As a teenager in communist Calcutta in the 1980s, in my mind there was only one menswear store: Chotirmall and Sons. We usually visited it in the fortnight before Christmas, and my brothers and I would each choose a shirt. It was exactly like that before Rajiv Gandhi began a limited liberalization of the economy in the mid-1980s.
So splashing out on designer clothes is somewhat alien to me. A few years ago, a generous friend gave me a blank check for a milestone birthday to buy a bandhgala Tarun Tahiliani. At that time, I had as many bandhgalas as there were days in the week and chose instead puffy black silk dhoti pants, more Arabian Nights than rural Indians. The dhoti pants happened to be on sale, which prompted an exasperated phone call from my friend.
The only exception was a brief addiction to shirts by Richard James, a Savile Row designer in London. I still have a few, some in a bright teal, purple, or blood red, bought on sale for a fraction of their retail price. My problem with spending with abandon is one that Virginia Woolf explained almost a hundred years ago: “The spending muscle doesn’t work naturally yet. I feel guilty; put off buying when I know I should buy.
I had this feeling recently when I wanted to buy clothes from Tasva, the new Indian menswear joint venture between Tarun Tahiliani and Aditya Birla Fashion and Retail. Tasva is an Aladdin’s cave, ranging from wonderfully contemporary and comfortable juttis that don’t bite your heels to understated (and over-the-top) achkans and sherwanis. Minutes after entering, I was looking at a burgundy-colored minimalist velvet bandhgala sold with black pants and wondering how it could be sold for as little as ₹9,999 (when equally classic looks would start at six to eight times more than in Tahiliani’s boutique).
A bespoke shirt in jamdani fabric from the writer’s collection
The kurtas that I liked came with stretch fabric churidars. The kurtas, one in the bluest of midnight blues and the other in pistachio, featured jaali open chain stitching or applique designs that sat high on the chest, resembling a dress shirt for a tuxedo. kurta and churidar sets start at ₹3,999 and have a median of ₹5,999. As Polonius advised Laertes in Hamlet: “Thy habit is as expensive as thy purse can buy, but not expressed in fancy; rich, not garish; Because the garment often proclaims the man.
Polonius makes many positive points, but its main thing is to buy what is affordable. Until now, so many Indian designer clothes for men have essentially been an extension of wedding wear, and that comes with unique prices. Designer store cash registers seem to count from ₹80,000 or more. Personally, as a middle-aged man, I’d rather spend this on vacation than bandhgala to wear to someone’s wedding.
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This is why the arrival on the market of mid-priced retailers such as Reliance Brands, in partnership with Rahul Mishra, or Sabyasachi and Tarun Tahiliani in collaboration with Aditya Birla Fashion and Retail, is good news. Brands and designers focus on comfort and affordability to deliver stylish and competitively priced Indian clothing that can be worn anywhere, not just at weddings.
Tahiliani attributes the awards to the economies of scale that the Aditya Birla Group’s production network can exploit as well as the use of blended fabrics. Tasva uses Khadi but also cotton/silk and synthetic blends, without losing the sense of luxury. While there’s plenty to satisfy your inner Moghul (quilted ashkans with floral designs inspired by those medieval fashionista pharaohs, for example) and your aspiring Rajput, Tahiliani has mostly steered away from ornately styled wedding attire. Jodhaa Akbar. “Royal India costumes were made, made, made,” he says. “These conventions may be what parents and grandparents want, but Indian youth don’t think like that.” It’s a much-needed step back from the maximalist Manyavar, the undisputed kingpin of wedding attire.
For those who want to see more Indian men at dinner parties and in the office in kurtas, Nehru vests and bandhgalas, it is reassuring that brands and designers are making clothes that can be worn anywhere. I tried an olive green bandhgala which would have worked well with jeans or chinos. Churidars have zippers and stretchy fabric. Indeed, there are many things in Tasva that could conceivably be part of any man’s wardrobe. The expanding ready-to-wear market in terms of style and price will give more men reasons to wear clothes such as kurtas to dinner parties.
In the height of Delhi summers, I almost always wore a kurta or loose kurta-style shirt and breeches or Sri Lankan sarongs, all of which breathe so well. These looser garments also fit the typical Indian man better than “tailored fit” Western Italian shirts and suits.
The accessibility of stylish Indian clothing might even bring out the designer in us. I spent the post-lockdown months choosing ikat weaves and batik prints for masks and recently made a gray muslin shirt, decorated with a weaver board game of jamdani embroidery white crosses . The fabric was purchased from a Dastkar stall in Bengal and sewn by the tailor on the road.
Perhaps because I had tried on chic ashkans and royal shoes, the experience momentarily went to my head. I imagined that Tasva – along with nationwide networks of Manyavar and Fabindia and ready-to-wear new entrants Rahul Mishra and Sabyasachi – could dramatically change the way Indian men dress.
And what could be a more interesting aesthetic project for India @75 than beautifying the middle-aged Indian man?
Rahul Jacob was travel, food and drink editor for the Financial Times in London and is the author of Right Of Passage, a collection of travel essays.