"It’s like my mother used to say, ‘Yeh toh bachpan se hi ziddi hai (she has been stubborn since childhood),” laughs designer Anita Dongre when I ask her why she prefers to stay away from fashion trends. “I just want to run my life on my belief system. As you get older, it becomes more important to you. I don’t want to be everything to everybody. I want to be what I want to be to the one who understands me.”
Far removed from the trappings of showstoppers and too many fashion shows, the 59-year-old designer has built one of the country’s most successful fashion businesses, while continuing to keep artisans and their craft at its core.
Starting in the early 1980s with two sewing machines at her Mumbai home, Dongre now has over 2,500 employees, 1,000-plus stores across 114 cities in India and abroad, including New York, and more than 200 artisans based in Rajasthan and associated with Sewa, or the Self Employed Women’s Association. Revenue crossed ₹1,000 crore last year, up from ₹789 crore in 2019.
A study of the brand offers good business lessons. The brands under the House of Anita Dongre have something for every shopper—AND (contemporary Western-wear for women), Global Desi (boho chic), Anita Dongre bridal couture and prêt (including menswear), Pinkcity (handcrafted jadau jewellery) and Grassroot (luxury Indo-Western line). So if you can find a sharp ₹1,500 blue shirt that can be worn to office and later to an evening party at an AND store, you can get a ₹82,000 baby pink bandhgala and match it with ₹17,000 silk mules with tone-on-tone embroidery, at her couture store. The practicality she offers in clothes (she was among the first to add pockets in lehngas) makes her stand apart.
“You need to have an intimate understanding of the customer, their needs. That’s a way to build a good business,” believes Dongre, who has been part of top entrepreneur lists, won awards and dressed the who’s who, from the singer Beyoncé and the Duchess of Cambridge to actors Katrina Kaif and Alia Bhatt.
Next month, she’s launching her first Middle East store in Dubai Mall, offering ready-to-wear. Right now, though, her attention is on 24 February, when she will open an extravagant 8,000-plus sq. ft space in the heritage Sassoon Building in Kala Ghoda, Mumbai. The store, which will offer Anita Dongre couture, ready-to-wear and accessories, might be smaller than the 10,000 sq. ft Delhi bridal flagship outlet (opened in 2016) but its charm is distinct. A space with high ceilings and handpainted walls in a historic landmark location is a different kind of luxury, especially in a space-crunched city.
“We worked with a heritage architect for 18 months to restore this building. The idea is to make the customer forget they are in this tiny island called Mumbai and transport them somewhere in a contemporary Rajasthan palace,” says Dongre. “That has always been our storytelling.”
WHAT’S THE STORY?
Her belief system—“do what you love with a lot of passion and a bit of zid”—comes from living life on her terms. Whether it was starting a career in fashion or launching an accessories line after being a fashion designer for close to three decades, Dongre has always been more interested in looking within.
Born in Mumbai, she grew up watching her mother, a homemaker, stitch clothes for her six children. Dongre too learnt some basic embroidery—something “all good girls are supposed to do. She (her mother) never thought of it as anything more,” Dongre had shared on the Facebook page Humans Of Bombay in 2017.
When she told her parents in 1982 she wanted to start a business, they weren’t happy. She was still studying fashion design at SNDT Women’s University. But her stubbornness won the day. In 1984, she did her first exhibition with three college friends, and the clothes, a mix of Indian- and Western-wear, sold out. When she became financially independent at the age of 20, she was the first female to work for a living in an extended family of 50. “I always wanted to be financially empowered because I grew up watching women not being respected well enough despite working so hard,” says Dongre.
She went on to create a name by selling traditional wear to boutiques like Benzer in Mumbai. But Dongre wanted to grow further—and after graduating in 1984, she identified a big gap: affordable workwear for women. It offered a good opportunity, for more women were entering the workforce.
In 1995, AND Designs India Ltd was incorporated. With some financial help from her father, who had a business in textiles, Dongre moved to a small workshop in Dharavi with seven tailors and her sister, Meena Sehra (she continues to be part of the team, besides their brother and Dongre’s son), designing simple, chic workwear. Four years later, she opened the first AND store in Mumbai’s first mall, Crossroads.
