Outstanding Women

Empress of Prêt

Behind the glitz and glamour of Anita Dongre’s creations lie fanatical hard work and customer focus

Photograph by Soumik Kar

The initial façade is that of a palatial resort nestled in the hills. The grey monsoon clouds offer an interesting contrast to the lush greenery around. The waiting area has a bohemian look with a mix of bright colours and intricately-designed floral prints right from the comfy armchair to the rectangular low-hung ceiling lamp. A walk around reveals the smart use of wide French windows to make the most of natural light. Up a flight of stairs we discover an alfresco meeting area on every level of the building complete with a swing and well-trimmed grass. No, this isn’t a holiday home or a summer resort. This eco-sustainable building is in fact the corporate office of India’s leading fashion house, House of Anita Dongre (HOAD). “It has been a long-standing dream to work in a utopian place like this. Everybody I shared this dream with told me there was no way I would find a place like this near Mumbai and more importantly get my team to travel to such a place,” says Anita Dongre of her 100,000 sq ft office located in Rabale in Navi Mumbai. 

Dongre has never let anything come in the way of her pursuit. Be it the time when she dreamt of a greener workplace while starting out with a workshop in Dharavi or when she told her parents about starting an enterprise with her siblings. She recalls how her parents were apprehensive about her desire to launch her own label. “There was some nervousness initially when I discussed the idea with my parents. After all, no woman had worked before me in the family,” says the eldest of six siblings. But, she had 12 years of experience in creating Indian wear and selling it to high-street fashion boutiques like Benzer in Mumbai. And when one of her friends discussed the dearth of western wear in the country, Dongre narrowed down the segment she could target.

Tracking Opportunities
“I was only reflecting the change in times around me, this was a generation where women had begun working and they were on the lookout for comfortable western wear. As a designer, I realised that it wasn’t available and I started AND Designs with the intention of offering simple beautiful western wear at affordable prices,” says Dongre of her venture in 1995. At a time when the boutique culture had just taken off and primarily with Indian wear being sold, Dongre had taken the contrarian route by offering western wear to the Indian middle class working woman. 

Dressed in a black shift dress and a same-coloured coat that she has accessorised with a turquoise blue-beaded neckpiece, she looks every bit the perfectionist that she claims to be. Her preference for the colour black and her fearless approach to the field of fashion are few of the similarities one can spot between her and French fashion legend, the late Sonia Rykiel. While Rykiel, was known to be a rebel who tailored practical designs for women, Dongre acquired fame for her ability to make high street fashion accessible and affordable. “I was fascinated by the idea that I could dress hundreds and thousands of women. With production and fabric sourcing done the right way, why can’t I have this great design and put it on an affordable garment?” she wonders out loud. 

And that’s exactly what this SNDT fashion design student did once she was sure she wanted to be a designer. Along with her sister, Meena Sehra, she began weaving chic and simple designs on two sewing machines at their home before moving into a friend’s garage. Once her father, who was a children’s clothes manufacturer, was convinced of his daughter’s conviction, he not only loaned her some working capital but also advised on fabric sourcing. Dongre then moved to a small workshop in Dharavi with seven tailors, from where she finally launched the brand’s first store, a 300 sq ft outlet at Mumbai’s first mall, Crossroads, in 1999. Since then the woman who’s known to weave magic on brocade hasn’t looked back. Today, HOAD overlooks five brands via which Dongre expresses different facets of her creativity and in the process targets different segments of customers. “Every brand has come at the right time. In every brand I was seeking to express myself,” says Dongre. 

Each brand competes with peers like Ritu Kumar, Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Satya Paul and Manish Malhotra. Her maiden line AND, launched in 1998, offers chic and stylish western wear for women who opt for value with style. Then there is the ethnic wear brand, Global Desi, which she launched in 2008, where fun prints and bold colours blend with contemporary cuts. A lot like Dongre’s mixed source of inspiration — her growing up years in the fashion hub of Bandra and her roots in the pink city of Jaipur. That affair with Rajasthan extends into Dongre’s exquisite eponymous bridal wear line unveiled in 2012 which showcases the age old craft of gota patti handwork and replicates the wonders of Mughal architecture on the sleeves of silk cholis, pastel lehengas and solid coloured bandi shararas. This line would be incomplete without the designer’s collection of gold jadau jewellery called Pinkcity launched in 2013 thus, paying an ode to the land from which she draws inspiration till date. And the final brand under the HOAD umbrella is her latest pet project, Grassroots, a sustainable luxury Indo-Western line of clothing which seeks to revive and sustain Indian crafts while empowering artisans. 

