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It's been 25 years since a machine tools showroom turned into Ensemble, India's first multi-brand designer store. But with competition getting fiercer, can the first store of Indian fashion retain its cutting edge?
I still remember interviewing Manish Malhotra around seven years ago for his debut at Ensemble. He was already a name to reckon with, and had a client list most designers envied but being at Ensemble was that final stamp of aesthetic approval.
The store celebrates its silver anniversary this year, and now has three doors in Mumbai and two in Delhi. But the original 3, 000-square-foot Lions Gate store in Mumbai will always be iconic. Tarun Tahilani was working in his family engineering business and says he was "young, bored and broke". It was while his elegant model wife Sal was shooting a campaign with Rohit Khosla that Ensemble, India's first multi-brand designer store, was born.
"It always angered me that beautiful things were being made in India, yet they were only being sold to white people, " says Tarun.
Tarun looked after marketing, Sal was the merchandiser and Rohit their mentor. "Those were the days of exhibitions-cumsales, and lots of exhibiters wanted to be a part of the store, but we were very selective, " recalls Tarun. Six designers were handpicked to be a part of the store's opening which included Rohit Khosla, Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla and, of course, Tarun. It was a collection curated with chic care - a tradition that continues. Slowly Tarun took a back seat at Ensemble as his own label became his focus.
Today Tarun's sister Tina, (who joined Ensemble a few years after its launch and is the store's executive director) and her team of almost 60 ensure they stay true to this brief. Varun Bahl, Anamika Khanna, Monisha Jaising and Nachiket Barve are just some of their names that were introduced through Ensemble. Rohit Bal, who debuted there in 1990, says, "It is simply India's most elegant multi-brand store. Always was and always will be. It is every young designer's dream to be at Ensemble. A lot of this has to do with Tina's impeccable taste. "
As a fashion journalist, pre-fashion week (the first Indian fashion week started in 2000) it was the Ensemble fashion show that we based our trends reports on. In fact it was after attending an Ensemble show in Goa in 1994, where 200 of the store's top clients were flown in for a magical fashion event, that I started making fashion my focus as a journalist. Ensemble previews set the season's style agenda, their show was the social high point of the year. And the twice yearly Ensemble sales were legendary - with wives of industrialists queuing up hours before the store opened.
Sunil Sethi, president, Fashion Design Council of India, was a buying and sourcing agent to some of the most prestigious stores in the world when Ensemble first opened. He recalls how 12 years ago when he was working on a promotion for Selfridges in London, Ensemble was really his only point of reference. "I remember going there with the Selfridges team and seeing the work of Monisha Jaising and Shahab Durazi. After seeing them there we included them in this very important and prestigious event. "
Nachiket Barve is one of the few designers who managed to attract Ensemble's eye with his first collection called, 'Couture Allure'. "They simply know how to curate. When you walk in you always know you will find something you like. They know how to combine depth with good taste. "Anytime Barve wants an overview of what is happening in fashion he simply goes to Ensemble. It is rare though for a debut designer to find themselves on the racks of Ensemble. Consistency is key to being selected. Says Tina, "We normally watch a designer for a while before we decide to approach. "
Hyderabad-based Anand Kabra did not realise the importance of being at this store till a few years into his career. "I think I only realised how significant it is to be at Ensemble at a late stage, which is not a good thing. " For him Ensemble combines commercial realities with beautiful aesthetics which results in this store having a client base of the taste-makers of India. "I now speak to the Ensemble team on a weekly basis just for their feedback, " says Anand.
Of course in the last 25 years Ensemble is no longer India's only multi-designer store. There are many others including Ogaan, Samsara, Aza, Kimaya and Evoluzione. Some have more points of sale than Ensemble. Kimaya recently received Rs 60 crore in funding from Franklin Templeton and now there are talks between Evoluzione and L Capital (part of international luxury conglomerate Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy).
Competition is fashionably fierce, from within India and outside, with almost every international brand pinning its hopes on India's spending power. And while a woman's wallet may be larger than it was 25 years ago, the choices are much more. In fact there was a time when Ensemble flirted with international brands, stocking a capsule collection of Herve Leger dresses. For me, despite Ensemble's French-sounding name, the fact it is home to truly Indian yet modern and fashionable collections is its true trump card. This is probably why it still has a special place in the hearts of the stylish set. "It is a relationship I will be committed to for the rest of my design life, " says Anand.
Ensemble will have to ensure it continues being the purveyor of style and innovation to keep its fashion crown. Since they always know how to do things in style you can expect a very special celebration at their store in December on their 25th birthday. But that is actually just a prelude to a larger homage to the industry that will happen in 2013. Though the Tahilianis are not revealing too much about the birthday plans right now it seems they are wisely using their silver moment as a time to once again prove that they are first store of fashion in India!
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