We at ABFRL, present stories excerpted from our internal newsletter ‘In Touch’, where we celebrate stories of our people and their contributions.
Decembers in north India are famous for the cold nip and the Brijrama Palace on the banks of river Ganga is gearing up for a unique celebration like never before. There is “masti” in the air and wedding celebrations are on in full swing. But the bride is nowhere to be seen; it is not the conventional wedding that the pandemic robbed us all of. What is unfolding is a new signature style for the groom and his gang, and in the middle of all this controlled chaos is a familiar face, brimming with delight. Celebrated couture designer Tarun Tahiliani is basking in the glory of his latest creation; a brand that wants to dress the “modern Indian man.” With youthful vibrance, he reminds us to take pride in “all that is me, all that is mine.” Everything is encapsulated in one word – TASVA.
Just as the TASVA collection showcase commences, Tarun can be seen greeting all the guests with enthusiasm and childlike glee. He doesn’t hesitate to walk an entourage of eager journalists to the artisans who have helped him curate his magical collection over two-and-a-half decades and more. He sits with them like old pals meeting over chai; crossed legged on the ground, marvelling at the wonder they are weaving with ease.
It isn’t by accident that TASVA is being unveiled here. Over 70% of the fabrics used in TASVA’s debut collection are sourced from Benaras, with brocades dominating the range. Mughal motifs, especially architecture, have always played a huge role in Tarun’s designs, and this passion is reflected in the use of motifs, which include bootis, florals, and vines, particularly in Sherwanis.
Journey from Couture to Classy Mass Appeal
Back in his office, Tarun is relaxed and a lot more subdued. His office is homely-yet-rustic and has a style of its own. You can’t keep a master away from his craft, yet there is little clutter and the man is in all his element. Primarily credited with being a couture giant in the women’s wedding wear space, TASVA seems like a paradigm shift for a man of Tarun’s stature. However, he is quick to clear the air. “Firstly,” he starts, “we don’t only do couture. That’s the myth and the perception.
We do a lot of ready-to-wear, which is different from TASVA. It’s a different market and because it’s produced in numbers – that’s the plan for the future – you get economies of scale and therefore can price very differently. In couture, we’re doing bespoke things. Just by the fact that you’re doing one of a kind, you’re not amortizing the cost of development over large units.”
Tarun’s Design Philosophy
Reminiscing his days as a fashion student, he reveals a secret that gives us an interesting insight into his design philosophy. “I’ve always been interested in evening wear, but when it came to the crunch, I opted for sportswear, which is not athleisure, but more everyday wear as the factor of comfort in clothing is paramount for me. There was this brilliant professor who worked with Christian Dior himself – a French professor – who was teaching evening wear. I looked to the other side of the room and there was this professor training in sportswear like a beautiful jacket, a trouser, a skirt. I thought I’m going to take sportswear because I just liked the thing.”
Moving from the Bride to the Groom
Which brings us back to the million-dollar question. How did this connection from everyday-wear lead to trousseaus? Clearly irked by this strange fusion of East-meets-west, Tarun quips, “Bridal is hugely now about a lot of costumes and veils and trails, and I often wonder how would a bride walk around a fire? A veil is to walk straight down an aisle and the moment the bride’s out of the church, anywhere in the world, the veil goes off. But somehow in Asian societies, we are a little gobsmacked by the west so we copy in a very shallow way. But you have to be practical at the end of the day.”
On further prodding, he elaborates. “We are a bit caught up and India is in a little Western colonized hang up. Take Italy, for instance. I see films from the sixties and they all look like they’re wearing a current product, but their style has been timeless. Just like our styling, before, Independence, the drape tradition, before we stopped adopting so much western clothing. For me, to do a simple kurta with a draped dhoti, whether for a man or a woman, is beautiful and timeless. At the end of the day, this interests me more than creating a fantastical piece for someone to wear at an outlandish wedding. I am moving towards lightness and practicality, because I think that is the only way you can be sustainable.”
