palace. It was a small jungle that we landed in. We were chauffeured out to this magnificent palace filled with Osler Chandeliers, rare silver, fine textile, things with extraordinary beauty. I felt right out of a Jungle Book adventure, stumbling into a rare jewel. The beauty of that whole experience lingers to this day. I also remember drawing, sketching architectural monuments, artistic beautiful things ever since I was a child. And that too lingers today.
But wasn’t designers called the ‘new age darzi’? How did you burst that bubble?
My dad was a committed Naval man. When he heard that I was starting Ensemble, he looked at me perplexed and asked: “So are you going to become a tailor?” He wasn’t alone. Craftsperson was not really respected for what they did.
The fact that I wanted to introduce designers who fashioned clothes, to infuse luxury back into retail and promote all the beauty of India, was alien for a socialist India which made luxury sound like a virus.
Come to think of it, I never bothered to burst that bubble, we came from a conviction of we were doing. For me, India was a country that had taught the world about luxury and I wanted to be that person who could facilitate this. It was the late Rohit Khosla and my wife Sal Tahiliani who supported me on this till my sister Tina joined in. That’s what the real purpose of Ensemble was!
Soniya Kirpalani in conversation with Tarun Tahiliani
Do you remember the first few clients?
When Ensemble opened its doors in 1987, it was this high-ceilinged, spacious store, all wood with wonderful displays. When the first few clients and press people arrived, they were aghast. But the discerning ones knew, this would be the new elegance. Nicky Vijaykar’s grandmother, a lovely Mrs Bhatia, were some of our first clients. The elegant and supportive Shobhna Bhartiya, a powerhouse herself, soon patronized us. Then came the NRIs who could understand and relate to luxury. Shakira Caine and Princess Ira Von Furstenberg who bought half of the shop of her first 10 mins of being at the store…the most glamorous, women in the world shopping from us… we were definitely setting benchmarks.
Share the story of the first big fashion show in India?
We had some great fashion shows before under the banner of Ensemble. It was a prelude to the Fashion Weeks. We used to host it at the Mumbai’s chicest venues. People, socialites would fight for entry, I feel we spawned the first row phenomena. Do you remember how we would have to get security to lock the doors as gate crashers would come and try to break in? I remember it was so bad that people who were in, just couldn’t step out to use a washroom!
The camaraderie was great between the designers; we would stand at the back of the room, ferociously support each other. Then as an industry, we set up FDCI. The real buzz of so many talented designers showing on one platform was exciting. Suddenly it felt like we were in a gladiator’s ring of fashion where people came every two hours to show something. I remember doing a grand finale with Raghavendra Rathore and Wendell Roderick and the diametrically different patrons sitting in the same hall cheering us on! It is still a very very exciting time.
Who were your “fashion victims” and the fashionistas in those days? Who were your muses?
I had a whole lot of clients. Some who were before their time, others who we had to introduce to a new time. And some that continue to stay out of tune and time. To be honest, I only called you my fashion victim! Don’t blame me for this. You would pop up from Mumbai to Milan for my shows. How was I supposed to know you were documenting it all to make a film?!
My muses from the past are Minal Modi and Mehr Jessia. Now it is Priya Aswani, Shriya Bhuppal and Minal Modi. I find Deepika Padukone, Katrina Kaif, Kriti Sanon, Aditi Rao Hydari all perfect muses.
Aditi Rao Hydari wearing Tarun Tahiliani
But err..whilst society toasted you, the taxman raided you.
I think the confusion comes from misconceptions; designers are clicked even when they are having a simple meal with their family. They are perceived as high profile and therefore high value. Our discerning lifestyles are also seen as ‘rich’ ones. Let us face it, we are creating luxury. Luxury is supposedly for the very rich and if we don’t represent it how will we sell it? But most of us don’t line our pockets with millions, our costs and overheads are extremely high. I have never evaded taxes, so the raids fall flat.
Take for example my last experience with the taxman. I landed off a flight from Paris to find three Income Tax officers greet me outside the plane. Every time the heat is on the government, they pretend to do the ‘right’ thing for the ‘áam aadmi’ by destroying the pillars of luxury and consumption and ripping off the reputation of every designer as they represent the rich. So now what has happened, Indian designers aren’t aspirational to India. Only the select, smart few see through this, they are the educated and rich, they continue to toast, host, party and patronize us. But shouldn’t it be the rest of India also?
In reality, Tarun, you have a double life. Disciplined by day.... what are your evenings like?
Sorry to disappoint. I don’t have a double life. I am disciplined by day and more recently even more disciplined by night. This is my routine.
5:30 am - 5:45 am, get some exercise on.
7.00 am: I am at the studio, much to my staff’s irritation. Hahaha
Breakfast is a bowl of sprouts as I have a lip to hips challenge. I try and dream I am having Pakwaan Daal instead.
7:30 am: Full work Mode- until 4.30pm
5.00 pm: Couture Studio
6.00 pm: Architectural Studio
7.00 pm I head home to catch some family time and take a walk.
I love reading, I do it every night for an hour or two as well. Fashion, Style Architecture.
Sunday is my time to reimagine life… I do wish we had more hours to our days …
Bollywood and Designers had no love for each other. You all considered the actors of that time rather naf in their dressing (1980s-2000). Then suddenly there was this huge rush towards getting a Bollywood star to be your cloth-hangers. Tell us about the attitude and what led to the change?
