Anita Dongre has had a busy start to the year. In early February, she flew to the US for the India Conference 2016 at Harvard, where she was a speaker along with member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor, ICICI Bank managing director Chanda Kochhar, film-maker Karan Johar and Union telecommunication minister Ravi Shankar Prasad. She returned to India in time for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Make in India event in Mumbai. With her collection of handwoven garments, she showcased Indian craft at the grand opening of the Maharashtra Textile Day at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (formerly Prince of Wales Museum of Western India).

Whether in the US or India, the running theme in everything Dongre does or speaks about lately involves her sub-brand Grassroots, which she refers to as a “diary of India’s crafts history". Through Grassroots, she aims to revive and sustain craft traditions while providing a livelihood to rural artisans. She actually launched this label eight years ago, but then got busy with the day-to-day running of her successful prêt labels AND and Global Desi, as well as the launch of new bridal and jewellery brands.

“My efforts with Grassroots were very sporadic. But today this is my main area of interest. The other labels I have given to my team to look after," she says. One could say this speaks largely to the spirit of the times, when the environmental impact of everything, from what we eat and drink to what we wear and drive, has come under the microscope. Fashion and its impact on the planet are now mainstream concerns, with even fast fashion labels such as H&M selling a “Conscious" collection. Being responsible has become fashionable.

Dongre says she has been grappling with these questions ever since she can remember. “It is just that today I have the resources to do what I actually want to do," she adds, as we sit down with a cup of tea in the large conference room at her corporate headquarters on the outskirts of Mumbai. She also likes to do interviews and meetings on the swing in her office balcony, which overlooks the hills. Dongre works out of a 100,000 sq. ft corporate office in a village called Rabale, in Navi Mumbai; through the huge French windows, one can watch cows grazing on the hills in summer and rain creating mini waterfalls in the monsoon. “Ever since I started my career, what used to really put me off about the garment industry was the industrial buildings in Mumbai where everyone worked. All the factories in Lower Parel and Ghatkopar are in grimy condition, and I used to dream of an utopian space like this," says Dongre.

Bright, airy, dressed in earthy tones and wooden furniture, the reception to the sprawling property could be the entrance to a hill station resort. Situated in an industrial area, next to a tall glass and chrome structure, the contrast is even starker. As you go up the stairs, into the offices and cubicles, the ambience does become more corporate, but it is never drab. There are nine wings across three floors devoted to each brand, with a fashion studio and individual brand showrooms. There is space for a post-lunch walk on the grass, or an alfresco meeting in the common open areas that connect the wings on every floor.

For the designer, this space defines luxury. “And luxury can be sustainable. This building is a perfect example of that." Full glass windows on the east and west sides of the building provide natural light, minimizing the need for artificial lighting during the day. Towards the south are cavity walls with insulation to ward off the heat, saving energy in the process. The building also has a water recycling plant and sewage treatment plant. Composting and solar energy are some of the future green initiatives planned for the building. A dog lover, Dongre has adopted five strays that lived on the property before this building was constructed.

At the speech that she delivered at Harvard, Dongre said, “Armed with a fashion degree at 21, burning with passion and the desire to set up a business in design, I started out with two sewing machines in my bedroom, together with my younger sister. However, as life would have it, we got thrown out of the bedroom and moved into a garage thereafter (looks like a lot of successful businesses start in bedrooms or garages, such as Mark Zuckerberg’s, Steve Jobs’, etc.). Soon, I shifted from the garage to a slum in Dharavi—that’s where the workforce was in dingy terrible industrial sheds, but it was a start."

It has been a long journey from two sewing machines to a space where 2,600 employees work and create, but this sustainably designed workspace fits seamlessly into the founder’s philosophy for her most cherished project today—modern design made through ethical processes.

At a personal level, she hopes to complete the construction of her home in Kharghar, close to the office, soon—it will cut down her commute from Bandra, where she lives at the moment. The home is going to be as eco-intelligent as her office and her next collection, which is being created from recycled PET bottles. “Polyester is our biggest waste. It’s non-biodegradable and here at least we are reusing it. But these are just baby steps; we have a long way to go. Now we know that as a company we want to use design for good. That is our mantra."

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