Tarun Tahiliani: “Split Fashion Weeks Dissipate Value”

Tarun Tahiliani: “Split Fashion Weeks Dissipate Value”

The designer on why 2018 was a year of disquiet for him even as his brand shone bright

This Friday the 7th of December, one of India’s most known designers, Tarun Tahiliani will present TT Blended TT at The Quorum in Gurugram, as a part of Blenders Pride Fashion Tour 2018. “A theatrical representation of fashion with a blend of the East and the West, the event will blend the past and the present with glimpses of the future,” says Tahiliani in a jazzily worded press note. “India Modern,” his favourite phrase for the last few years stands tall in this instance too as TT (the way he is known in the industry) gets ready to unravel 40 to 50 “unique looks” that will reflect the many India-s in one.

For the 56-year-old designer, who has presented more than 75 fashion shows in the last 27 odd years, has five standalone stores in India and has dressed almost 1,000 brides across the world in his tailored-embroidered-sequinned-draped-textile rich-glittering-glamorous couture, 2018 has been, in many ways, a year of embattlement. He has felt angry and dispirited. At the same time, those who keenly follow the complex ups and downs of fashion innovation may agree that this has also been a very significant year for TT at work.

A once top name that would then plateau into becoming one among the many couture fashion brands, brand Tarun Tahiliani re-hoisted its flag in compelling ways recently. The turnaround didn’t begin this year, of course. It has been brewing for a while in visible ways. But somehow 2018 stamped it. Design clarity and flamboyance giving way to thoughtful finesse and a pragmatic recognition of the customer-designer co-dependency in the Indian fashion market became evident at TT’s show in February at Lakmé Fashion Week 2018.

Over the years, TT and I have had many conversations aided by digital devices, a mutually respectful relationship that has survived differences of opinions—about his work and my work. I find him echoing his growing up years as a privileged kid in the elite family of the late Admiral Radhakrishin Hariram Tahiliani in what was once Bombay in emotional, nostalgic, academic as well as documentary ways. Former model Mehr Jessia or the late Bombay sophisticate Minal Modi, his two long-standing muses—their reign in TT’s heartland interrupted by Hindi cinema stars of different wattage—also typify ‘Bombay cool’ that may be hard to imagine in any other milieu or city.

At the tail end of a year that left him feeling disconnected from the media among other institutions of the country, TT spoke to The Voice of Fashion on wide-ranging issues. From his observations on The Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI) to why fashion remains a tiny industry with too much hype.
Edited excerpts.

Most conversations with you (certainly this year) give away disappointment even anger with the fashion system, with the country, with media. What is it that really bothers you?

My anger has been mostly with the fashion system. The FDCI was launched with a great amount of idealism. Unfortunately, we were warned by Fern Mallis, the founder of New York Fashion Week, to not restrict the board only to designers as they would be vested with self-interest and would not always see the larger good of the industry. That is precisely what was abetted and has continued. As a result, today, the FDCI is a body with very little power over the designers, and over the influence makers in the country. Fashion weeks rely on celebs for eyeballs and now generate dwindling interest. At one point, there were glorious talks of a fashion district where designers could work in the cities and have their ateliers as all great fashion capitals in Paris, Milan, Rome, London, and New York do. Instead, the designers got clubbed as manufacturers and were thrown out of city centres into industrial estates, and have fended for themselves in their chaotic individual way, with very little voice, except for a few things as an industry. I think that hurts the entire industry.

On top of that, we have had many silly government policies going from demonetisation to GST, which was a good thing, and then a series of brash raids by the Income Tax department even though design companies like mine always have deposited the funds and paid our taxes. It is like you can’t win with and you can’t win without. It takes so much of my time that I rage against the system that does not understand how important it is to handle fashion and textiles with a certain amount of care and instead watch it all dissolve into this country of mass brands and mass malls! That is what makes me very angry. So now it’s each for his own.

Do you still feel excited about showing at a fashion week? Which was your last collection that really excited you as a designer-creator?

