In his book, written with Alia Allana, one of India’s foremost fashion designers tells us how his life was shaped by the curves of Indian fashion’s changing identity

Having covered the spectrum of fashion since 1992, I have been exposed to its growth, tumble, and resurrection; it’s a journey that also mirrors my own life. I have known Tarun Tahiliani for 25 years as most of my time was spent critiquing fashion from an outsider’s point of view; I did not belong to an affluent family. In fact, my middle-class upbringing, by two professors, gave me a non-gilded practical view of this paradisal world.

Recently, billionaire Sudha Reddy wore a Tarun Tahiliani gown at the MET gala; the theme this year was ‘The Garden of Time’. It took 80 artisans over a period of 4,500 man hours, costing crores, to make, and she accessorized it with a 180-carat diamond necklace. Reading Tarun Tahiliani: Journey to India Modern, written with Alia Allana, and published by Roli Books (internationally by Thames & Hudson), what left a lasting impact on me is how Tarun is as a human being, and what shaped his consciousness. In many informal chats with me, he has admitted how losing his mother, Jaswanti, changed him when he was very young, and how he almost raised his sister Tina.

Staying true to his roots

“I only knew modern, emancipated women, thanks to my mother. It was celebrated, and normal in our Sindhi families,” says Tarun, whose mom was the first female engineer in Maharashtra. When you are forced to grow up before time, shoulder responsibility, you either learn to sink or fly. With Tarun, it is the latter. He learnt fashion from Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), New York, and business management from Wharton. That probably makes him one of the most educated designers in the country. Tarun is the son of former Admiral Radhakrishna Hariram Tahiliani, who studied at the French Test Pilot School, and was the first to land on the deck of INS Vikrant, flying a Hawker Sea Hawk fighter jet in the 1960s.

In my many interactions with him, I felt he may be dressing Minal Modi, Lady Gaga and Jemima Goldsmith, but at heart he has this engaging simplicity hidden beneath a larger-than-life persona. Once, he met me wearing a baseball cap, worn backward, and roughed up sneakers, telling me that’s what’s comfortable.

Sudha Reddy dons a Tarun Tahiliani gown at the MET gala 2024. Photos courtesy of TT

In the book — it features photographs chronicling his journey which began in 1995 when he launched TT, the label, to now — he has not forgotten his roots. He pays a homage to his art teacher, Mrs Dutta. He is candid about meeting his beautiful South Indian wife, Sailaja or “Sal”, at the Pierre Cardin show. He writes about his admiration for Martand Singh, the architect of modern Indian fashion, and Rohit Khosla. The book is a tribute to Tarun’s 40-year-long sojourn in understanding the Indian landscape of style. He has also thanked his embroiderers and darzis, who often are the invisible faces, relegated to the background. Or designers like Aseem Kapoor, who earlier worked at his sprawling atelier in Gurgaon.

A keen observer, shaped by his surroundings

Once, during a heated debate over Indian fashion’s future, he asked me to read a book titled, As A Man Thinketh by James Allen (1903), elucidating the power of thought in structuring your life. Tarun is a man of many contradictions. Minal Modi, the second wife of Lalit Modi, who was previously married to Nigeria-based Sindhi businessman Jack Sagrani, was his muse; she died of cancer. Her words, “I want to look like I am wrapped in a turban” were the edifice of many collections; drapes became Tarun’s leitmotif.

The book’s Foreword is by Fern Mallis, the executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, from 1991 to 2001. She calls him “India’s Valentino”. The father of two boys, Anand and Jahan, sketches, which is one of his strongest gifts. It was discovered early by his mom, who sent him to art class regularly. At his farmhouse in Delhi, you can see his paintings everywhere, it is like a museum with curios from his world travels, to vintage shawls, and kilims.

Motivated by his wife, Tarun opened the first multi-designer store, Ensemble, in an 1850 building, earlier the Great Western Hotel, in 1987. He reminisces, “People were saying bye bye khadi and hello brocade.” Being an artist himself, he has been fascinated by Raja Ravi Varma, and the miniatures of Bani Thani, and learnt how to use drapes to his advantage. He has paid odes to Jehangir Sabavala (his Cubist landscapes were in his collections in 1992) and Anjolie Ela Menon as well as the Singh Twins, whom he discovered at the National Gallery of Modern art, Mumbai, in 2015. The photo-heavy book has pictures of yesteryear faces Mehr Jesia and Shyamoli Varma, first Indian supermodels, shot by Prabuddha Dasgupta way back in 1989. And some of his wife Sal, by Shantanu Sheorey. Fashion survives on photoshoots!

