For over two decades, Tarun Tahiliani’s fashion designs have impressed, seduced and tantalised the world. With his attention to detail and insistence on using only the finest materials, it is no wonder that he is one of the leading designers in the South Asian subcontinent. What’s surprising however is that the man behind the highly celebrated design house is nothing short of charming, enigmatic, and hilariously raw. On his first trip to Egypt, eniGma’s Farida El Sayed got the chance to sit with the designer to discuss his life, his success, and his business.
Tahiliani describes himself as growing up, “super artistic.” Due to a problem with his legs, he was forced to stay indoors all the time. “I had to wear leg braces because my legs were so bent. So when you can’t play in a field like normal children, you spend more time drawing,” he recalls. Another influence in his youth was his extensive travel throughout India due to his father’s position in the Navy.
When it was time to go to college, Tahiliani got into the most prestigious business management program in America, the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. He jokingly recalls, “It’s actually a big tragedy did it to make my father happy, because can you imagine an Admiral’s face if I had told him I wanted to be a designer? He would have had a stroke, poor thing.”
Upon his return from America, Tahiliani joined the family business for a while, selling oil field equipment to the rigs. However, he was not passionate about his job. As he recalls, “It’s all about bribing. If you bribe the right person then you get a big contract and get to sit in first class and enjoy all the trappings of this high life. But I thought that if I have to live this life, I will be completely disappointed.”
Unbeknownst to him his luck would soon change. “In a strange stroke of fate, Pierre Cardin, who was a big designer in France came to India to do a show,” says Tahiliani. My wife Sailaja, went to help him, and he picked her as a model for his fashion show. I had never seen a fashion show before and it forever changed my life,” he recalls.
Inspired by that show, Tahiliani and his wife decided to open Ensemble in 1987 which became India’s first multi-brand boutique. According to Tahiliani, “When we started the multi-brand store, a lot of Indians were designing for foreign labels. I said ‘now is the time to have Indian designers designing for India.’ So we promoted Indian designers.” Although at the time he also had plans to start his own design studio, he found it difficult to execute his sketches the way he envisioned them. “We come from a textile and draping tradition in India; we didn’t know how to cut. So I went to the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, to learn to create the contemporary silhouettes I wanted,” he explains.
Upon returning from New York with an associate degree from FIT, Tahiliani started his eponymous label in 1994. At the beginning, “a lot of Indians weren’t used to structured clothing, and they found it very expensive,” he recounts. The following year in 1995, an event happened that changed his life. Celebrated journalist and British heiress, Jemima Khan, wore one of his designs at her wedding to the legendary cricket player, Imran Khan. That catapulted Tahiliani’s designs to greater heights, and made him a household name. But even before that, his designs had garnered a lot of interest from world renowned industry professionals, such as the late Isabella Blow, who was the one who discovered Alexander McQueen at the time. According to Tahiliani, Blow came to his first fashion show. In fact, he is still struck by her suicide. He explains, “A lot of people in the creative field have a lot of angst, and if you don’t deal with it, no matter how brilliant or successful you are, you could be prone to a worse fate especially if you add substances in the mix; it’s a lethal cocktail.”
Soon after the Jemima Khan wedding, Tahiliani captured the attention of everyone in the country from socialites to Bollywood actors. With their opulence, extravagance, and uniqueness, his designs became hallmarks in the world of haute couture. Tahiliani explains that in one of his most recent designs, his studio was able to sew 100,000 Swarovski opals on a sari. In fact, with all the tulle, pearls, and crystals, a Tahiliani haute couture sari can easily weigh eight to 10 kilos! Unlike other designers, he understands that tradition and modernity must be woven side by side to keep up with today’s globalised youth. “We take traditional crafts but put them onto contemporary silhouettes, therefore making them fit in a modern way,” he proudly explains.
Aside from his bridal wear and haute couture Tahiliani also provides his eager customers with ready-to-wear collections. “I believe there should be accessible day fashion,” he says. “My clients should not only be able to wear these royal Indian fantasy costumes for the evening. If you’re going to go clubbing, wear a sexy T-shirt, be modern. It’s fine, you shouldn’t be something you’re not. Evolution must happen. Things must be done because they feel right or authentic.” Tahiliani insists that, “fashion has to respond to the needs of life.” That’s why he wants to target the burgeoning middle class. “Even if we have to put the prices down, we should have millions of Indians wearing our designs. I want to keep the youth connected, but not in a boring or didactic way,” he exclaims. Tahiliani cites a prominent figure such as Salma Hayek, who is modern but embraces her Mexican heritage, as an example of what he is seeking. “She has always kept her Mexican identity. She stands out. That’s the kind of woman I design for, an independent and modern woman, who is still connected to her roots,” he explains.
Much to our delight, Tahiliani revealed that his 2019 spring/summer collection will be inspired by Egypt. While in Egypt, he planned to go to Luxor and take a boat down the Nile, something he had always wanted to do. He looks forward to seeing hundreds of etchings, sculptures, and drawings which will inspire his drawings. “Every day, I’ll be going to the temples and two hours every afternoon I’m going to sketch and document ideas to actualise my inspirations once I am back in India,” he says.
We look forward to Tahiliani’s Spring/Summer 2019 collection, and hope he will come to Egypt to unveil it!