The times of Madhubala, Meena Kumari, Ms Naidu, Sadhana, Nargis were radically different. Bollywood was classic. A lot of stories were set in rural India, scene set in a fantasy and so fashion was elitist. The real glamourous women always dress. They didn’t need stylists. They just dressed. Sophia Laurel, Elizabeth Taylor, the big stars of yesteryears. Meena Kumari or even Hema Malini looked always beautiful. I don’t think Rekha is considered of ever using a stylist.
Then came the polyester phase. Let us not discuss that 80s-90s phase. Today is a new day.
The movies are more urbane, fashion designers are more relevant and also there’s so much more mass media with the real power of these stars has come to fore since they too have taken to social media. I see some truly beautiful girls who are fit and gorgeous like Deepika Padukone. I also see spunk in Alia Bhat, Kriti Sanon, Aditi Rao Hydari. I think these women are monumental stars for millions of girls and they will help shine the way through.
Tell us about the favourite celebs and socialites you have designed for?
I think the women who are the most glamorous in this country are Minal Modi, Mehr Jessia, Parmeshwar Godrej are all absolute goddess, I have done wonderful campaigns and love seeing clothes on Katrina Kaif because she is always so understated and Deepika! Sonam has a wonderful style and great poise and carriage. But for me, I could never take my eyes off Rekha when she would walk into a room, I love the modern elegance of Simi Garewal who always looked in her own style. These women who had an intellectual conviction about who they are, they were that from their core and to me that is super exciting! I like the way Nita Ambani has transformed herself, gone from being simple and sweet bahu of a famous business family, into an elegant looking woman who moves from her professional to her personal life effortlessly, fluidly.
You were one of the first designers to decide to do pret. India Modern was the term you used. Did you think your clients had evolved?
Pret excites me is because I trained abroad and while Evening Wear has its place, there was such a great revival of Pret/Ready-to-Wear in the 80s/90s and early 2000s that I thought chic people want to be chic all the time. Unfortunately, in India, we all want to be quite relaxed and only on special occasion, India seems to want to dress up, now and then. I tried my hand first at Pret then. I couldn’t sustain it as there were no markets, no manufacturing nor retail infrastructure.
Now there is this hyper-connected button under people in India. Social Media, Selfies and Facebook and Instagrams. And OH! No one can repeat clothes. Now, this swing has gone the other way. This is absolutely daft. But yes, Social Media has plugged in a big revival of pret.
I have noticed a dichotomy in the way young India dresses. By day they are in western gear and evenings are all gowns. But when it comes to weddings, they want to do a Jodha Akbar? Almost like a split identity. What is with this equation?
For me, the biggest tragedy is the dichotomy of young India. They wear shorts in the day, they are that casual and anything goes and then in the evening they want gowns which I suppose is easier to run around in and manage. And when it comes to the weddings, they want to do this over the top Jodha Akbar which a lot of apparel designers are feeding into. I was told a young girl wearing a heavy 50kg lehenga, tripped on her lehenga and it ripped. Centre Stage. *ohGod*
Now brides ask if they should do different makeup for five days and I tell them, ‘look you’re not an actress for five days, you have to look like yourself’. It’s just that you’re wearing different clothes. The irony is that the most beautiful of all, Aishwarya Rai wore a traditional and classic saree in a Mangalorean style and she looked exquisite so hey, I think someone has to recheck this notion.
You took to designing houses. Was that a natural next step for you? Or was it good money that added to building the brand as a powerhouse?
I took to designing houses because I love houses. I wanted to be an architect but unfortunately, in India, you have to do physics and chemistry and I couldn’t do these things in my 12th grade. So, then I started to do some interiors at home, I paint, everything is an extension of the other, I love jewellery. It’s not just money, it’s the fact I enjoy going into different disciplines, they all fed each other and at a certain level, I could be much more engaged because I wasn’t doing too much of the same thing. That is one of the most exciting things in my life. Everyone thinks I am a workaholic, it’s not that, I am jumping from one discipline to another, they’re related but they stimulate me more than being at just another dinner party.
Which are some of the best celebrity homes you have designed?
One of the principal projects that we worked on in 2017, was completing the Chiranjeevee mansion that belongs to Chiranjeevee and his superstar son Ramcharan.
Tarun Tahiliani's designs
Do you remember the best wedding you designed?
It is hard to say which is the best wedding I ever designed but some of the most interesting and truly fabulous ones were as listed below.
• For this friend’s son’s wedding in Hyderabad we duplicated the columns of the Falaknuma Palace and recreated 120 columns on which we had millions of stocks of wild grasses and white flowers and lilies; this was then enhanced by video mapping on the palace and surrounding fireworks, all to the accompaniment of 50 ballet dancers at the entrance and classical dancers doing a medley as you sat to dinner. Everything was white and blue.
• The wedding done in Udaipur was beautiful. We took 15 days in Jag Mandir to create a series of platforms that then came down to an amphitheatre onto which we had a mirror work dance floor and again some half a million stocks of flowers in the palaces where there was a performance.
• The Mughal Garden always remains a great source of inspiration when I do weddings and we recently even video mapped with the most exquisite company, the Palace of Jodhpur telling the story of the bride and groom.
Recently I saw a whole row of so-called 'social influencers' in the first row. On the second row, I saw media, your real clients. What do you think of the whole social influencer scene?
I think the media is important and social influencers are also people with their own perspective. So, to me, certain social influencers are very important because now thanks to Instagram everybody has access to everything. Influencers are very important in a world of noise if you choose to follow somebody, that’s fine. So if Anahaita Adajania is your influencer, that is great, if somebody else is, that is fine too.