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Designer Karan Torani has never been one to follow the herd. As a kid in school, he was listening to qawwali by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Ghulam Ali even though hip-hop was the accepted measure of cool. And in middle school, when most of his peers were grappling with career choices, Torani was crystal clear about his path.

He had a vision for his brand; he was building a portfolio and writing to fashion schools in the ninth grade. “It was eerie because no one else in the family was in fashion or art,” he admits. And when Karan Torani launched his beloved eponymous label in August 2018, he wasn’t just another young kid making Indianwear. His focus on ‘handcrafted luxury clothing inspired by Indian nostalgia’ turned the conversation to an old-world aesthetic, which was timeless but felt incredibly timely.

Karan Torani
Karan Torani

Even in the face of mass business closures due to COVID-19, Torani was one of the early designers to think ahead and shut down his store and factory before the announcement of a lockdown. On Instagram, he appealed his patrons to contribute towards the salary fund of the strong team of 250, which would be redeemed against any purchases in the future. “It was a harsh decision to make as a businessman. My main concern was the karigars who live on a hand to mouth basis,” he explains.

“There is a complete lull in orders right now. Our generation is so accustomed to instant gratification that putting down your money without knowing when you’ll receive your pieces is an alien concept. But this is nature’s call for us to be calm and to breathe. And we can only see it through with patience.”

Image: Courtesy Torani

In the midst of chaos and challenges, Torani finds a quiet moment to reflect on his journey so far with Lifestyle Asia.

On his early days

“After studying fashion design from Pearl Academy in Delhi on a scholarship, I spent four years working with designers like Nida Mahmood and Manish Arora, and then in digital marketing and styling. It wasn’t the original plan but it allowed me to make mistakes and learn on someone else’s expense while saving enough money to start my brand. Then came a time when I just had to jump.

So I quit in 2017 and spent a fortnight in Chanderi working with craftsmen. I set up a makeshift office at home and hired masterji, a tailor, and an embroider. Our first collection was ready in six months. There was no plan, but I’m a millennial and all I knew was that it had to go on Instagram. Within a week, I got a call from Amit Hansraj at Ensemble. They sold out half of the collection within days.”

On cultivating his aesthetic

Image: Courtesy Torani

“The aesthetic is one I had cultivated as an individual. I was constantly living in the past and had a very specific taste from a really young age. By the time I launched Torani, I had lived so many journeys that I already tried and tested what did not suit my palette. The narrative is one I’ve always known. It’s never been about sales. Even the bio for my personal Instagram account reads ‘storyteller’. I don’t have a PR team, a stylist, a content writer, or a social media agency. Designing is like directing a movie — everything has to come from you. It’s a painful process, but where’s the fun if it’s not all yours?”

On his ultimate inspiration and muse: his Nani

Image: Courtesy Torani

“Even though I grew up in Delhi, I spent a lot of time with my Nani in Bhopal. I realised I was always going back to her images while referencing. She was her own person — she revelled in Urdu qawwali, only wore chanderi saris with half-sleeved blouses, and custom-designed all her jewellery. She was a patron of the arts and often took me to craft bazaars where she would buy Madhubani paintings and bagru print saris. She became my symbol of refined taste, a case for style over expensive fashion. She has truly influenced my idea of beauty like no other — and that (idea) wasn’t aspirational or fantastical. It was attainable and realistic. Even now, whenever I design something, it’s with one end-goal: ‘Nani should like it.’” 

On tracing his heritage through his work

Image: Courtesy Torani

“I have been drawn to Indian crafts since college, having spent time in design hubs like Bihar, Bhuj, and Aurangabad. In particular, I spent a month in Bhuj that shares borders between Sindh and Pakistan. I’m a Sindhi and my forefathers are from Pakistan. A part of our culture drifted and dispersed after the partition. I wanted to rediscover where my culture was born, what are the origins of our custom, and what we stand for.

To me, it’s not about religion, but a lost identity. I exist but what is my identity? My work should speak about this culture. So, I sought out Sindhi families in Bhuj and learned mirror work and rabari from them. And while I’ve used bits of this in ‘Surma’ and ‘Chatt’, there will be full-fledged collection based on it later this year.” 

On the preservation of craft

“Fashion and textile employ the highest number of people in India after agriculture. And we have a responsibility towards our artisans. So last year, we started a training room to teach them superior crafts while paying them a stipend. It helps them gain self-value and I get a great karigar – it’s a win-win.”

On fashion’s new order post COVID-19

Torani

“History is proof that art has always stepped up and shown the way forward during times of darkness. Times like these bring out creative geniuses, resourcefulness, and collective thought. We will come out of this with more heartfelt collections. Emotions are at a high right now and the motivation to succeed will be different — it will be to express and convey ideas, rather than just the economics of it. There will be a change in purchasing too. Consumers will now seek standout, occasion-worthy pieces with feeling or luxury pret that is value for money.”

Praachi Raniwala

Praachi Raniwala is a freelance writer and digital nomad working with multiple titles across the fashion and lifestyle industry. She holds a degree in fashion journalism from London College of Fashion, and previously worked as a senior features writer at L’Officiel India. She is curious about upcoming labels to watch out for, wellness trends and travel hotspots. You can find her words in Vogue, InStyle and Condé Nast Traveller among other publications. The writer is based in Mumbai, but her heart belongs to London.