POPxo Power Women List

Designer Anita Dongre On How Patience & Persistence Helped Her Build A Fashion Empire

Tanya SharmaTanya Sharma  |  Jun 18, 2021
Designer Anita Dongre On How Patience & Persistence Helped Her Build A Fashion Empire

In 2016, Anita Dongre became one of the most googled designers of the year. Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, was on her royal tour to India and she had donned a Gulrukh tunic by the designer. The British royal’s choice of outfit put finally Anita under the global limelight. While the fashion mogul has dressed many prominent personalities over the course of her career—from Hillary Clinton to Beyoncé—her brand had modest beginnings. 

Anita began her journey as a designer with two sewing machines on the balcony of her home. After graduating with a degree in fashion design from Mumbai’s SNDT College, she had to fight with her parents to convince them to let her work. In fact, she was the first woman in her family to ever have a job. Thirty years later, she is one of the most celebrated designers in the country. Her company House Of Anita Dongre helms five labels—AND, Global Desi, Anita Dongre, Grassroot and jewellery line Pink City. She has flagship stores not only all over India, but also two in New York City and her name is synonymous with luxury bridal wear. 

They say empowered women empower women, and that’s exactly what Anita has been doing throughout the course of her career. Her designs have always focused on preserving traditional Indian textiles and craft, and she employs local artisans to create timeless, unique pieces. The livelihood these women earn not only helps them become financially independent, but also earns them respect in their communities. In her own company, Anita’s leadership encourages female employees to grow and rise the ranks, with women helming most of the senior positions. “One of our employees started out with us as a telephone operator 14 years ago. Then she moved to being a receptionist and later became my assistant. Today, she is the head of buying and merchandising at Anita Dongre!” she says.

It’s evident that Anita is a designer with a cause. And one such cause she strongly advocates for is sustainability—which is why, unlike other designers who come out with seasonal trendy lines, she sticks to classics. “When I’m making these unique, high-quality, artisanal pieces, I want them to be timeless. I want you to have it in your wardrobe forever!” she says. Besides that, The Anita Dongre Foundation develops livelihood opportunities for women in rural India by providing them with skill training. She is also a member of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and an advocate of veganism. 

Last year was one of crisis for everyone, and Anita found herself in the limelight again—but not for her designs. As masks became mandatory in March 2020, a shortage soon followed. To support India’s fight against COVID-19, Anita began the production of 7,000 masks each week to distribute to NGOs, village residents, individuals, and hospitals. In fact, she was one of the first Indian designers to set up a 1.5 crore fund to cover medical emergencies for local artisans and vendors working with her amid the outbreak. The most inspiring part? Her humility when asked about her generous contributions. She says, “I didn’t do anything out of the ordinary if I’m being honest. Everybody pitched in, in every way they could, and I did the same.” With the POPxo Power Women List 2020, we are celebrating awe-inspiring women like Anita, who went the extra mile, swiftly adapted to the new normal and made strides that had a lasting impact. And we couldn’t be more excited to have her on it! In a conversation with POPxo, the fashion mogul opened up about what inspires her, the designs closest to her heart and her advice to upcoming designers.

What does power mean to you?

Power to me means the ability to be able to do what you want to do.

You inspired many in 2020 by quickly adapting to the new normal and thriving–who inspires you, and why?

Strong women inspire me. Every woman who’s worked hard against the odds to improve her life and made the most out of what’s been given to her—every woman’s success story, be it personal or professional, is an inspiration.

On a personal level, my biggest inspiration is my mum. She’s almost 80 and she’s amazing—she’s brought up six kids! My younger brother is intellectually challenged, and she still takes care of him with a smile, and is always so positive. I always say that I want to be exactly like her when I get to her age.

What do you think is the biggest challenge women face today?

We’re fortunate that we live in a time when women are realising that they can achieve their full potential in their personal lives. However, I see a lot of women struggling to balance the personal and the professional—and sometimes feeling guilty for trying to have it all. I have met women across ages and locations, and they all face the same challenge. It can be a woman I meet in a coffee shop in New York or a woman of SEWA (Self Employed Women’s Association) in Gujarat working as an artisan—most women are looking for something they can call their own and to be economically independent. They don’t want ‘permission’ from their husbands or fathers to do something of their own. They want to be truly equal and independent. 

