The quiet rise of Anita Dongre

Anita Dongre is not an easy person to pin down. The beginning of the year saw the designer at Davos, at the World Economic Forum, where she was a part of two panel discussions — ‘Three Trillion Reasons to Help the World Spend Better’ and ‘The Fashion CEO Agenda Roundtable’. Then it was a showing at the Lakmé Fashion Week, with a Spring/Summer collaboration with Austrian company Lenzing (makers of Tencel) on Sustainable Fashion Day. I finally get her on the phone during a car ride, on her way to speak at the Economic Times Women’s Forum.

Unlike many of her peers, Dongre, 55, has stayed away from the typical trappings of Indian fashion — of Bollywood showstoppers and high-powered bridal clientèle. Instead, she quietly built her empire, which currently extends to five brands: AND, her western wear for women, with 125 stores; Global Desi, her boho-chic line, with 138 outlets; Grassroot, her youngest brand that focusses on sustainable luxury, with four stores; her couture line, Anita Dongre, with 12 stand-alone outlets; and a flagship store each in New York and Quatre Bornes, Mauritius. “I think her unassuming and dignified stance has won her respect within the fraternity. Her product, her professionalism, and her work ethics are what set her as top in the pack,” says Sunil Sethi, President of the Fashion Design Council of India.

House of Anita Dongre has retail sales estimated to log in at ₹725 crore for FY 2019-20, after hitting ₹675 crore the last fiscal year. So is the designer at the top of the industry? While her office declined to comment, a 2018 article in the Economic Times states that peers like Sabyasachi Mukherji and Tarun Tahiliani reach only about 1/13th of her sales.

The quiet rise of Anita Dongre

Finding the gaps

Her journey has always been measured. She, along with sister Meena Sehra and brother Mukesh Sawlani, founded the House of Anita Dongre (previously AND Designs India Limited) in 1995, and subsequently, with the launch of each brand, addressed a certain vacuum within the Indian fashion industry. AND catered to young Indian women experimenting with western outfits at a time when options were limited to international brands. Nearly a decade later, with Global Desi, she offered a contemporary fusion of ethnic and western wear. Her 2013 bridal line dismantled tradition, making lehengas lighter and adding pockets to the design.

“The strategy of understanding the different consumers that exist in the large sandwich of the Indian retail scenario, and being able to segmentalise her business for various consumer levels, has helped her propel herself,” says Shefalee Vasudev, editor of The Voice of Fashion. “Her signature in the retail scenario is not limited to fashion, which in some ways [has] become synonymous with expensive clothing, but on understanding the demand for democratic pricing and creating trendy, wearable clothing that fits mass retail.”

So I ask the Queen of Prêt what lacuna she has turned her attention to now. “I’m hoping to bridge the huge gap [that exists] of bringing the work of weavers and artisans to the customer. There’s a lot to be done,” she says.

The quiet rise of Anita Dongre

True to tradition

The designer started Grassroot, her sustainable luxury prêt-à-porter brand, in 2015. With it, Dongre put herself firmly behind reviving artisanal crafts and offering craftspeople livelihoods. Largely incorporating aari, soi and bharatkaam embroidery styles, she works with around 600 artisans through Ahmedabad-based Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), one of the numerous NGOs she collaborates with.

Savitaben Patel, CEO of the SEWA Trade Facilitation Centre, shares that the regular work has provided the women a steady source of income. In the last fiscal year, for example, they worked on 3,605 pieces, and they’ve already completed 2,800 in the current. “Last year in Gujarat, the rains were sparse,” Patel says, explaining that the women, who balance artisanal work and agriculture, were hit hard. “We reached out to Anitaji for more work so they wouldn’t have to leave their villages and migrate. And we got over 250 pieces.”

But what is interesting is how each garment is created around the unique motifs and stitches that the craftswomen’s traditional embroidery styles offer. Dongre is clear her designs must carry a sense of shared authorship, without the label subsuming the artisans’ styles. “I have to work within the premise that this is the stitch that she’s born and brought up to do. So how can I create a design to incorporate it? It’s very important that they stay true to their craft; the design and marketing sensibility are brought in by the designer,” she explains.

