With a philosophy of creating indigenous designs that leave an indelible impression transcending geographical boundaries, designer Anita Dongre is the force we require today to drive the true ethos of fashion. Her women empowerment initiative, The Anita Dongre Foundation, provides equal livelihood opportunities to several rural women through skill training. A true environmentalist and revivalist of local craft, Anita envisions creating a beautiful future for the planet and its people. In a thought evoking conversation, she shares her journey, beliefs and passion with us. Edited excerpts follow...
An incredible journey spanning over two decades; how has the experience been so far? If you had to highlight three turning points, what would those be?
Bringing things to life and watching them grow—whether children, ideas, plants or brands, is always an exciting experience. This journey started over two decades ago, when my sister Meena and I were setting up two sewing machines in our balcony to embark on a dream. Over two decades, I have collaborated with many incredible people. The first was probably the time that I wanted a store in Crossroads mall and was refused because I was a young woman. Of course, I figured out a way to get what I wanted, and a year later it turned out to be the highest grossing store. It was a quick lesson in ignoring patriarchy, misogyny and other forms of toxicity, and focus on my own dreams. The second would have to be meeting Gauri Ben and being introduced to SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association). The meeting encouraged me to set up Grassroot, a dream I’ve held for decades—to work with Indian craftspeople and bring their work to the 21st century.
The third is launching a store in New York that would turn the global fashion spotlight on Indian craftsmanship. The support from my family, my team, the artisans I work with, and the men and women who have supported the House of Anita Dongre over the last 20 years, have brought us to 2020.
Your signature style highlights your affinity for indigenous craft traditions mixed with modern aesthetics. Where do you seek inspiration from?
I have always been inspired by Rajasthan—the people, wildlife, architecture, colours, crafts, and a childhood filled with happy memories. Just as important is my muse, the Indian woman, for whom all my work is made. I design many avatars for her—corporate warrior, intellectual, binge-champ, gym-champ, sister, friend, daughter, girlfriend, wife, daughter-in-law—she takes on so many roles with effortless grace.
Today I’m driven by my goal to attain creation-sustainability. All my design, processes and thinking come from a viewpoint of, how can I be sustainable and also help my shoppers’ be conscious of the planet.
With a design vocabulary deeply rooted in celebrating craftsmanship and sensitising others over environment concerns, we are intrigued to know about your fashion philosophy and creative mood board?
My design philosophy has remained unchanged over all this time. I have always strived to create beautiful designs that are relevant for the modern woman. My approach to design is utilitarian, conscious of aesthetic and sensitive of the earth. My mood boards are heavily influenced by nature and architecture, and a lot of my colour palettes come from living a life that treasures sunrises, sunsets and the many shades of colour in my garden, or the forests I visit. I love nature.
What according to you is the favourite part of being a fashion designer?
I love watching my designs take life. To date, I am thrilled to see somebody go about life in one of my designs.
How would you like to define the quintessential ‘Anita Dongre’ woman?
The quintessential Anita Dongre woman is you, me, and every other woman of the 21st century. No two women are alike, and that’s absolutely true for each woman who wears any of my designs. The one commonality, however, is that the ‘Anita Dongre’ woman treasures effortless grace, and will always wear the outfit with her own attitude, instead of just playing mannequin for clothes and accessories.
The Anita Dongre Foundation has built a unique community to preserve the rich heritage of India, while empowering the rural artisans of the country, especially women. Please tell us more about the initiative.
The Anita Dongre Foundation was created to solve a very specific problem. We need to empower our women by providing them sustained, gainful livelihood opportunities in their own villages, without them having to migrate elsewhere. At the foundation, we provide skilled artisans with work, and train unskilled labour at community tailoring units; while also provide employment opportunities for both, in the comfort of their own villages.
Conversations on ethical fashion are finally gaining momentum in India. However, moving away from talks and shifting our focus on practices; where do you think Indian designers stand, when it comes to ethical measures? What is your idea of sustainability?
The Indian sub-continent has the oldest living cultural traditions. Handed down over generations, these cultural traditions hold at the very heart of them, a celebration of nature. To me, working with artisans is a path to reviving this way of life. Doing this takes time, trust and mutual respect. We need to celebrate our craft cultures, and that begins with celebrating the people who continue to hold that knowledge.
While I can’t speak for others, but for me sustainability is a thought process and a way of life that recognises the impact of our every action on the planet. Setting up an office space that harnesses nature’s strengths in every capacity. I could go on, but essentially, sustainability is a way of life and doesn’t work if compartmentalised.
Do you think couture in India is only limited to bridal wear or does it have potential for an extended patronage?
Right now, in India, couture is restricted to bridal wear. My hope is that this will change with time.
What does a day in the life of Anita Dongre look like?
I love to start the day with a nice long walk and watch the sunrise. I am at my desk by 9 am and delve into work, which takes up my entire day. It’s a blessing that my design space (in Rabale, Maharashtra) is nestled amidst green hills and has a picturesque view. After a full day of meetings and brainstorming sessions, my evenings are reserved for dinner with family.
How do you think the industry has evolved over the last decade?
The most obvious difference to me is that clients now know what they want even before they walk into a store. The explosion of Instagram and the understanding of personal style have completely changed the business of fashion over the last decade. I love how this means that the same garment is worn differently by each person, to help bring out their personality. I’d like to think that as an industry we have also become more conscious.
What will be your word of advice for the new age designers?
Listen to what your customers are telling you. Design exists for the people who see a purpose in it, so spend time listening to your customers and address the challenges they’re asking solutions for. Most importantly, be true to yourself.
What’s in store for 2020, from the House of Anita Dongre?
The short answer: more of everything you love. But I’m going to wait to reveal the surprises we have in store. 2020 is going to be exciting.