How do you define yourself as a leader? What are the traits a good leader should have?

A good leader should inspire you and lead by example—I try to do it every single day. I also try to mentor my juniors as much as I can.

As a woman in a leadership role, how have you built a work culture that supports women?

We have always fostered an environment of growth at our company. Some of the biggest positions in my company are held by women! What any employee looks for when they join a company is growth—and we have some amazing examples of women who have risen to the top. For example, one of our employees, Namrata Shirodkar, started out with us as a telephone operator 14 years ago. Then she moved to being a receptionist and later became my assistant. Today, she is the head of buying and merchandising at Anita Dongre. She has had no formal education in fashion—but she had a natural sense of style and being my personal assistant for many years, she picked it up on the job. And I think she is the best buyer any fashion brand can have in the country today! Both the design heads of AND and Global Desi started out as junior designers and have risen the ranks. All these women have made it to the top of the ladder by sheer hard work and merit, and we are so proud to help them get there.

Since the very beginning, you have been running an artisan-centric brand. What is it that connects you with your artisans?

I’m especially drawn to these women, and I see myself in all of them. When I visit villages, I see these women doing exactly what I did 30 years ago—fighting for their rights, wanting their own voice, wanting respect and economic independence. They want to do more than their traditional duties of bringing up the kids and taking care of the household. As someone who’s fought for the exact same things, I empathise and connect with them.

Let’s talk about the impact. How have the artisans you work with grown over the years?

I primarily work with a lot of NGOs, of which these artisans are members. But I have personally seen the difference that sustained employment gives them. They get respect from their community, and from their men folk at home. Which is phenomenal because the single most important goal that every young woman today should have is to be economically independent and manage her own finances. And I’ve seen that the amount that they earn while working part-time (since their responsibilities do not allow them to work full-time), empowers them on multiple levels—it gives them a voice, it gives them agency.

What are the challenges you have faced as a designer who is less about seasons and more about classics?

In the Anita Dongre label, I do a lot of occasion and wedding wear—which is expensive; it’s a luxury product. When I’m making these unique, high-quality, artisanal pieces, I want them to be timeless. I want you to have it in your wardrobe forever! And I meet so many women who tell me they still have and wear my clothes from when I started out 30 years back! Recently, I met a client who told me she saved a duptatta I made for her decades ago—and she continues to style it with different suits today. I love stories like these! I have another client who had bought from me many, many years ago and she came to me to get those evening wear outfits altered. She then gifted all of them to her daughter-in-law, who now wears them on special occasions like weddings. And that really, really made me so happy—that such beautiful clothes were being passed down from one generation to the next. And that can only happen when you design clothes that are classic and beautiful, right? My clothes are timeless, and I’m proud to do what I do.

What is it that inspires your craft and aesthetics the most?

India is my biggest inspiration and will always be. We are blessed to be born in a country with such a rich cultural heritage of crafts, textiles, architecture and design. No other country in the world can boast of a heritage like ours.

A House of Anita Dongre creation that remains really close to your heart and why?

Every collection of mine is like a baby—they’re all very special to me. So it is literally impossible for me to name one single piece. But hearing heartwarming stories like my client who gifted my outfits to her daughter-in-law—those make me feel like the happiest person in the world.

What would be your advice to the upcoming generation of fashion designers?

No matter the odds, just go in every day and give it your best. Don’t be impatient when it comes to your career—just give it your 200% and enjoy the journey. And stick to this profession only if you really, really love it, because it’s a lot of hard work.

Three things that designers should keep in mind when starting a sustainable brand?

Choose your materials consciously, because it makes up the bulk of the price of your garment. So do your research, ask around and choose a sustainable fabric. Second, your design process should be as such that you minimise wastage as much as possible. Thirdly, make sure you always make high-quality clothes.

How do you see your brand evolving from here? What’s next?

Wherever life takes me! All my growth as a designer has been very organic. Given the current situation with COVID-19, I’m just taking each day as it comes. It’s the first time in my career that I’ve had this pause, and I’m trying to slow down and breathe. Sometimes it’s nice to just live in the moment.