Tarun’s eyes light up when the birth of TASVA comes up. “There is a need and there is a big growth opportunity in India for practical, beautiful clothes. As I walked into TASVA, all those kurtas were colour blocked, folded beautifully and I thought ‘oh my god, that’s like seeing a T-shirt — with kurtas’! There are a few brands that already have it, like Fab India but a much wider range of basic Indian clothes to a higher degree of dressiness, going from a pooja, or a special occasion, to a wedding – then the highest thing is your own wedding. The groom’s families want to dress in similar things, beautifully tailored and remarkably made. But that takes time and effort, going into the pattern making, the construction, the fit, the
feeling. For TASVA men, it’s about being a global Indian, nicely made fitted, well-tailored clothes. Once you know what comfort is, you’re not going back to simple.”
The ABFRL Connect
“Anything that ABFRL does is long term. I’ve just been this kind of design dog in the industrial world – everyday doing my thing and we are going to build something with our vision. Women’s wear, is much easier because I’ve done so much for women, except, I will have to tone everything down. But I love simplicity. Luxury is about how anything on your body feels first. I think we have also lost our way a bit in India, but it’s a phase that will pass. Millennials are much calmer, they have a different idea and I like that spirit.
Ashish, and many others came to see the factory to see the different departments and carried out due diligence. With COVID running amok, there haven’t been too many in person meetings. So, in terms of that, we’ve done some monumental things by the end of December 2021. In the time TASVA was taking shape, the Chinese were not shipping, we were not able to leverage a lot of ABFRL’s buying office in China. But I have just been focused on this and in many ways, it has been a blessing in disguise. Starting a whole lot of things with people working out of their way from different offices, it’s hard to build a culture like that. But when you start something new, that’s the best time to build a culture, because, that’s when it works. It’s like a marriage we’ve embarked on it and now we’re going to make it work. But you can only do it because you love it.”
When Two Greats Met
Tarun’s association with ABG is not new; it has been brewing like fine wine for over three decades. “I have known Mr. Kumar Mangalam Birla for on and off for over 30 odd years. I had just opened up and he was getting engaged to Neerja, when he came in to shop. I remember very clearly, I didn’t know who he was; he has always been so understated and unassuming.
He continues to have detail in his approach to things, even today, I feel I am taking a 35-year-old version to my shop, walking around and explaining things. Of course, we have both gained more knowledge now, but that attention to detail, that calmness away from hype, I’ve learnt many things and even though we’ve not had time to focus on the Tarun Tahiliani business as much, we’ve already had a record year. Because whatever I learn from there, I immediately apply here; a lot of the good things have seeped in. I thoroughly enjoyed working with him. We’ve had many long, meetings. His attention to detail, ability to focus on something, his vision is something I’ve never had. I’ve had to learn to be more streamlined but I love the discipline of it because it makes you so much more productive.”
The TASVA Experience
When we talk about our in-store experience from TASVA, Thane store, Tarun is appreciative of the positive feedback. “I’m glad to know of your experience because I am either always on the shop floor or I am inundated with events at the store. But I’m not complaining, I like it. Everyone who’s been to the store says it’s very classy. We have got that lovely Indian touch. The way the carpets are printed, and the old things. Some of the things we might have to tone down for the franchise market. All this I’ve learnt only now. Class has nothing to do with how much you spend.”
But what makes the TASVA experience so royal? Tarun elaborates on what makes it to the racks. “Quality is a tactile thing. First you see how the fabric feels. Secondly, see if its well-made. Thirdly, and the most importantly, how it feels on your skin. No one has ever seen me wear anything on with a logo. We are the logo, we know what to wear every day. In winters, we wear totally different things, but in summer we wear what our skin can breathe in. Before we started doing the staple kurtas, I got them to make it for me in colour variants and dark linings. I wore it for the day and by 4 o’clock, I realised it feels fine and we can go ahead with this. That has probably become the biggest fabric we use.”
