On a sunny Monday afternoon, two weeks before the big celebration and unveiling of an ambitious exhibition of installations by leading designers to mark Ensemble’s 30th anniversary, Tina Tahiliani Parikh, its executive director and life force, paused this interview every so often to check in on a customer. “Is someone helping you?” she asked each one, as they navigated the newly-minted menswear section of the flagship store at Lion’s Gate in Mumbai. Someone was, as one would expect from India’s most storied multi-brand fashion destination, but Parikh was happy to help too. She recommended that a young bride-to-be visit Ensemble’s (newly-launched) store at Santa Cruz to check their focused edit of Indianwear, and nodded cheerfully at a man who was trying to pick from a range of kurtas. And even as she answered questions, Parikh was taking in what her clients were looking at, asking for, and thinking about.
Which partially explains why Ensemble has not only stayed in the game, but that its journey over three decades is both a record and a reflection of the trajectory of Indian fashion.
A bold idea
When Parikh’s brother, the designer Tarun Tahiliani, his wife Sailaja and their friend, the late designer Rohit Khosla, decided to open Ensemble, their aim was to provide the fledgling Indian fashion industry a space and platform. “At the time,” Parikh said, “People were buying fabric and getting clothes made by their tailors. And fashion was not considered a viable career. Even for Tarun. He was forced to go to business school.”
And yet, the three founders forged ahead with the store, buoyed both by their knowledge of the scope and possibility of fashion retail and their commitment to nurturing Indian designers. To start with, there were just five – Tahiliani, Khosla, Amaya, Neil Bieff and Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla. When Parikh joined the store towards the end of 1990, leaving behind her career as an investment banker, “the whole store [at Lion’s Gate] was contained in what is now our Indianwear section. And we had everyone in there – menswear, Indianwear by Abu-Sandeep, and by Anita Shivdasani and Sunita Kapoor, and Western wear. And we stocked pieces by Asha Sarabhai who was doing a very modern take on Indian craft.” The clothes reflected the bold, almost brash, fashion trends of the 1980s with exaggerated proportions and in bright colours.
At the time, Ensemble worked on a consignment basis – designers gave them a few pieces and whatever did not sell was returned by the store. Parikh believes that while the system had its disadvantages, it melded well with the insouciance of a young and relatively tiny industry to allow designers to be as creative as they liked. “Some of the early creations by designers were amazingly romantic. They were not even thinking, I suppose, of who would buy from them and they did not have to worry about making 20 pieces of each design. So I think they were much more creative and gave us works of art. That said, some things were terrible because many did not even know how to cut.”
For the love of it
The store presented fashion shows, both at Lion’s Gate and at The Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai, which have grown into an invaluable archive of the growth of an industry that now is firmly a part of the socio-economic-cultural firmament. “When I saw my first show, my jaw dropped,” Parikh remembered. “I could not believe that this was India – the clothes and the models were so glamourous. Even today, when I look at our old campaigns, I love how creative and incredible the photography was and the models were. There was an idea of fashion as being someone’s imagination coming to life.”
But while customers were curious about Ensemble and what it offered, they were conservative about spending on designer wear, which was all priced below Rs 10,000 at the time. What did help to some degree were Ensemble’s legendary sales, which were initially started to help their designers offload extra stock – “I remember in the very early years of the sale, people were lining up outside before we opened the doors. We had to actually stop them from coming in because the store was too crowded. And I realised that this business had potential – it’s just that the customers needed to get used to it.”
A new direction
And they did, through the 1990s and into the early 2000s. Even as Ensemble was growing, adding more designers to its roster, helping them navigate retail, India, too, was changing. Lakme India Fashion Week began in 2000 and the industry now sees several such events, though the important ones are Amazon India Fashion Week and India Couture Week (both helmed by the Fashion Design Council of India) in Delhi and Lakme Fashion Week in Mumbai.
“The fashion weeks democratised the business,” said Parikh. “We liked doing our shows, of course, but when fashion weeks started, they opened the field for everyone. And made it possible for a multi-brand store to open in Nagpur or Ahmedabad.” Plus, she noted, the number of designers began growing, as fashion started to be considered a profession “with integrity and potential. Initially the whole business was about Bombay and Delhi. Then designers from West Bengal started coming in – they were incredibly talented and disrupted prices. And Hyderabad was where the next wave of designers came from. Then the industry just opened up.”
The long game
That is also when Ensemble’s own role began to sharpen and expand. Parikh and her team of buyers have always focused on identifying designers who contribute to the conversation and have a unique point of view. Several designers who are household names now started their retail journeys with Ensemble and over its three decades, the store has been afforded a unique position in the business of Indian fashion. Parikh has observed the growth of every player in the industry from designers to models to other professionals and, of course, the Indian customer.
She identifies the boom in bridal fashion to have been a big gamechanger for several designers and the industry on the whole. “Indians spend on weddings no matter what and these have become such elaborate events. For designers, it was the first time they could spend months making a piece and it was sold by the end of it. You were not taking a chance. The bride bought it.” (An Assocham report pegs the Indian wedding industry at nearly Rs 1 lakh crore, growing at 25% to 30% annually.)
Bling, zardozi and silk aside, Parikh is encouraged by the revived interest in textile, which Ensemble has always backed and championed. She appreciates the fact that younger designers are reinterpreting traditional weaves and techniques for the modern customer, who has developed a curiosity and an appetite for these designs. “We could have gone the way of China, where everyone is dressed in twin-sets and we don’t know what their forefathers wore,” she said. “But it makes me happy that women are wearing sarees to lunch and not just at weddings, and that younger designers are using the principles of cut and fit, which they learnt at fashion school, to create something new.” Any young, contemporary Indian label, Parikh said, can be sold at prices that mirror those of high-street brands but offer the customer a unique, quality piece that has not been replicated in the thousands.
Last year, the team behind Ensemble regrouped to create a blueprint that reflects the changing business and caters more fully to their new clientele. The flagship store at Lion’s Gate was relaunched and it now captures the full scale of what Indian fashion represents. “We have contemporary Indianwear, which might not be embellished at all or it might be but in a very edgy way, like a Peachoo blouse with metallic work, which you can pair with a handloom saree. There’s a whole section dedicated to textiles. We have Indian luxe and menswear, and a separate section for bridalwear.” Their social media presence is livelier, though the store is still contemplating how to approach retailing online – “I would like to find a way to continue presenting our very curated, rigorous edits.”
Coming full circle
Two weeks after the interview, the store is packed on the evening of December 11 as Ensemble celebrates turning 30. Parikh and Tahiliani are at the door, greeting each guest personally. Inside, longtime patrons, designers, industry players and the press mill around installations created for the occasion by more than 40 designers who were handpicked for their contribution to Indian fashion, as appreciated by the Ensemble team. The idea, Parikh had maintained, was to create a museum of sorts that captures both the journey of Ensemble and that of Indian fashion.
And as the latter changes, with players coming in every day, an aggressive retail market both online and offline, social media and a customer base that is getting more diverse, what can a client expect from Ensemble? “This is the only place in the country where a rigorous eye has looked at every piece by every designer and we can tell you how you can combine that Urvashi Kaur blouse with this Akaaro saree, Péro scarf and a pair of juttis,” said Parikh without skipping a beat. “We don’t tell you how to buy a designer outfit. We help you put a look together for yourself that is interesting.”