Through its influential 30-year journey, Ensemble tells the story of India’s evolving fashion prowess. Everything has changed since the first store opened doors
Pankti Mehta Kadakia
It was 1987; the country was simpler, trade borders yet unopened, and a majority of people still needed convincing to spend sizeable money on what was then seen as a mere necessity—clothes. In this climate, couturier Tarun Tahiliani and his wife Sailaja opened doors to a glamorous multi-designer fashion boutique at Lion’s Gate, Mumbai—Ensemble.
Some were shocked by the prices, others taken by the quality of the garments. Largely, everyone was in awe of the store. Back then, designers didn’t make multiples of anything so each piece was special, cut like this, draped like that.
“At this time, the very rich industrialists would make their biggest spends abroad,” says Tina Tahiliani Parikh, executive director, Ensemble, who took over operations from brother Tarun in 1990. “Back home, they would invest in heritage and textile, but contemporary fashion hadn’t fully permeated [the market] yet.”
Fast forward 30 years. Everything’s changed.
Tahiliani-Parikh’s own journey at Ensemble began unexpectedly. “I never thought I would be in fashion,” she says. “My mother [Jaswanti Tahiliani] was an incredibly glamorous woman, and she has influenced my brother and me in many ways. She was the first woman engineer in Maharashtra. Back then, fashion was not an option for a full-time career. I wanted to be an engineer like my mother.”
As opposed to her brother, Tina studied science, always topped her class, totally focused on academia. But when she began studying math, she realised there was a part of her that was unexplored. She travelled to the US to pursue a degree in economics and international policy, and got a high-flying job in investment banking.
A duty-bound person, she faced a dilemma. Tarun and she had lost their mother very young, and their father was a great patriot, always talking to them about the importance of giving back to the country, and not contribute to brain drain. As destiny would have it, Tina returned to India on a leave of absence in November 1990, when the store was three years old. In December, Tarun said he was no longer interested in retail, and was flying out to the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.
“I was utterly traumatised,” she recalls. “The store was built as part of my mother’s engineering division, and she was no more. I suddenly saw myself as the caretaker of this division, and stayed out of a sense of duty.”
Three decades later, under Tahiliani-Parikh’s potent leadership, Ensemble has only strengthened its position as a powerhouse in Indian fashion.
Brewing a revolution
“In Ensemble’s early days, things weren’t so commercial so the clothes were really special,” says Tahiliani-Parikh. “We didn’t look at the bottom line, we just looked for beautiful clothes. A lot of these pieces were one-of-a-kind, and I think this was the closest that fashion came to art. However, India didn’t have that finesse in craft back then, so there were also terrible mistakes.”
India had a heritage of drape, not cut, she adds, so experiments were still raw. In the late ‘80s, boxy cuts and shoulder pads were in vogue, a masculine look with feminine dressing.
When the store first opened, prices were between Rs 2,000 and Rs 8,000. “Costs were so low in those days,” Tahiliani-Parikh says. “I remember that Jamini Ahluwalia earrings were selling for Rs 200.”
“The next 10 years were very exciting. The National Institutes of Fashion Technology (NIFT) had just launched, and a lot of talent was coming up,” she says. “Tarun and Sailaja had found some incredible designers, and Ensemble at the time was game-changing. People were not used to seeing traditional techniques and cuts in such a modern way.”
One of the first labels to be started after the store had launched was Rohit Bal, she recalls. Asha Sarabhai was an early recruit. Monisha Jaising was the big young find at the time, then Arjun Khanna. A mini-revolution had begun.
“Funnily, in those days, people dressed mainly in textiles,” Tahiliani-Parikh says. “It wasn’t a fashionable thing to do, as it is now. Between 2000 and 2010, it was suddenly cooler to wear a designer garment than a Kanjeevaram sari, but now fashion has gone back to encompass textile.”
Ensemble would host fashion shows at the store and at other venues as a form of marketing. “I remember our first show at the Taj Mahal Palace in Colaba, in the summer of 1988. I was a student then, and had come here for the holidays, and I had goosebumps when I watched it,” she says. “Tarun would open the shows, and Rohit Khosla would close them. Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla were showcasing, and Amaya by Sunita Kapoor [Anil Kapoor’s wife]. It really was a precursor to fashion week.”
Now, in the age of multiple fashion weeks and social media, much of the charm is lost, says Tahiliani-Parikh. “I’m not thrilled about devoting four weeks of a year to various fashion weeks,” she says. “At varying points in time, each of these weeks have been stronger than others—are they really serving designers’ interests?”
Social media has made everything immediate, and has become one of the most powerful marketing tools, she adds. “We were a word-of-mouth brand and never really invested in marketing. That side of the business has become much more serious now. You have to do it, or you’re non-existent in the customers’ mind.”
For similar reasons, e-commerce is on the cards too. “For the long run, we have no choice but to offer an e-store,” she says. “In the short run, it would be good to have that presence, if not for online then for offline sales. Many people see what’s available online, then walk in to the store to try it and buy it. There are many luxury e-stores now—I don’t know how well they’re doing, but they will do well at some point, and we would need to be around then.”
The digital world has brought a sea of change, and now, many customers make purchases even via photos on WhatsApp. The brand is looking to make its stores more experiential to cater to this segment. When they relaunched the Lion’s Gate store last year, for instance, which expanded by multiple times its original size, they split it into dedicated spaces for textile, menswear and contemporary wear, sections they never had before.
“We’ve started the journey, but have miles to go, especially in a world that’s so dynamic. It’s an art. You walk into the store and always find three things that could improve,” she says.
Fashion is a challenging business to be in. “We work with these very artistic designers who don’t run the most efficient businesses, so the economics are hard,” Tahiliani-Parikh adds. “It’s easier to control the shopper’s experience if you turn formulaic, but we don’t want to be a store that’s predictable. It might happen that some of our staple designers may have a bad season or a bad collection, or we might find something else that’s really interesting. You have to keep reinventing the customer experience.”
She says that 2008 was perhaps the hardest year, with the global financial meltdown and the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. This year has been one with several shocks. “I think the country has vaguely recovered from demonetisation, but GST is still hard to navigate. But this is part of life, you have to learn to walk the tightrope,” she adds.
What sets Ensemble apart from the growing competition, Tahiliani- Parikh says, is the curation. “We see ourselves as editors, people who set the style, because we have the power to curate,” she says. “We can select a trend, and cross-style between designers as well.”
In Ensemble’s 30 years, the idea of Indian luxury has evolved with it. “Thirty years ago, people didn’t really value India,” says Tahiliani-Parikh. “They had huge hang-ups about needing foreign things, even something as small as shampoo. Our incredible weaves were taken for granted. Now, there’s been a rediscovery in the strength of India, and this has permeated to everything from clothes to interiors, music to food. The only sector we have let down, I think, is perhaps architecture.”
Today, the concept of Indian luxury is far more confident. “There have been certain tragedies, though, with an industry that’s really growing, chasing targets and numbers on a treadmill—while there is incredible beauty, there is also an incredible sameness everywhere,” she says. “You have to search for those few amazing things.
Hitting rewind: Milestone moments
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