The quiet rise of Anita Dongre

Local connect

These values expand to her other brands, too. Just last month, her Pichhwai bridal collection was born from a chance encounter. “I was shooting in the City Palace, and I saw this painter perched on a ladder, painting the ceiling. I was totally mesmerised,” she recalls, adding how she discovered the artist, Lekhraj, had infrequent work as a traditional artist. So she collaborated with him for the limited edition hand-painted collection.

In fact, her two recent LFW collections focus on her twin passions: reviving Indian textile handicraft and sustainability. The first, a 12-piece capsule, used techniques and fabrics, like eri, muga and matka silks, from weaver clusters in Rampur, Assam. Her second, titled ‘Summer Reverie’, was made with Lenzing’s cellulose wood-based fibre, Tencel.

Referring to the discussions she was a part of at Davos, Dongre says, “One conclusion we reached is that where sustainable fashion is concerned, no woman will wear something unless she likes it. With the plastic bottles recycled for the runway (she previously worked with Reliance Industry’s R|Elan on a range of fabrics made out of discarded bottles), the fabric is soft, but it is not good to look at. So I have to use my designing acumen to embellish it. The solution lies in creating garments that are beautiful, feminine, sustainable and mainstream.”

The quiet rise of Anita Dongre

Green thinking

Last year, her fashion house became a member of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, a global alliance for textile, apparel and footwear industries to promote sustainable production processes.

But she has been building a greener lifestyle for years. In 2015, the company moved its headquarters to Rabale, Navi Mumbai. “I bought the land six years ago,” says Dongre, who shifted to live closer to her work and enjoys the greener, quieter environment. “From moving the factory, to eating sustainably, to growing my own vegetables organically, it’s a whole lifestyle shift that happened over the last decade. It’s reflecting more in my work now, but it first started with me wanting to become sustainable personally,” says the vegan designer, whose company offers vegetarian meals to employees. “Sustainability is something that everyone has to today make their mantra.”

Women power
  • Dongre is also looking to empowering women. Through her company’s non-profit arm, the Anita Dongre Foundation, she is setting up training and production centres in Maharashtra, to up-skill village women. Over 220, across four units — in Charoti, Jawahar, Dhanevari and Modgaon of Palghar district — have been trained in various techniques of garment construction, and contribute to Global Desi.

In her promotion of a contemporary hand-crafted aesthetic and championing sustainable production values, she is becoming synonymous with modern Indian chic. Whether it’s dressing Kate Middleton, Hillary Clinton and Sophie Grégoire Trudeau for their official visits to the country, starting flagship stores abroad, or speaking at the World Economic Forum, she is gaining international notice. Assessing her global appeal, Vasudev says, “Anita’s sustainability conversations, her commitment to the cause, the offering of livelihoods — it’s all constant. That’s good branding.”

For now though, Dongre is enjoying a calmer period. I ask her what art forms she’ll be working with next and she laughs, saying she’s still recovering from Fashion Week and is off for a “special occasion” within the family. Not one to share too many details, I discover her son, Yash, recently tied the knot in a characteristically quiet ceremony in Mussoorie.

Yash is just one of the people from the designer’s family who helps her shoulder her empire. There’s also her brother Sawlani, who is Managing Director, sisters Sehra and Priyanka Hira, who are product head and in charge of customer care respectively, and nephew Deepikesh Hira, who heads digital strategy. “The biggest success is we all have a close bond and a common vision. That’s what keeps us completely focused on what we are doing,” she says. For now, besides adding a few new stores for AND and Global Desi, Dongre says her priority is to marry the concepts of her two latest collections. “We’re looking at doing hand weaves with the Northeast clusters with Tencel,” she concludes.

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Printable version | Jul 23, 2021 6:35:32 PM |

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