Sketching Success
Dongre’s collections are currently available at 220 exclusive brand stores, over 596 multi-brand store formats in 85 Indian cities and even in Mauritius and Dubai. While she takes pride in the reach of her eponymous label, Dongre is concerned about the service offered across such a wide network. “Right from the time I wanted to be a designer, I knew that I wanted to retail my clothes too. For me, my stores are about creating an experience. All our exclusive stores are like mini contemporary Rajasthan palaces. I always tell my staff, ‘Please treat the customer like she’s walking into your own home’. Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we don’t, but the effort is on,” she reveals. 

Like every artist who is inspired by a muse, Dongre is no different. A love affair that began with the city of Jaipur in her childhood continues till date. “As a kid, I would spend three months every year with my grandparents in Jaipur. That has left a huge impact on me. For me, Rajasthan is this land of never-ending inspiration. I still go there every year for all my bridal shoots and it doesn’t feel like work at all,” she blushes as if talking about a long-time crush. The influence of this land of age-old craftsmanship and bold colours can be seen in Dongre’s bridal wear collection. Her Rajasthan-inspired trousseau has made its way to the covers of several fashion publications like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. This also explains why the 52-year-old designer’s creations are a treat for shutterbugs at the annual Vogue India Wedding Show. Dongre’s labels have been the preferred choice for Bollywood celebrities such as Kareena Kapoor, Sonam Kapoor, Priyanka Chopra, Alia Bhatt and even royalty like the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton. 

Much of her business acumen comes from her father who taught her to be prudent, frugal and not waste anything. “I think about him every day as I go around switching off fans and lights that are unnecessarily on. Wastage of any kind is criminal, I learnt that from him,” she adds while continuing how these are the lessons she has imparted to her son, Yash, who doubles up as HOAD’s business head for menswear. Apart from the lessons she picked up from her businessman father, there are some tricks of the trade that Dongre learnt on her own. The designer not only adds new collections to the existing five brands every season but is always adding product extensions like accessories to each line. She plans to enter the active wear segment next season shares the super boss at the helm of the design firm that employs 2,800 people. 

Dongre has smartly tailored her business in a manner that there is something for everyone at HOAD — brands with price points that appeal to the middle class and the uber-rich. “Making fashion accessible to everyone was something very important to me right from the beginning,” says Dongre adding that her team deploys technology to track each brand’s performance, customer preference and then reinvents the line every season accordingly.

Giving Back
While she strives to play a pivotal role in the lives of artisans across the country with her Grassroot line, she acknowledges the need to make the concept of sustainable clothing appealing to the value-conscious Indian consumer. “We take the embroidery done by women weavers at SEWA and work on putting it on a garment to make it desirable for the modern young woman,” she says. The Anita Dongre Foundation that was founded in 2015 has recently adopted the village of Charoti in Maharashtra where around 35 women are being trained in embroidery and sewing. The fashion house has started sourcing its Global Desi brand of kurtas from there. This is in addition to the 250 artisans that Dongre has been associated with for several years. 

While Dongre constantly mentions ‘blessed’ when asked about how things have turned out for her, she elaborates on the importance of passion and hard work. The designer, who spent long hours while starting out, continues to do the same till date. She adds, “People think I’m nuts. I’m as passionate and maniacal about my work as I was 21 years ago. When I work, it’s like I have blinkers on, I don’t focus on anything else. I feel it’s like the only thing I know how to do well.” 

She also admits that there are days when she gets stressed and agitated because things don’t go the right way, but credits her siblings — Sehra and Mukesh Sawlani — for keeping her calm at such times. 

Dongre, who recently turned investor by funding a social enterprise called Social Quotient, says it’s always the intent and passion of the entrepreneur that attracts her attention. Passion is one of the factors this queen of prêt attributes her success to along with belief in one’s abilities. And that is something she wishes for the rest of her kind. “Women are intrinsically smart and compassionate. They owe it to themselves to do something well. Sometimes I meet women who are intelligent and talented but the only thing holding them back is their inability to believe in themselves. Every woman should have a firm belief that she can do it.