Her understanding of customer needs is evident. In 2007, for instance, she launched Global Desi, offering ethnic wear at budget-friendly prices (starting from around ₹1,000) at a time when options for affordable homegrown casualwear were limited and international brands like Zara and H&M hadn’t yet entered the country. Geared more towards youngsters, Global Desi was all about fun prints and bright colours in contemporary silhouettes, often serving as a reminder of the design legacy of Jaipur.
Her love for the pink city, the hometown of grandparents she used to visit during summer vacations, extends to her couture line, launched in 2012. By playing with gota-patti work on bright pastel lehngas with Mughal motifs and brocade cholis and salwar-kameez sets, she creates a world where grandness can be subtle.
In 2013, she launched a fine-jewellery line, Pinkcity. Two years later came Grassroot. It was again a smart business move: The noise around how dirty the $2.5 trillion (around ₹200 trillion) fashion industry was had just started becoming louder. In 2018, Dongre launched her New York store, one of the first Indian designers to take Indian fashion to the city of dreams. Last month, she launched her line of vegan accessories, including bags and belts. “We are late to this space because I wanted to bring plastic-free, cruelty-free accessories to the market. Material science is a field of research that is constantly innovating but requires patience,” explains Dongre, a “99.9% vegan” who worked with Mirum, a plant-based material that mimics the touch and feel of leather. “If ever there’s any country that should offer the world a line of bags that are sustainable and vegan, it should be India because we advocate vegetarianism, we advocate non-violent ways of living.”
Dongre has used external funding to build her brands. Future Lifestyle Fashion Ltd, part of the Kishore Biyani-led Future Group, acquired a 22.9% stake in AND Designs in 2008 (it was divested in 2013). US private equity firm General Atlantic invested $20 million for 23% of the House of Anita Dongre (AND Designs India Pvt. Ltd was renamed in 2015).
“Work is my religion,” she says. “I like coming to work every day…. It hasn’t been easy for sure. There weren’t many successful women designers when I started…there was no fashion industry then in India. I had to convince a lot of people about my work, about letting me even open a store. It’s not so easy even now.”
Is that perhaps one reason why we don’t see more women designers showcasing their work on the international stage? “That’s more to do with the journey you want to take. Who defines who’s popular? It’s your balance sheet that reflects whether you are on the top. Let’s not forget that runway shows are a marketing strategy. I chose to open a store, someone decides to do a ramp show. Everyone’s journey is different. Maybe I will do a Paris show; that’s my journey.”
“The thing is,” she goes on, “fashion is just not about a brand and profit. It’s as much about the people associated with the brand, from those in my office to the artisans. You have to work in a way that those people, those artisans, those embroidery workers, are getting their due and recognition.”
The other big lesson from the Dongre brand is that the founder has always walked the talk. In her case, focusing on artisans. Through The Anita Dongre Foundation set up in 2015, for example, she set up a tailoring unit in Maharashtra’s Charoti village to train women in garment-making—and then extended it to other areas in the state.
One question continues to haunt her, though: Indian fashion is having a moment globally, with designers like Rahul Mishra, Dhruv Kapoor, Vaishali S. and Kanika Goyal taking part in international fashion weeks and celebrities wearing homegrown designers like Gaurav Gupta and Amit Aggarwal, all showcasing the talent of our artisans. In India, however, the artisans and craftspeople are still not respected enough to get their due, economically and socially. “I think we lack marketing skills. We should learn from the West how to market ourselves better. Even I need to learn it.”
Having said that, she says, there has been a shift in the way the Indian consumer looks at homegrown garments and accessories. “The consumer has become smarter, they can recognise the labels, forms of embroidery. In the past six months, we have seen 40% growth in menswear. It has never happened before. I think that is the most exciting part of being in this industry. It’s such a new industry and it’s just now beginning to grow. But there are a lot of hurdles as well, like the issue of sustainability, and like I said earlier, marketing skills.
“We just don’t have confidence, I think, plus seeking validation from outside needs to stop. Just last week a big luxury mall in Mumbai, I won’t say which one, decided to remove all Indian brands from the ground floor and moved them to the second floor. What will come on the ground floor? All international names. This is the kind of bias we live with.”