Well, doing a show is always exciting because you can project a point of view and tell a story. I was very excited about the last ready-to-wear (RTW) collection shown in February at Lakmé Fashion Week as it is quite dressy but not overtly heavy. We want women to have fun and feel good as the technology of clothes is as important as the embroidery. I am not a designer who needs to do another handloom sari, there are many people doing it beautifully. What I need to do is be able to sculpt it in a way that few can, because that is what the technology of my studio allows and that is who we have evolved into.

Do you think the fashion week model in India needs to change?

I have long been a proponent of the fact that fashion weeks need to change. Firstly, it needs to go back to one consolidated fashion week—the FDCI-held India Couture Week in Delhi and the IMG Reliance-held Lakmé Fashion Week in Mumbai need to come together as one fall-winter/festive edition and one spring-summer/festive edition.

Having split or multiple fashion weeks dissipates the value, quality, and the excitement. On top of it we have several bridal couture weeks, individual shows, and liquor sponsorships. This happens as more and more corporate sponsors want to step in and show their products under the guise of a fashion show. What it does to a customer and, I imagine, for the press is a greater deal of fashion fatigue. It also takes away from the designer’s ability to show purely what they want. It has spoilt the design community because most people, who ran serious businesses in the growing bridal and couture market, did not necessarily need sponsors. Of course, some did. Collaborative sponsors make sense, like a jeweller with a designer is fine. But, I was recently asked to show with a car manufacturer that wanted to have my collection in three colours and I regretted it. I will not allow anybody to dictate my season’s collections. Twenty years back, I might have, who knows. Everyone does what works for them, but it is adding a lot of noise, creating a lot of banners, brands, and confused signals. This confusion really hurts fashion weeks and therefore, the designer in the end.

You too continue to repeat the Bollywood showstopper formula; this year in February you brought actor Kriti Sanon to your ramp. Who must you please? The sponsors? The media? Or your buyers?

Unfortunately, I can see what happens to the eyeballs when a designer has a showstopper that people recognise versus just a great model. I could have Lakshmi Menon, the model who is fantastic to close the show, but if I have some Bollywood starlet who has not even made her debut film, for instance, she gets 10 times more press. I think you must put this question to the press and not to the designer. The designer is just being opportunistic and saying okay if there are 100 shows, how do I stand out.

What do you think about stylists creating celeb looks and the overall influence (or sameness) that follows?

For designers, the other option to include celebrities is to woo them to wear their clothes to events, which they do through their stylists. All the actresses do this. Their stylist chooses what they want, and as a result, very few have a point of view or a style statement. They are one thing one day, another thing other day, and it confuses the Indian audience who treat them as their icons. So, in a way the whole system has become some kind of a mess, but I know if I have a top-graded star walked the ramp, it is going to get the eyeballs around the world because of social media. It is not about the sponsors because we don’t work with sponsors that often. This is not some Couture Salon in Paris where you are showing to 150 clients where it does not matter who else sees it.

As a champion of copyright law, where do you stand on plagiarism—the biggest story of this year? Is there real dearth of originality in the Indian fashion industry?

I think plagiarism has always been a problem here. Let me start by saying that there are many weaves and many motifs, and techniques and textiles that belong to the realm of Indian culture, which people are trying to copyright as their own. There are no barriers in India and we are a boutique culture. Everybody is a designer; every auntyji in Delhi has five tailors in her garage and they openly copy clothes. From Chandni Chowk shops to stores like Frontier Raas and other places in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar, customers are openly sold “designer garments”. Worst of all, there are FDCI designers who have plagiarised exact pieces or buy prints from the printers. We have even gone to court, but unfortunately, in India the process is so long that you get recourse much later and if at all, it means nothing given what you spend.

One designer from a leading industrial family had to be asked to withdraw knock-offs. I often write to them and say can you please ask your design team to stop copying the patterns! Billionaires, who run fashion stores, are also openly encouraging plagiarism. Why not do clothes that are clever and textiles that are difficult to mimic and build a brand that feels so strong, and that women feel so good in that they want to wear it? The cheap copy hurts me because somebody will look at something that looks like a Tarun Tahiliani piece and think oh my God, it is so badly finished and fits so badly.

