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Tarun Tahiliani Drapes His Future

The designer is refining his retail concepts, pricing and what he describes as the fast-transforming world of fashion retail.

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NEW DELHI — Tarun Tahiliani is clear about what he wants.

After almost 20 years of doing what he’s known best for — draping and understatement — the designer is refining his retail concepts, pricing and what he describes as the fast-transforming world of fashion retail.

He’s clearly focused on his path ahead in terms of his own stand-alone retail outlets, and part owner of Ensemble, a multibrand store that was a pioneer of fashion retailing in India. In December, he opened the second of his couture studios, in New Delhi, a new concept that was initiated in Mumbai in September.

“The whole game is changing now. It’s a very exciting time,” he observed, wrapping himself in a thin shawl against the Delhi cold. “The retail is changing, the business is changing, price points are changing and all the concepts are being looked at all over again. I’m clearer now than I’ve ever been before about where we’re going.”

He’s known causally as TT by regular customers, employees and most people in the fashion world. “It doesn’t matter to me what I’m called,” he said with a shrug as he talked to WWD about being one of the top fashion designers in India during what he describes as “this time of transformation.”

As for the growth of his brand, he observed: “Some things happen on their own — because you’re an established brand you’ll get noticed, you’ll get put on the telly, at fashion weeks, and these are advantages, and these advantages can help you grow. But growth is not a wand, growth is systems; growth is checking on the underbelly of the organization to make sure that things keep moving. It’s not fluff, and I think many people didn’t realize that for so many years. Nor did we. But that’s our full focus right now.”

For many years, fashion retail in India has grown in a haphazard way, but it has now reached an inflection point. Tahiliani’s spring orders were a testament to this, rising 40 percent over the previous year. His revised focus has brought in several new aspects to the business: a tightening of systems and production schedules, but also a reduction in prices.

The cut in prices is especially surprising given inflation and the healthy growth in demand for premium and designer fashion. “It’s part of the way we’ve streamlined ourselves doing better value and better range pricing, which we have been able to reduce by 15 to 20 percent,” the designer explained. The company operates five stand-alone Tarun Tahiliani stores in New Delhi, Mumbai and Hyderabad, in prime locations such as Bandra in Mumbai and Defence Colony in New Delhi, and also sells its collections in more than 40 multibrand stores.

The couture studios are by appointment only.

Then there is Ensemble, which is owned by his family, and has five units and continues to do well despite being mired in family ownership issues that are expected to be resolved in the next few months. It will then look at a relaunch.

“Honestly, I have always felt by looking at the American model that multibrand stores may not have a future in the international context,” Tahiliani said, talking about the positioning of Ensemble, which stood out in the market because of its product mix and promotion of new designers. “Kind of equivalent of Browns in London,” he said, adding that there was “no real growth story in it because the moment a designer is big enough they want to open up their own store.”

After earning a business degree from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, Tahiliani started out with the family business by launching Ensemble in 1987. “Then I realized I wanted to design, so I went to New York in 1990, studied [at the Fashion Institute of Technology] for a year and came back and launched in a small, dirty studio with six machines in 1995,” he explained.

There wasn’t much of a fashion industry in India at the time, nor were there any malls or retail of any consequence.

But in the last decade, with the growing focus on the fashion weeks in Mumbai and New Delhi, as well as competition from foreign brands launching in India and an explosion of malls all over the country, there has been significant change in Tahiliani’s business.

“Everyone looks at the way things happen in the West and expects that we will happen in the same way, but it doesn’t. We’re a very, very different market,” he said. “The one thing is that you’ve been trained to buy Western brands in one way, but the way Indians shop for Indian things is different, and they’ve been used to that, so there’s almost like schizophrenia in certain ways. There is an innate sense of bargaining when you buy Indian wear, for instance.”

There are other differences in the Indian market now. “I also find that as a society Indians are dressing much more causally. And there is a very big difference between day and night. You won’t see this much difference in New York unless it was a black-tie gala. A woman might wear a nice pair of heels at night, maybe add a cuff, whereas in India there is a complete transformation for the evening. Even if it’s a wedding, it’s not just the bride — everyone is getting makeup artists, hair stylists,” he remarked.

Another way the Indian fashion market is changing: a disproportionate emphasis in Bollywood films and the fashion media on gowns and certain Western wear that have little place in day-to-day life.

But all in all, Tahiliani concedes that “there’s never been a better time to be a designer in India.”

“I think we definitely had a first-mover advantage, which many of the older designers did not make sufficient use of — there were unseasoned opportunities, and we had it easy in the beginning. And the numbers today are much bigger, so if we run this properly, I reckon we can almost double our turnover with the existing facilities and capacity by understanding better who is your customer, by understanding what are the best price points and who is more comfortable buying your product,” he said.

As he focuses on couture and ready-to-wear, having scrapped the idea of a lower-priced line called OTT, he is aware that there is a “new couture customer,” one he describes as a buyer of Chanel who comes to him for clothes with the same fit and finish.

“That’s one of the most socially significant changes that is happening,” he said.

Tahiliani’s designs continue to reflect his signature draping, and unlike many Indian designers who fear the stigma of the bridal market, he accepts that association and wants to take it further. His plan is to strengthen his association with embroidery and design, experiment with more structured drapes and perhaps even introduce a collection for larger women who become “invisible in society.”

His animated conversation, the strength of his design, it all reflects the next thing he said before he headed into another evening of exploration: “You have to engage with life.”

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