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Anita Dongre: Grassroots to glam

The global desi with her heart in Jaipur, Anita Dongre celebrates 20 years of her brand this year

By Saionee Chakraborty

  • Published 17.08.19, 8:03 PM
  • Updated 22.08.19, 4:14 PM
When society is changing and you as a woman are changing, I as a woman designer need to reflect that change: Anita Dongre
When society is changing and you as a woman are changing, I as a woman designer need to reflect that change: Anita Dongre Courtesy: Anita Dongre

Anita Dongre looks calm. Once you get talking to the veteran designer, you can feel her steel. Born in Bombay with a slice of heart forever in Jaipur, Anita’s story is fodder for any start-up-to-an-empire dream. Armed with a couple of sewing machines and heaps of confidence, her design journey started from her balcony. A “rebel”, she wanted to build an “empire”. Thirty years later, she is truly an empress, overlooking multiple brands with different DNAs that speak to different women. A The Telegraph chat.

You are 20 years young in the fashion industry. How do you feel when you look back?

I started my brands exactly 20 years ago, but I have been in the business of fashion for more than 30 years. I started from home. It’s been a very humble, simple beginning. I studied design at SNDT (Mumbai) and then I taught there for two years with Hemant Trivedi and I had some wonderful teachers. I started literally with two sewing machines in my balcony with my younger sister.

I just loved design. It was about waking up in the morning and sitting with my one masterjee and two tailors 30 years ago and going with the desire to cut a fabric and design something that is in your head… it’s the same thing I do today, except that I do it with 2,000 people. (Laughs) Eventually you just go in every day to design clothes.

Then, of course, now your time gets taken up in a little bit of business as the business grows. I am again trying to remove myself from all of that and go back to the basics of only concentrating on design.

"My mother always says: ‘I don’t know how you thought so differently’", says Anita. Courtesy: Anita Dongre

Your first brush with fashion was…

When I was very young, about 13 or 14, we used to go to the bazaar in Jaipur… the Hawa Mahal, the Badi Choupad, the market. I used to sit there with a tie-and-dyewallah and I used to tell him that I wanted it in my colours. I used to go to the churiwallah and say, make it the way I want it. When I used to go to Jaipur, all my friends used to wait for me to come back because I would come back with suitcase full of stuff that I had created myself.

Then, of course, I found my true calling when I went to SNDT. I walked in that first day and I knew that this is what I was born to do. I had told my mom: ‘I am going to run a business empire. I am not doing this as a hobby’. I did my thesis on Armani, Calvin Klein… on designers who at that time were building big businesses. I passed out in 1984. For two years I taught there and also worked simultaneously in a design house.

The two sewing machines were bought with your money?

Yes, yes! My money. I had done two exhibitions while studying in college. So, I had earned some money. Later my father gave me a loan when I got my first wholesale order. I started with Rs 5,000. I made a collection and sold it to a boutique on Linking Road (Mumbai) and it sold off in the first week. I must have taken 15-20 days. I made these cotton dresses... I still do similar stuff. I felt the thrill when I sent the collection to the store and they called up and asked: ‘Do you have more?’ They said they had sold out! Then you realise the love. I went to the store… who bought, what happened… the thrill of creating and people wearing your clothes! That’s always been my thrill… of making beautiful clothes and having women wear them, enjoy them. It’s the same thrill I get today. Right from creating bridalwear to ready-to-wear, I just enjoy every aspect of the business.

Then came your first label…

I had a label called Mas. It was named after my younger sister and me, but most of the stores were not even selling under my label. They were selling under their store names. I was just supplying to stores initially. There was nothing like branding, labelling, marketing. You just made designs and sold them. I used to make westernwear, Indianwear… everything.

Joe Jonas and Sophie Turner
Joe Jonas and Sophie Turner Courtesy: Anita Dongre

AND, the label, was born in 1999…

This was the first brand we started, a contemporary brand doing westernwear for the Indian woman. It was the first designer brand I think that did sizes in the country.

We were the first brand that was inclusive… that did sizes eight-18 even then. We were the first home-grown Indian brand to start in Crossroads — India’s first mall in Mumbai. People were queuing up to climb the escalator! We started with a 200sq ft store which used to keep selling out every week. We were the first brand to do a simple, white linen shirt, simple trousers, dresses for women. Just clothes for women who were working, travelling abroad, who just wanted to wear clothes that were more global.

Then came Global Desi…

Almost 10 years ago. Very India print inspired.

Finally, the Anita Dongre bridal line…

Eight years ago. The Anita Dongre bride to me is really special. I always wanted to create weddingwear that I could look at and want to get married again! And, I see so many women who come to my store and say: ‘I wish I was getting married again’.

We were definitely the first brand that broke through this bridal clutter of heavy lehngas, overdone lehngas, overpriced lehngas…. I think I was the first Indian designer to bring in comfort, to bring in pockets in the lehngas…. In all my campaigns I have shown all my brides dancing… I have shown my bride having a glass of wine. I have shown the modern Indian woman actually the way she is today at a wedding.

Everything has changed today. So, when society is changing and you as a woman are changing, I as a woman designer need to reflect that change. I need to know that what you want is comfort. And, you are not bowed down in a ghoonghat and standing with your head covered. In all my campaigns, I never show the head covered. I always show her as very liberated, modern, cool, young and spirited because that’s the kind of woman I have in my mind.