Fashion in India keeps getting raised or reduced (given the way you look at it) to a wedding couture extravaganza. It helps sales. But does it limit a design mind like yours and the capability of your atelier?

I value what can be done by hand, but there is actually much more to the eye in the exquisite and undocumented language of clothing in the draped form. While India moves quickly into the mass market situation of the 21st century, I see that most of the crafts we Indians grew up with are dying. Having been a part of the wedding industry, it will be unfair to knock it. Let me say just this that it has allowed and abetted the most superb crafts in the field of embroidery, and of late, a textile revival. Sadly, I feel the bridal market in this country has lacked terribly. It is full of posturing of very extravagant embroidery with too much jewellery and reflects the nouveau nature of society rather than real finesse, even though some pieces may individually demonstrate great skill. I think it is much more difficult to sculpt clothes that are embroidered, especially the kind of embroidery that Indians want. However, it is also limiting. Embroideries abroad are used like textile, placed in graphic bursts, and often, just to create an optical illusion, but here brides and their families want to be the “heaviest dressed”, which in itself is limiting. I find it quite repetitive and a bit costume-y. But yes, our embroidery ateliers are always stretched to the max, so in India it is about embroidery, abroad it is about shape. Now the two are beginning to converge as people are more exposed to these changes. Also deracinated or alienated societies will struggle to redefine themselves again for a while.

This February, you showed an impactful collection and your brand has shown resilience and adaptation in the last year or so. What has gone into keeping the Tarun Tahiliani brand relevant after 25 plus years?

I think after showing at Indian fashion weeks, in Milan, and trying to do ready-to-wear while keeping one foot in the bridal space, I was myself confused and a little strategically dissipated. I had some good impetus from certain people we hired to keep holding the mirror, and my son Anand (Tahiliani) was able to look at things strategically and also be very critical. That set me on course. I feel the brand has returned strongly to what it stands for. I am not interested in embroidering clothes from top to bottom, which weigh kilos and kilos and in which women which can’t walk in. Nor am I interested in seeing women dressed in Elie Saab one minute and then being overtly ethnic the next. I think stylish, cool people have to have a point of view that transcends whether they dress in Indian or Western clothes. That is how we were brought up in South Bombay. When my children get married, they will wear sherwanis, but we are not going to pretend we are royalty. So, it will be tradition over pretense. Currently, we are in great resonance of not just designing, which I always did, but thinking about who we are and connecting our design to the market place. For a while, when we had grown that connect was lost. I think that is back in space.

Would you agree that Indian fashion—both prêt and a certain level of couture—is priced without any logic or rationale?

Indian fashion is expensive because of the conditions the designers work in, and the infrastructure. Fine craftsmen are expensive and prêt might be expensive in comparison to what you find abroad, but it does not have the economies of scale, and is finer in handwork. There is no comparable thing abroad at all for the kind of handwork. Coupled with that the fact that designers do not do large runs and will customise almost everything, it is not so expensive for what you get given the uniqueness. It is very expensive by Indian standards, but I don’t find it so crazy. If some designers can get away with crazy prices, good luck to them. Someone obviously attributes a value to it, whether it is their quality or the name they have made or because some actresses are wearing it. In our company we have always had a tight costing cell with policies.The more we produce, the less will be the price and so forth. The bigger Indian companies are now becoming very well-organised, and all this will get streamlined.

In the current climate of #MeTooIndia, the least number of allegations have surfaced in the Indian fashion industry. Is this the politics of hush-hush or is our industry safe and pro-rights compared to all other professions?

I have found it quite surprising that the least number of allegations have surfaced in the fashion industry in the #MeToo allegations. I do not have a logically concrete answer for this. It could possibly be because it involves a lot of men and they don’t want to speak up. But I am not a fan and I don’t think it is alright for people to be making allegations if they don’t put their name to it. I think the pendulum has swung too far and that is always the case when something comes to light for the first time. I think the fashion industry is very tiny with a lot more hype. Most of it stems from a handful of people and they may be part of the fashion landscape, but are not influencing anything of any consequence.