A man of many moods: Tarun Tahiliani

Like an artist, he is a keen observer, and his surroundings leave a deep impact on his psyche. He made dhotis androgynous. He admits, “While growing up, I would see dabbawalas in Bombay wearing dhotis and short kurtas, and I associated the attire with an old, and archaic India. Today, I have a very different point of view. Having rediscovered our Indian identity, I find the modern version of the dhoti with short skirts and a jewel belt incredibly cool and contemporary.”

Making sari funky, and fashionable

There have been many greats who inspired Tarun, from textile guru Asha Sarabhai to the Japanese master of pleating Issey Miyake, who taught him the importance of finishing. His first solo show at Dorchester Hotel, London, in 1994, titled “Rubaiyat,” featured kalidar kurtas, Islamic embroidery to French knots. Isabella Blow, editor of magazines like Tatler, Sunday Times, who is famed for discovering/promoting Alexander McQueen, declared Tarun “the Karl Lagerfeld of India”. Tarun is also known for exquisite pattern cutting, and let us not forget, he combined the East and West in clothing. And he also is someone who brought symphony to couture: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan with Italian operatic tenor Luciano Pavarotti at his shows.

In 2014, while I was attending his show, it started with words from Commonwealth Prize-winning author Rana Dasgupta’s book, Capital: The Eruption of Delhi, which talks about the global elite, how money came into India, especially Delhi, and changed the entire fabric of the city. I was gobsmacked as Tarun dresses the rich and famous, still he can sit back and poke fun at their extravagant lifestyles. Gutsy, if you still want these affluent fickle women to dress you up!

His visit to Allahabad and Mahakumbh inspired his 2013 line, along with Rohit Chawla’s photography of sadhus in dreadlocks, rudraksha beads, and marigolds that came armed with ajrak and bandini. I still have the beads he gave in the Press kit. “Fashion is the darling of Capitalism, able to express itself in social life like no other phenomenon,” says Tarun. And this is just one of his many gems. The book has quotes from Friedrich Nietzsche to Karl Max, relating them to fashion, and how it has shaped humanity and our collective consciousness.

Delhi designers have forayed into Paris Fashion Week, dressing stars all over the globe, in the last ten years. Tarun dressed Lady Gaga during Formula 1 in 2011; she unveiled his ivory sari on stage, layer by layer, till only a bodysuit with chains was visible. Saris are important for him. He says, “We have made the sari funky with a corset and aimed to keep the sari in fashion so that it can be worn in a modern way.”

A man of many moods

He admits to loving the hues of ivory, beige, ecru, taupe, Indian mitti and has used all his influences in some form or the other in his collections — whether it was his trip to Egypt in 2018 or the way he amalgamates corsetry. He calls couture “a fantasy, it is a designer’s lab.” Imran Khan’s ex-wife Jemima Goldsmith wore his couture gown — he decided to bid adieu to the ghunghat, add a sheer veil, and make sure the bride is free to dance, crafted lightweight lehengas with gotta and crystal. “For years, I saw brides who could barely move or walk on their wedding day. They were left scratched and bruised from their bridal finery. Luxury must be first how you feel in your skin. We achieved lightness, making breakthroughs in fabric, construction, and techniques,” he says.

When I visited his Mehrauli store with a bride-to-be, it was soaked in extravagance, marble floors, and imposing décor. A lehenga that the bride liked was for almost Rs 11 lakh, but it transformed her into a Princess. I think the soap in his atelier at Mehrauli was more expensive than the Zara outfit I wore on a blazing hot summer day. For many, this experience, surrounded by the sheer aroma of intimidating wealth, could be daunting, but for me, it was just a homage to good taste. “The TT logo resembles pi, thus representing infinite possibilities,” he concludes.

My only regret after reading the book was if only I could also have contributed to it as I know Tarun to be a man of many moods, and through my unfiltered lens, readers would have seen the ‘real TT’, a designer who built the multi-crore empire.
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