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Tarun Tahiliani: "I Question My Own Ability to Survive Past a Point."

The master couturier opens up about the tough times that the Indian couture faces. 

The master couturier, known for his opulent designs and intricate details, opens up about the tough times that Indian couture faces. With the lockdown in place, gatherings, weddings and celebratory occasions have come to a halt…and so has the bustling avenue for fashion purchase in India. Tarun emphasizes how the current situation will adversely affect skilled artisans, and suggests how designers can devise innovations for a better future, when our worlds are normal again. Read on for the full interview. 

Cosmo: What can be done for craftspeople, who have been badly hit by this crisis?  

Tarun Tahiliani: “Our entire industry is going to be dedicated to try and raise awareness about the craftspeople.  I think the definitive authority on this are Laila Tyabji, Ritu Kumar, and Rahul Jain, and people who have really pushed craft long before anybody else made it fashionable or cool.  There needs to be a safety net for them to be protected else they will give up their tradition and be forced to take on manual jobs or work on construction sites or come and work at offices in the cities and do soul-numbing work, which is so different from what they have been brought up for.  I think every designer will have to support craft.  I, for one, have decided to do much more hand work, even if it is more expensive.  Smriti Irani is standing up and saying please do not cancel orders. It is very sweet, but it remains a dream because everybody has their reality.  No one is shopping at the moment, it is not possible to go and complete orders.  These are businesses that help and fund themselves.  On the one hand we are told to pay all our salaries—it is a law. But on the other hand, we are in lockdown paying heavy rents.  So I am not sure what the answer is or how long we can support it.  The only way to support craftspeople is to focus on designing all kinds of products with their crafts, and then putting them out there and hopefully having people buy those pieces.”  

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Cosmo: Why is buying local so essential, now more than ever?

Tarun Tahiliani: I do not think any of us can estimate how badly our economy is going to be hit because a) we do not know the extent of damage and b) we do not know how long this lockdown will last.  In the realm of fashion, if one is sitting at home, one could buy a pair of sneakers or sweatpants, but there is no ‘need’ for high fashion or craft-based fashion. Due to the lockdown, there are  no weddings or celebratory occasions, where these clothes could be worn.  The truth is that we are in for a drought, the likes of which we have never seen before.  I think the consequence of this will be that our craftspeople will suffer more than ever before.  In my conversation with [Indian social worker and craft activist], Laila Tyabji—who is undoubtedly one of the finest champions for craftspeople—she said the craftspeople of India already took a hammering because of demonetisation and, subsequently, GST, because many of these people are too small to even register and comply with the paperwork needed.  Now this is the death knell, she says.  So I see it as a personal responsibility because my brand, as is the case with many other designers, owes its existence almost entirely to the craftspeople of India. And we simply have to be able to sustain and help them through this time—and keep ourselves alive—and, in that, keep our tradition and culture alive. People really need to rethink their purchases which, anyway, will be reduced, and I hope that they will make a conscious effort to ‘THINK INDIAN AND BUY INDIAN’.  We need to support our local economy.  We need to support our local craft.  This is the only way they have a chance of survival.  Designers will also have to produce cleverer, easier and more ready to wear stuff, perhaps even priced better.  But this has to be a collaborative effort for all the people involved.”    

Cosmo: What do you think will happen to the young Indian designer?

TT: “I think many of them will collapse.  I think designers who have just opened stores at expensive malls or fancy retail establishments won’t have the pockets to survive the summer that is ahead of us, as I don’t believe the markets will improve before that.  So, it is hard for me to say…I even question my own ability to survive past a point. We had taken a decision early-on to tighten things up so that we are able to go on, as long as we can.  So I can only hope for the best. It is already tough for India’s young designers and it is going to be tougher still.  It is tragic!”  

Cosmo: How can we promote green consumerism in fashion?

TT: “To promote green consumerism, I think one has to start working with natural materials, dyes, and raw materials, as much as possible. What most Indian designers use is, natural.  We do use a few fabrics that come from abroad because you cannot permanently pleat natural fabrics. So this is a question we are going to consider. We use certain imported fabrics as we like a particular texture. But by the end of this, we will have to re-evaluate everything.”  

Cosmo: Has Coronavirus made us question the relevance of fashions weeks? Do we need to rethink the format?

TT: “For me, at least, I do not think the virus has made me question fashion weeks.  I do not think fashion weeks have even featured in my mind, because there are no fashion weeks coming up besides Couture Week and, of course, the Autumn/Winter 2020 showing that was cancelled in Delhi.  I think if everyone was to show their collections online and have people buy off there, it would lack the magic and collective buzz that fashion weeks do actually bring to the table.  However, fashion weeks were an effective tool even when designers had their own Instagram channels, and I think that still had some relevance as it brought a whole lot of people into a space and the buzz got flowed from there.”  

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Cosmo: Will this situation, hopefully, create a demand for local, Indian fashion?

 

TT: “I was in Maheshwar with my sister. She was here from Stanford and doing a study on ‘disarticulated economies’ and the purpose of that study was to show that once weavers started wearing polyester saris, they disengaged with the product they were weaving.  It is a fact that most synthetic saris come from China and Indian designers need to think about how they can create something that is easy to wash and wear. The truth is that working women, who are running homes and looking after children, do not have the time to wash and starch their clothes that were made for another time when women stayed home.  Everything has to move with the times.  If fashion does not, then consumers will look for the synthetic answer.  I think the reason why people switched to synthetics in large measure is because they look rich, they have vibrant colours and last long, they are cheaper and do not crease.  I do not think it is practical for India’s summer but if you do not have the luxury, that’s that.  As every country is becoming more protective of their crafts, their institutions, this might be a good time to focus on that.  I think 20-30 years ago, we did not plan effectively for our silk industries.  So not only did the Chinese capture the yarn industry, they then captured the weaving via economies of scale, labour laws, excellent infrastructure, cheap power and a suppressed currency, which is why their products were so much cheaper.  I think now, we have to take a collective decision and ask ourselves if this is okay. If we want to be taken over like the Italians…or do we want to use this opportunity to reflect and change the way we work, that benefits the larger society.”