“Our big learning came from Sunita Bangard, who helped us reorient the campaign. She spotted our mistake: we’re making clothes, that go to India, not to Bharat. So, there’s a whole new India, why don’t we talk to that India? There’s a huge market that we’re not talking to. When it comes together, it has a personality. It’s not me. It’s a combination of everyone who worked on it. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts and it’s one personality that is perceived by people, and they talk about it, then they will communicate what they think about it.”
The Benaras Connect
The conversation fluidly goes back to where the story started. So, what is the Benaras connect that pulls Tarun so strongly every single time? “Benaras is a huge centre for textiles. I took the journalists to one of the weavers last March. They were showing us dupattas worth Rs. 1,800. It never crossed my mind that this was not silk. It had a lovely hand. Beautiful brocades were priced between Rs. 300-350. But if you go into silk, it starts at Rs. 1,800 and jumps up to Rs. 4,100 or Rs. 5,000 per meter. But what amazed me more is that they had adapted. I didn’t teach them this. About 20 years ago, they were simple Muslim weavers. Some of them are master weavers, so there was a little more education; education in our world is different from that in their world. They were very well-educated for the life they need to live. Their children today adapt and carry back their learnings, because if they didn’t, they’d be out of business. While a handloom has upgraded to a power loom, the quality of the workers is superb and the colours are beautiful.”
“This is actual heritage. To be superficial is not culture; that is a much deeper thing. I enjoyed going to Lucknow, sitting in villages and block printing. I grew to understand, learn and love India, which I myself grew up looking at. There was a time, about 15 years ago, when I went to the Kumbha Mela because I wanted to see how the Naga Sadhus drape fabric. Someone thought I was a Sadhu. They put me on top of a chariot when his procession arrived and I jumped into the Ganges. I had the best time of my life.”
The Other End of the spectrum
From Benaras to Lucknow, Tarun’s hunt for the perfect fabric blends took him to several unlikely destinations. “There are several big industries, not all like ABFRL though. While it’s fine to produce a lot of cheap quality material in vibrant colours using amazing machines, the process decimates the Indian crafter and weavers. It robs these creative and hardworking of the dignity they deserve.”
When we ask about his experience at the ABFRL factory, Tarun’s smiles return, “I went to the canteen where everybody eats. It is delicious food. I think it’s fantastic. Having a good work culture always pays in the long run. It’s a different planet and universe, I relate much more to it.”
Switching between two worlds
Juggling two brands at the opposite ends of the spectrum can be arduous, but Tarun and his teams are fluidic in switching between TASVA and Tarun Tahiliani. “We are trying to put them on different schedules. So, on the day that I do TASVA, I’ll go off and switch the next morning. We try and stay in the zone and have different teams. We are hoping that by putting everybody into one-building, it will address a lot of the things that perhaps were not looked at before much, people have come on board to help us understand what we need to do. I think it’s great.”
Talking about apparel is sure to make someone like Tarun nostalgic. “I got my first pair of jeans from a hippie and Goa. My mother was hysterical, she took the jeans and sent to boil them, and then only, we could wear them. If you remember, we were so proud of our first pair of Levi’s. It’s just fun.” He then turns philosophical. “When I looked at old India, the villages, I don’t see bad taste. People in villages wore a certain thing in a certain way. When I see those Rabbadi women, it feels exquisite, and self-expressive. Our culture is actually simple and beautiful. What we’re seeing in this Bollywoodization is not our culture. But with the super-rich, I see so much bad taste. We’ve disconnected from our culture. Calvin Klein and certainly designers of America did accessible things, it brought people back into some taste.
After a point, once your stomach’s full, that’s more interesting to be doing something new, to learn, to engage in. The world has changed, lifestyle has changed, needs have changed. I think there are many misses in this Indian segment and I think it’s a great opportunity to do it right. A wonderful Indian attire is being born — all that we wore, and more!”