The next in Indian fashion

As fashion embraces an uncertain future, it is looking into days gone past. Yet the industry has never been more dependent on cutting-edge digital solutions. The industry seems to be entering a new phase; ‘Nowstalagia’ perhaps describes this new chapter most aptly. This also sums up the philosophy of Torani, a fashion label started just two years ago by 26-year-old Karan Torani. His first full menswear collection launched just a few weeks ago as part of his Jamali Kamali collection that featured handcrafted Chanderis and silks with his signature chintz prints.

The son of a south Delhi “tent wallah”, Torani has been around weddings since he can remember. “A large part of my understanding of creative direction, set design or leadership skills has come from there. I have seen my father handle thousands of Bengali tent kaarigars who would bring his vision to reality and weddings of every scale possible.”

By the time he was a teenager it was obvious to him that fashion was his calling, but it was the one industry that his parents did not approve of. Nevertheless, he was accepted into both London’s Central Saint Martins and New York’s Parsons School of Design. He opted to attend Delhi’s Pearl Academy, as he received a full scholarship.

Torani then assisted designers Manish Arora and Nida Mahmood before moving into the world of digital media. “Around the time I was graduating from high school, our family’s financial situation was really bad. I realised that to survive in Delhi, I would need a job that pays me well. Being an assistant designer wasn’t helping,” he says.

To survive, he became a social media manager for Snapchat’s fashion department but the itch to be a designer never faded, so he found a way to do both. He became a freelance digital consultant and set up his eponymous label, Torani, with five kaarigars working out of his living room. This was his mother’s idea.

Backwards to the future

Torani wanted supermodel Lakshmi Rana for his inaugural social media campaign, which went live in the summer of 2018. He knew that Rana was the right face to tell his story: steeped in heritage but narrated on new age media. “We’ve misunderstood the youth: we think they’re all looking to be different and eccentric, when in reality, all they’re seeking is a sense of belonging, almost like finding their roots,” he says.

His handle tells you the stories behind India’s traditions, mythology, monuments, rituals and crafts. It is truly a treasure trove of information for any culture vulture. “The name of my brand, Torani, comes from my family surname. The brand was inspired by my grandmother and the way we lived as a family, so it was only natural to identify it with our family name,” he says. 

A contemporary Indian label, with its principles rooted in slow fashion, his first collection looked at a fabric that is now a constant in his collections: Chanderi. Torani’s grandmother hailed from Bhopal, known for its Chanderi weaves. He called it Airavata, inspired by Hindu scriptures as a tribute to his grandmother who told him tales of Krishna as she put him to sleep. Within a week of posting his first image on Instagram, India’s premier design multi-brand boutique, Ensemble came knocking (or DM-ed him, as is the way now).

Creative consultant Amit Hansraj, who was then a buyer with Ensemble, recalls, “I chanced upon Torani’s Instagram handle almost the day he launched it. The image of Lakshmi Rana caught my attention. Nobody has managed to capture her like that in almost two decades of her career.”

The handles Torani used had a clear language and edit very much his own, almost in a style of a fashion magazine. “He finds a personal connection with the heritage he speaks about, whether it’s his Sindhi origin or his experience of watching his Nani on the terrace drying papad. There’s always a personal story and that’s what appeals to the audience,” says Hansraj. (Torani’s second collection was called Sindhdi.)

Since that DM, the Torani label has been worn by celebrities, feted in leading fashion publications and has a social media following of over 111,000.

An artist’s artist

“On many days I feel like I’m vicariously living the dream of being a director, poet or even a writer through my job. And why not? Weren’t all great artists of the world multitaskers? I believe a true designer needs to take that ownership and lead his visual narrative as strongly as he does his craft,” says Torani.

Well-known fashion stylist Divyak D’Souza styled one of Torani’s early campaigns and immediately realised that Torani was about to change the rules of the game, “We shot the campaign on the banks of the Yamuna in a freezing Delhi winter, and he was impressively clear-headed and exacting about the story he wanted to tell,” says D’Souza. It was a narrative steeped in tradition but shot for new-age media.

Torani has not taken part in any fashion week so far: the audience for them is limited, unlike content made for digital platforms, he says. Recalls D’Souza, “We had everything from a Ferris wheel to camels to an installation of 20,000 glass bangles – all authentically executed – for his first big-scale campaign shoot. That’s real dedication to shooting a story for your brand, something very few designers in India do.”

Of course, it takes more than social media acumen to make a brand successful. As Torani says, “Only the product speaks. If it doesn’t have quality and craft, it won’t sell. So I am a designer first, but I get to tell my stories, and everyone around me has a job, because of the craft and the product. I don’t let anything take precedence over that in my studio.”

He does not compromise on textiles, embellishment or finish and has travelled around India to gain first-hand knowledge of India’s craft heritage. From Bhujodi embroideries in Gujarat to Madhubani paintings in Bihar to Paithani weavers in Aurangabad, his quest is a design vocabulary that is fluent in this country’s heritage of handmade arts. He truly believes that his duty is to makes clothes that can be cherished. “The true responsibility in the hand of each designer is to know that we play a huge role in defining what’s cool for gen-next. I celebrate that responsibility, and what better country than India to be born for that,” he says.

New age bride Sanjana Rishi turned to the Torani label for a custom-made veil to wear with a vintage Gianfranco Ferré powder pantsuit for her wedding and her look created a digital sensation. “I celebrate brides like her because they choose to wear their heritage like a crown and accept it in equal measure with their individuality, which is what the current generation is all about. It’s about making that choice and being free and happy when you’re doing that. Being modern doesn’t necessarily have to mean negating your heritage,” says Torani.

Forward march

At the start of the lockdown, Torani started a “pay it forward” scheme for his craft-based label and he was one of the first designers to admit to being in trouble. In December 2019, Torani had taken the brave and bold decision to open a bricks-and-mortar space in India’s most expensive retail high street, Khan Market. The store has the feel of a wedding ceremony, with its floral decorations and ceremonial objects d’árt. The millennial advocate of the democracy of social media says: “One can never overlook the experience of retail. The feeling of touching the fabric and trying the garment on yourself – that is incomparable.” Though 70 per cent of sales come from social media or e-commerce platforms he does hope to open more stores.

Luckily, by now his situation has improved and, as a result, his Instagram account’s vision has become stronger and more relevant. Hansraj says: “It is an honest voice which can look beyond the Instagram algorithm and that is what Indian fashion needs now.”

Torani hopes to expand his label into jewellery, shoes and home décor. But all this attention has meant that there are now many copy-cat versions available of the label. At first, he says, this annoyed him. But now it just amuses him.

From HT Brunch, October 18, 2020

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