Journey to India Modern | Tarun Tahiliani in conversation

The session touched on several other aspects of both Tahiliani’s own journey, and a larger overview of the Indian fashion industry

January 27, 2024 06:53 pm | Updated March 11, 2024 12:37 pm IST

Journey to India Modern: Tarun Tahillani in conversation with Rosella Stephen at The Hindu Lit Fest 2024 held at Sir Mutha Concert Hall in Chennai on Saturday.

Journey to India Modern: Tarun Tahillani in conversation with Rosella Stephen at The Hindu Lit Fest 2024 held at Sir Mutha Concert Hall in Chennai on Saturday. | Photo Credit: B. Velankanni Raj

The conversation between Rosella Stephen, Editor, The Hindu Sunday Magazine and Literary Review, and one of India’s foremost fashion designers, Tarun Tahiliani, began with a mention of his book, Tarun Tahiliani: Journey to India Modern (Roli Books), a culmination of 25 years of the designer’s career. Ms. Stephen spoke about how the launch of the book at the Mumbai Art Fair had become news. She added that this was unsurprising because, along with the more technical aspects of his work — the signature craft work and the structured drapes — the designer’s work is also about the storytelling, and dramatic flare. “You can’t help but be a part of it.”

The conversation touched upon the various aspects of India’s journey with couture and fashion, and Mr. Tahiliani noted that it was time, he thought, for Indian fashion to “put the maharaja and the tiger to bed.” The India we grew up with was very different from the India of today, he said, and he spoke about the change from his first showing in Milan in 2003, where the big conversation had been about how to keep the Indian identity but not become an “embroidered frock fest”. He remembered navigating that by using specifics like jewelled t-shirts and chikankari in pantsuits. And while he said that back then, this had been way ahead of the times, with Indian markets not even ready to manufacture them. Now, many studios, including his own, were coming into their own, Mr. Tahiliani said.

Read our live updates of The Hindu Lit Fest 2024, Day 2

He spoke of the dust settling, and the Indian fashion industry brimming with opportunities and new ideas. “The Gen Z are more relaxed in their skin,” he said, adding that now, the industry is entering a nice time, and there is a huge diversity in what designers do. And while once, Indian fashion tended to become costume-like, this was now changing.

Mr. Tahiliani also spoke about a session at the Kolkata Literary Meet with Laila Tyabji, where they spoke about how there is “no conflict between handloom and fashion”, adding that they had just needed time to know how to cut and style handloom, since handloom fabric has traditionally not been woven to be cut into shapes. “We learnt to do that by trial and error,” Mr. Tahiliani said. Now, with contemporary designs that can be worn easily, and more structured drapes, Mr. Tahiliani felt that more traditional handlooms are making their way into fashion.

Ms. Stephen also spoke to Mr. Tahiliani about the success of Tasva, the men’s traditional wear brand born out of the collaboration between the designer and the Aditya Birla Group. Ms. Stephen noted that Mr. Tahiliani was perhaps one of the only designers who has successfully straddled the world of couture and another of a brand like Tasva. Speaking of the genesis of Tasva, Mr. Tahiliani noted how there was a belief once in people that India would lose interest in ethnicity and her own culture, but “Indian fashion is going nowhere”. “Everyone thinks Indian fashion is textile, colour, and embroidery. It’s not just that. It’s the way Indians drape fabric,” he added, and talked about the years it can take to learn the art of draping. The structured drape, for Mr. Tahiliani, is what he finds most interesting.

Mr. Tahiliani and Ms. Stephen also spoke about the business of fashion, and Mr. Tahilliani admitted that it had taken him a long time to understand that fashion is a business.

Ms. Stephen then asked Mr. Tahiliani to speak of the ecosystem he had created around him, and noted that several successful designers hadboth worked and learnt from him. She mentioned designer Amit Agarwal, who worked with Mr. Tahiliani close to two decades ago, and credited the latter with teaching him to look through the lens of humour, even during difficult times.

The conversation touched on several other aspects of both Mr. Tahiliani’s own journey, and a larger overview of the Indian fashion industry, bringing in topics such the challenges of dressing stars and having showstoppers, the early years of the Indian fashion industry, and the conditions under which craftspeople often find themselves working. Mr. Tahiliani narrated anecdotes from his career, and spoke about how, during the pandemic, he had contended with the disruptions to the industry. “If you want to make beautiful things, they must be made in decent surroundings,” he said, speaking on the condition of labourers working in the industry today.

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