Indian designer at the forefront of ethical fashion for brides and beyond…
By Momtaz Begum-Hossain
THINK ANITA DONGRE AND Bollywood Designer springs to mind.
She’s dressed countless celebrities from British royalty Kate Middleton to Bollywood stars such as Priyanka Chopra, Sonam Kapoor and Kareena Kapoor, but it isn’t the glamour that drives her.
Her focus lies on running a sustainable fashion business that champions and supports heritage crafts. She told ACV more about what it’s like to run an ethical fashion empire, when she was in London last week showcasing her bridalwear at the Aashni + Co Wedding Show (January 13).
Dongre, still in London earlier this week, told www.asianculturevulture.com: “I work in nature, amongst the hills in a fully sustainable office.
“We bought the land, just outside Mumbai around eight years ago. We recycle our water, grow organic vegetables, compost and don’t use air conditioning for most of the year – it’s exactly the vision I wanted and it’s great to finally have it in place.”
The vegetables that are grown on site are turned into vegetarian meals for the 900 staff based there, though Anita herself is a vegan, something that also inspires her brand.
The House of Anita Dongre doesn’t use leather, or cashmere and it is currently looking into options to become vegan.
Dongre explained: “For bridalwear you need silk but I haven’t yet found a silk substitute that doesn’t involve silkworms but we are working towards that.”
Bridal fashion is one of four strands of Anita’s business, the others are Global Desi (Asian fashion), and (a western fashion label) and Grassroots, a sustainable luxury line where she employs traditional artisans, as part of her commitment to helping Indian crafts survive.
She said: “There were certain animals we never thought would go extinct yet they did. Animals, nature, and crafts are all interlinked which is why it’s important we protect them and make them sustainable. The problems arise when people are forced out of their villages to go to crowded cities where the conditions aren’t adequate.”
Dongre’s solution is to work directly with villages throughout India, providing work and eradicating the need to migrate
She explained: “India lives in its villages that’s where most of the population is so we need to ensure they have work.”
The company mainly employs skilled artisans through NGOs though recently they started training communities who don’t have existing skills, so they too can reap the rewards of the fashion industry.
Dongre told acv: “We have set up several stitching units in Maharashtra where before there were no skills. When we first started, we put up a sign and explained that we were teaching sewing and anyone could learn – it was open to men and women.
“But it was only the women that came forward and that was the case in all the villages we went to. We train them for six months before they can start to take orders. The idea is that the units will run themselves and they can take on other work. For these women it means they are supporting their family and living sustainably. She walks across the village to get to work and can then return home to her children. She can live off the land with very little – something I would like the cities to learn from.”
By this, Dongre is referring to slowing down, as she believes the fast-paced nature of city life is having a negative impact on the country.
She reflected: “We all need to step back and slow down. I really want the cities to learn from the villages and to look into our past and realise how sustainable life used to be. As a child I did so many crafts like embroidery and you would see women knitting, it was very therapeutic. Now we’re just running around after material wealth when really we need to step back and think.”
As the consumer interest in fashion in India continues to grow, Anita also hopes that the country learns from the west’s mistakes when it comes to fast fashion.
She said: “Fashion is still quite new in India, so we don’t have the problem of fast fashion. I really hope that in the next 10 years rather than our industry going that way, we focus on being sustainable.”
Anita’s most recent collection features hand-painted clothing after she met a painter who told her he wasn’t getting much work, so she collaborated with him and she’s currently finalising her next, which will be unveiled at Lakme Fashion Week in the spring.
After 20 years at the top of her game there’s no slowing down, especially when she is responsible for over 2,800 staff and artisans.
Dongre admitted: “Every day I’m in the office 9am-7pm, working on new designs. We work on three collections at a time. When you work with artisans they can take nine months to a year to complete projects, after all they aren’t machines.
“That’s something I’ve had to learn and adjust to.
She summed up: “I like working with artisans. I like providing employment to them, it gives me a sense of purpose more than anything else and it’s also taught me to be more patient, which is another aspect of slow living that I appreciate.”