Anita Dongre: The trend starter
The fashion designer on her persistence in changing things that are not right, on creating a global brand, and working for and with women
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In 1999, fashion designer Anita Dongre tried hard to get a store in Mumbai’s Crossroads mall. She had just launched AND, a line of contemporary Western wear for women. “I begged Crossroads to give me a store, and they wouldn’t agree. I wasn’t a known name or a foreign brand. After much convincing, they agreed to give me a tiny 200 sq. ft store opposite Swarovski. In that first year, we gave Crossroads the highest per square feet sales than any other store in that mall,” says Dongre.
Almost 20 years later, AND is one of five brands under House of Anita Dongre, a Rs700-crore company in sales figures. The others are Global Desi; Anita Dongre bridal couture and prêt (including menswear); Pinkcity, handcrafted jadau jewellery; and Grassroot by Anita Dongre.
In 2013, House of Anita Dongre opened its first overseas store in Mauritius. Last year, Grassroot opened in New York City’s fashion district, SoHo, but “we cancelled the lease in December, and are in the process of moving to another, bigger location, also in SoHo,” says Dongre.
We are sitting in a conference room at her two-year-old New Mumbai headquarters in Rabale, a four-storey building spread across 10,000 sq. ft that houses 650 employees—or “family” as she refers to them. In all, the “family” has 2,800 members.
Dongre is dressed in a white shift dress and white sneakers, hair tied in a ponytail—in the backdrop, right outside the glass window of the conference room, is a frangipani tree. The building is designed in an ecologically sensitive way to minimize air-conditioning use, and is dotted with open breakout spaces on each floor—markedly different from a typical garment factory.
“When I was an intern working in the grimy garment factories of Mumbai, I used to wonder how there is such beauty inside the factories but such grim squalor outside. I swore to myself then that I will never work in a place like that,” says Dongre.
Dongre’s journey has been marked by a persistence in changing what doesn’t feel right. Before starting her label AND Designs India Ltd in 1995, she spent several years supplying Indian wear to Mumbai stores such as Benzer and Sheetal, with sister Meena Sehra. “I was successful as a businessperson, but as a designer I was frustrated,” says Dongre. At the time, Indian clothing was replete with bling, but Dongre sensed the urban Indian woman’s appetite for Western wear in weather-appropriate cottons and linens and culture-appropriate cuts and silhouettes.
Over a decade after AND’s success, Dongre discovered another signature in Global Desi, an essentially Western-wear line with Indian colours, patterns and silhouettes.
“When I was in college, I used to do what’s today called fusion wear. I would come back from Jaipur with big mirror-work skirts, Leheriyas and Bandhanis and pair them with ganji or jeans, and wear lots of silver anklets and bangles.” For Dongre, who was born and raised in Mumbai and has a degree in fashion design from the SNDT Women’s University, Jaipur, where her grandparents lived, was a second home.
In 2007, Dongre channelled that fusion aesthetic into Global Desi, her new brand. It was a time when the landscape of malls and departmental stores was divided into Western wear or Indian wear. “I remember in the starting days, malls would be confused where to stock Global Desi, till they created a fusion-wear section. After we launched, some five clone brands followed soon after. That’s always been a problem. But I suppose that’s fashion for you,” says Dongre.
In 2013, she launched the bridal couture line—she was on to another facet of the “always in flux” Indian woman. “What was available in designer bridal wear was lehngas of Rs10 lakh, covered in Swarovski or zardosi. I started making them very light and putting pockets in them, because the bride herself had changed. She was dancing at her own wedding, not standing like a statue with a 20kg lehnga on stage. I was voicing what the Indian woman wanted,” says Dongre.
Songs Of Summer, her latest bridal collection, which went on the ramp at the recent Lakmé Fashion Week (LFW) Summer/Resort 2018, is a fuss-free collection in pastel shades of powder blue, pale pink, sage, with botanical motifs; perfect for a bride getting married in a lush open garden setting or beach-side.
If there were ever doubts about the global appeal of Dongre’s Indian wear, they were put to rest in 2016 during the India visit of Britain’s Prince William and his wife Kate Middleton. The duchess of Cambridge wore a floral tunic by Dongre—by the end of the year, media reports suggested Dongre was the seventh most searched designer on Google. Last month, during their India visit, the Canadian prime minister’s wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, wore an Anita Dongre yellow Chanderi suit for her visit to the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad.
As Dongre narrates her journey, she often refers to the women who have shaped her life, the women she is thinking for, and designing for. “Every time I do something, it’s about striking a chord in the Indian woman’s psyche. I travel to cities, small towns and villages. I feel that a woman in Mumbai is in a different space that is aspirational to a woman in, say, Jodhpur. This woman in Jodhpur is still fighting for that space that a woman in Mumbai enjoys. And a woman in a village is fighting for the space that a woman in Jodhpur enjoys. What I do is a reflection of what’s happening to women around me,” she says.
Her intent to work for women extends to working with women. Her latest brand, Grassroot by Anita Dongre, launched in 2015, stands out not only because it aligns with the resurgence of handcrafted textiles in India but also because Dongre is working with the women of the Self Employed Women’s Association (Sewa), based in Ahmedabad.
“In my opinion, economic independence is very important for any woman. Working with the Sewa women made sense to me on several levels. I’m a big advocate of women working from home. For women to leave their homes, go to factories and offices, juggling the responsibility of looking after children, and trying to earn an income; it’s like double duty. When women work in villages, villages remain sustainable units. They shouldn’t have to migrate to cities. And village life has the calm and serenity that we’re seeking in cities anyway,” says Dongre, tying several loose threads into a sustainable business model.
Her personal support system also consists of women. Her sister Meena has been with her since the early days and her elder sister, Priyanka Hira, holds a key position in the company, as head of customer relationship management (CRM). “She takes care of all customer grievances and that is very important to me,” says Dongre.
When spotted at fashion shows, especially before the opening when most designers exhibit traces of stress or panic, Dongre has a reputation for being calm and collected. Is that a personality trait? “I think the calmness comes from Meena. She’s a monk. Both my sisters and my brother, I feel, are highly evolved human beings who stay calm. I’m just attempting to be a bit of that,” she says.
Apart from the everyday support that her sisters offer, Dongre recalls what might be her earliest memory and deepest influence. “We are three sisters and three brothers. I don’t know where my mother found the time, but I remember, every day after lunch, she would sit on her sewing machine and make clothes for us. I tell her now, ‘Mom you were crazy, how did you do it? Bring up six kids, take care of everyone in a joint family, and instead of taking an afternoon nap, you would sit and make clothes for us?’ She said that she loved doing it. I suppose that has stayed with me,” she says.
Except Dongre went further. She built a business empire out of it. Her company comes out with two collections every season across its five brands, supplying to 1,100 stores countrywide and e-commerce platforms. Dongre, with her iPad in hand—“I’ve given up all paper, and sketch only on this”—spends the first half of her day with her “lean design team”, putting out collection after collection. “My production team is always cracking the whip on me because I don’t relent till I have an idea for the next collection that I really like, and sometimes that delays schedules,” she says. Questions on business growth find responses in having an organization that is integrated, lean and transparent. “As we’re growing, I worry about how to keep minimum layers and be agile. It’s always work in progress. I want to build a world-class organization, but rooted in Indian culture,” she says.
And what about scale and numbers? “I would say I’m not good with numbers, but I like to reach out to as many people as possible.” That, combined with a string of empathetic insights about the Indian woman, translates to numbers.
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