Hong Kong's Tania Mohan takes her lifestyle brand Tabla to London
A 10-minute stroll from Harrods in Knightsbridge takes you to an elegant residential street lined with whitewashed houses, chic boutiques and rather good restaurants. Walton Street is where Anya Hindmarch and Jo Malone launched their businesses, and where Princess Marie Chantal of Greece has her childrens wear boutique.
Designer Tania Mohan lived in Walton Street for two years in the '90s when she was studying law. It feels like coming full circle as she is opening her new boutique there on June 8, her first outside Hong Kong. Her online store is set to debut mid-June.
"I've been in touch with the same agent in London for six years and always had my heart set on that street," she says. "He finally called me eight months ago and said he had the perfect shop. I grabbed it. I had tunnel vision when it came to this location, it's magical and has so many memories for me. It's a 10-minute walk from Harrods and on a street full of beautiful boutiques."
Mohan launched her India-inspired lifestyle brand, Tabla in Prince's Building in 1999. "I wanted to change the perception of India; to create a brand where 'Made in India' is really a luxury," explains the Hong Kong-born designer.
Mohan has built a successful business, drawing on traditional Indian techniques to make fresh, modern silhouettes. The quality and design has made her brand popular with a set of loyal clients, but she wants to push things further.
She has previously sold her collections through Harrods, Fred Segal in Los Angeles and Scoop in New York, trying to work out which markets were receptive. She is looking to expand in Hong Kong, ideally with two boutiques on Hong Kong side and two in Kowloon.
Tabla is known for its versatile collections of printed and delicately embroidered dresses, jackets, kaftans, waistcoats and trousers all crafted in India, using traditional techniques including Zardozi (jewelled embroidery, a personal favourite of hers), Chikankari (white on white embroidery), and Mukaish - a technique that involves a sprinkling of small, matte sequins.
You would normally find this level of craftsmanship in a Dries Van Noten jacket or a Matthew Williamson coat. Many international designers use India for their beadwork and embroidery. However, Mohan also draws on Indian culture to create an easy-to-wear look which she describes as "luxurious, timeless, seasonless clothes".
"It was before India had Vogue or any of those fashion magazines that I knew I wanted to create a luxury brand for India. It wouldn't be kitsch, or confined to Hong Kong. It would become a global brand."
It was a trip to India with her mother to put together a trousseau for her brother's wedding that introduced her to the amazing craftsmanship. Mohan was at a crossroads in life at the time. She had studied to be a barrister but as the handover in 1997 loomed she acknowledged that her Cantonese wasn't good enough to practice in a Hong Kong court. A chance meeting with an editor led to 18 months working as fashion editor at The Standard newspaper.
Her entrepreneurial instinct was awakened after she bought back scarves, textiles and semi-precious jewels from India, which her friends snapped up.
"I realised then that I had a passion for selling," says Mohan. Perhaps it might have been in her DNA: her grandfather founded Mohan's department store in Kowloon just after the second world war.
"Then it was a matter of luck and timing. I met someone at a Louis Vuitton party who was interested in what I was doing and offered me shop space in Prince's Building, and in June 1999 Tabla opened."
This was at the height of the pashmina trend.
"I had been a fashion editor, done a bit of modelling, but I had no idea how to create fashion, although I had a good eye." Luckily the pashmina scarf was the it accessory. . . and Tabla was selling lots of them.
"So there I was, not even 30 years old and with a queue outside my shop at lunchtime and with girlfriends helping me handle all the customers. It was insane, I made HK$1 million in six months."
Tabla rode that wave for two years and when the fad passed, she brought in clothes from other Indian designers to fill her shelves. Mohan tweaked the designs and gradually introduced her own pieces, creating the Tabla brand. As the brand grew, she sold her clothes wholesale around the world.
Mohan took a break when she completed her training as a barrister.
"I never gave up on Tabla, I just needed to go away and figure out how I was going to make this vision a reality," she says.
The London boutique is a chance for her to "fine-tune the branding" as she adds more accessories and lifestyle products, including scented candles such as lotus floral, jasmine and burned amber.
Because she makes the most of the rich artistry and skills in India to build her collections, Mohan hopes to use some of the profits from Tabla to open an orphanage for street girls in the country.
"We would take the artistry of India and with the money it brings, we could help give street girls a home, education and opportunities."
She also wants to revive her resort wear.
"I've always had a passion for resort wear so I am focusing on getting this back into the shops as soon as possible. This will help to grow Tabla's presence overseas," she says.
"While Western brands dominate every shopping mall, Asia has yet to create a successful lifestyle brand," she says. "I think the time has come for Asian brands to come to the fore." Tabla's store in London could be the first step in that direction.