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The Couple Who Took Fashion Off The Street

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Tarun: My family never dreamed that Id become a fashion designer. My father was in the navy and my mother was an engineer. Her family owned an engineering tools company, so it was drilled into me that I should follow the traditional route, get a degree from IIT and an MBA from IIM. Though I didnt do the former, I went to Wharton for a degree in marketing and management.

Sailaja: Thats where I met Tarun I was doing a bachelors degree in economics there. We married and returned to India in 1985. He joined the family business, and I was left looking for a job. I did the odd modelling assignment in Mumbai thats how I came into contact with the fashion world.

Tarun: We realised that there were beautiful, top quality clothes designed here but sold abroad. Since we wanted our own enterprise, we decided to open a high couture outlet. Frankly, I had had it with oil-field equipment!

For the start-up capital we sold some property from the engineering company. We were lucky that the company owned prime space in Mumbais Fort area, where we could set up the boutique. We spent about Rs 15 lakh on renovations and sourcing our initial merchandise. In December 1987, we inaugurated Ensemble, with five employees. We had put all our funds into the venture so our cook, Rai Singh, loaned us money for the household bills. Its probably the best investment hes made!

Sailaja: Neither of us were trained as designers so initially we sourced clothes from designers we knew Anita Shivdasani, Rohit Khosla, Zandra Rhodes and Asha Sarabhai. We wanted to bring a collection of beautiful attire under one roof, in an aesthetically pleasing ambience.

Tarun: People were used to shopping in exhibition-cum-sale set ups, where about 60 people jostled over the clothes. We wanted open space, and a well laid out display area where people could find what they wanted easily.

The first year was a disaster; we made a loss of several lakhs. We had merchandised some lovely, but inappropriate, garments. For instance, we stocked a lot of brocades and it was incredibly hot just that summer. Some clothes were not relevant in the Indian context like Neil Bieffs short beaded dresses. For formal wear, we realised that it was best to innovate on traditional designs.

Sailaja: We knew very little about marketing high couture. Rohit Khosla suggested developing a separate label for each designers line, and giving colour waves or themes to each collection. We did a lot of learning that first year.

Tarun: People were at first a little intimidated by the hype. They imagined a snobbish shop where customers had to come all dressed up. We dispelled that fear by stressing that everyone would get the same service and courtesy, whether they looked like they could afford the clothes or not.

Sailaja: We have always tried to be more than an overpriced tamasha. We dont mind spending extra time and energy till the clothes attain our trademark quality levels. It took us two and a half years to break even, but our love of beautiful things kept us going.

Some years after we set up Ensemble, Tarun decided to study design at New Yorks Fashion Institute of Technology. We had realised the limitation of not understanding the technical side of clothes production. After Tarun completed his diploma in 1991, he was ready to launch his own line, based on his study of Mughal design. Now, he spends most of his time designing we have a design studio called Ahilian while I look after sales at the Ensemble boutique in Delhi.

Tarun: Its a full time job managing a fashion house. From a handful of employees, we now employ about 250 people including contracted work. Successful houses have to maintain a balance between creativity and commerce. We try to make 70 per cent of our ramp clothes, practical designs that people can wear.

Sailaja: But the rest of the collection is conceived for a unique dramatic effect. After all, fashion is as much a means of self-expression as a livelihood. Frankly, the finances of the company are Greek to me and secondary to Tarun; our real aim is to always surround ourselves with exquisite things.

(As told to Seema Nazareth)

First Published: Sat, October 18 1997. 00:00 IST