Being a woman designer who introduced bridalwear very recently in her career, considering my other colleagues have been doing bridalwear for 20-25 years, I truly reflected the modern Indian woman in what she was today. Somewhere that resonated with women and which is why the bridalwear grew by leaps and bounds.

A ramp moment from Anita Dongre’s showing at Shaadi by Marriott at The Westin Kolkata Rajarhat, where she showed her festive winter ’19 line, Jaipur Love.
A ramp moment from Anita Dongre’s showing at Shaadi by Marriott at The Westin Kolkata Rajarhat, where she showed her festive winter ’19 line, Jaipur Love. Pabitra Das

Why did you wait to start bridalwear?

Everything just happens when it happens. I have done a bride, Chhaya Momaya, 30 years ago. We were friends and I designed her wedding lehnga, straight out of college. I felt the urge since 10 years and I wanted a strong voice and what I wanted to do with it. I wanted to revive the craft of gota patti from Jaipur because I am so passionate about Jaipur and I wanted to change the way bridalwear was in India. The way I brought in a lightness to the lehnga, I literally changed the wedding apparel, how brides thought.

Who are your brides?

I truly attract that tribe of independent women. My clothes and imagery speak to her. When a bride walks into an Anita Dongre store, she knows she wants an Anita Dongre. A lot of that is me as a human being, as a person. I am a big champion for women’s rights, equality for women, for women to be truly standing on their own feet and to be given their due.

The SEWA artisans
The SEWA artisans Courtesy: Anita Dongre

Tell us about Grassroot...

It happened about three-and-half years ago and now I am going to be focusing a lot more on it. I met the women of SEWA (Self Employed Women’s Association, a trade union registered in 1972) through a friend and they basically needed me to intervene to start giving them work. It really started with SEWA and then we started including other crafts. There is a lot we have to do there.

You design so many lines. Who is an Anita Dongre woman? Is there a commonality you see?

Maybe sometimes different women, sometimes different women in different facets of life… not necessarily the same woman. I think there are parts of me in all of them. AND is today worn by so many working women. They love the brand. They feel it is their own. They have embraced it. They enjoy the fact that it has sizes and are comfortable. The stories I hear about the women who wear AND give me goosebumps. It’s part of their lives. For some women, it’s Global Desi.

Rajasthan has been your muse….

I go back there all the time. Both my grandparents are from there. I was born in Bombay. So, I have this cosmopolitan, Bandra upbringing which shaped me as a woman but my soul lay in Jaipur. I couldn’t have had a better upbringing because I had the best of both worlds.

A lot of my craft gets done there. I still have huge emotional ties with that city. The best years of life have been spent there... the summer vacations.

What are the enduring images of Rajasthan that come to mind when you close your eyes?

Palaces. Elephants. Ranthambore. This year for New Year’s also, the whole extended family, 48 of us, are meeting in Ranthambore as an annual get-together. Four generations.

Talking of crafts, do you think you have just touched the tip of the iceberg?

Just the tip of the iceberg. There is so much more to do. I love bandhni, block printing, typical Rajasthan.

Beyonce in Pinkcity by Anita Dongre
Beyonce in Pinkcity by Anita Dongre Courtesy: Anita Dongre

There is your jewellery line too…

I launched Pinkcity about five-and-a-half years back just because I wanted to create beautiful images and I wanted jewellery for the clothes I was shooting and I wanted to show the bride the whole look. Every time a bride came to me and asked ‘What do I wear with these?’, I would say, ‘I have the jewellery things in my mind, but how do I do it?’

Then I worked with a dear friend, Pradip Jethani, and I learnt all about jewellery from him over the years and now I do the jewellery line from Jaipur. I do fine jewellery and some silver jewellery that is great for destination weddings. I want to create jewellery pieces that are timeless and can be worn forever. Pieces that are versatile, that a bride can wear again and again. I do a lot of earrings and neckpieces which can be split up.

What else do you plan to explore?

We have visited the Northeast sector. We are trying to do some work with them. Some more new clusters in Rajasthan and then keeping SEWA busy is also a full-time job. Huge number of artisans. So many weaves and embroideries will be lost if work doesn’t start now. I am going to start working towards the environment. So much to do, so little time.

Anita Dongre’s summer’19 looks
Anita Dongre’s summer’19 looks Courtesy: Anita Dongre

What is the key to multitask successfully?

Build a good team; you can do as much as how good your team is. I have a CEO in the company now. I am trying to get myself out of all operational activities and focus on creativity. My energies are now mainly focussed on Anita Dongre, Grassroot and the fine jewellery.

(I decided to declutter) about a year ago. It was getting too much. As a creative person, you don’t enjoy doing operational work. Sometimes when you are growing as an entrepreneur, you land up doing it, but you have to find what is it that you love doing the most and spend 80 per cent of your time doing it. Getting the right people and letting them do it is such a load off your mind.

You also need to live your life... balance work, family, friends and find a lot of time for yourself. For me, me time is extremely important. I am a morning person. I have to have one hour to myself. Meditation, yoga... otherwise I don’t step out of the house and I think every woman needs to keep herself first. We have to realise that if you are not well, you won’t be able to look after others.

What would be your top tip for budding entrepreneurs and designers?

If you believe in what you are doing and you are passionate about it, and if you back that up with hard work and discipline, success has to follow. Look at failure like a learning and accept with grace. You grow every year as a person and you have to work towards self-growth. Creativity also needs discipline. I am very moody but I had to channelise that moodiness into saying that it is now a business and thousands of people are dependent on you and I cannot choose not to come to work or not do something... I had to train myself.

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