In conversation with Anita Dongre


In conversation with Anita Dongre

Anita Dongre says there’s more to her than her booming business

By Cheryl-Ann Couto  April 27th, 2015

Back in my first days of employment, fresh out of college and only for the first time noticing that scuffed canvas shoes, a worn T-shirt and carefully baggy jeans didn’t make the right sort of professional statement (“I don’t care but oh god I do”; hipsters, bless them, would not be around for another five years or so) — I remember uncertainly entering my first AND store on Linking Road in Bandra, Mumbai. There were no Zaras back then (hush now, it doesn’t bear recalling), to ease the transition from the affordable, functional but largely unspecial chainstore fashions to the elusive designer offerings, exorbitant and often with too many curly bits to be of any use to women who wanted to project light and smart. After pounding the pavement for hours without finding one thing I could wear to an upcoming office event, an unfussy white silk shift dress with a pretty boat neckline (and pockets!) hanging at the far end of the store felt like providence. I picked it up with the kind of nonchalance you reserve for things that really excite, and checked its tag. Wait, Rs 1,000? Holy shit. Could I afford this without any guilt? Did other customers in the store know about this great reasonableness of pricing and how could I keep them from ever finding out?!

Now, years later, sitting across from Anita Dongre at her Mumbai workshop, as she tells me about the squad of merchandisers she deploys countrywide to be her eyes and ears in the market, I feel as though I may have been watched that day in the store. Having style and pricing intersect in a way that provides a springboard for cautious designerwear virgins to take the leap has become an experience the 51-year-old designer has come to own since she began And Designs India Ltd (ADIL) 17 years ago. Her veritable clothing empire — which includes AND (semi-casual workwear), Global Desi (Indo-western fusion), Anita Dongre (AD, the mother brand for her signature prêt, couture, bridal and menswear lines) and Grassroots (the till-now latent eco-conscious label) — has as its engine her genuine curiosity about what women need and want.

“Today’s bride, for example, drinks and dances the whole night,” she explains. “She’s not about to stand in a corner decked from head to toe in every piece of jewellery she owns, like some showpiece. You have to design for the times.” Her dreamlike bridal lehengas (many come with handy pockets for phones, tissues and sugary sweets, in case one is feeling faint), in breezy, fluid georgette foils and chiffons with her exquisite zardosi and gotapatti signatures are conducive to busting out some serious moves on your big night. “I have brides sending me iPhone pictures of themselves in AD lehengas at the end of the wedding party saying they danced all night. They need to be able
to have fun,” she says.

 

Her core customer is “intelligent, sharp, focused and independent” — and she wants bang for her every last buck. Dongre doesn’t always get it right, she’ll readily admit; there have been heartbreaking flops. Like the beaded crop top and skirt set she did for AD last spring/summer that was priced at a lakh-and-a-half. “I was dead sure it would be wiped out in one week of hitting the store,” she laughs. It didn’t sell for six months. “My salespeople told me nearly every customer picked it from the rack, saw the price tag and put it back. It’s why I’m constantly checking with [my merchandisers], it’s very important for me to suss out what they like so I can keep my pricing sharp.”

This thread of accessibility runs across the brand lines, understandably for the high-colour, print-crazy, festival-friendly GD (“we abbreviate everything in this company” she chuckles), and though she gives it a longer leash, the craft-intense AD, as well. “Craft comes at a price and we pay our artisans well. I want the bridalwear at least to be aspirational, but even there, I’m being told I’m affordable luxury,” she shrugs.

The economies of scale work out, though. In a big way. But the news reports can’t seem to agree on a number for how many points of sale she has across the country: 600+ seems to be the ballpark figure. And in the last couple of years she’s become a regular fixture on business power lists, has financial pundits dissecting her multi-crore yearly turnover (rumouredly, Rs 300 crores for 2013-2014, surpassing big-ticket players like Manish Malhotra and Sabyasachi) and lauding her for her visionary entrepreneurship.

How does it feel to be recognised for how far she’s come from the two-sewing-machines-in-the-balcony-of-the-family-home-against-her-conservative-father’s-wishes enterprise she started out with? She hates it, actually. “I’m really upset that everybody is talking about the numbers,” she says, “I have never been bothered about them. It’s actually a joke in the industry, and with the investment bankers — when they ask me how many stores there are, I just stare at them and say I don’t know, ask my brother [ADIL CEO, Mukesh Sawlani].” The design, the art of it, the process — hunting for the perfect fabric, coaxing a new piece that didn’t exist just days before from it, working with creative minds — is what drives her, she wants to make very clear. “My passion is the clothes; once the enthusiasm for my clothes dries up, I’ll shut shop, no questions.”

It might be tempting to baulk at the self-effacing multi-millionaire, but she’s got the stripes to show for it. When she launched her own label in 1998, she was gambling against all kinds of conventional wisdom. After graduating NIFT in the mid ’80s, she supplied opulent Indianwear as per brief to stores like Benzer and Sheetal in Mumbai. “But I didn’t enjoy it,” she says. “I wanted to do the kind of clothes I had seen on trips abroad, the kind a girl like me would enjoy wearing — they were simply not available here.”  Helped by her sister Meena Sehra [now the director of ADIL] she began supplying her prêt designs, a line of linen dresses for starters, to several stores for the next few years. When she eventually floated the idea of retailing ready-to-wear under her own name (an industry reverse incidentally; most designers begin with the economically safer bridalwear) she was largely discouraged. “I was told my clothes wouldn’t sell, and the shops refused to stock me,” she says. “So I decided to do it on my own.”

 

Anita Dongre (AND) Designs was started out of a 300 sq ft shop in Crossroads, Mumbai’s first mall, with help from her brother who quit his job as a banker to help her kickstart the business. “You have to have mad passion,” she says. “Whether it’s your first exhibition after college attended only by family and friends, or debuting a new season’s collection in your stores, it has to stay the same.”

This mad passion is the one thing keeping her from going utterly mad, actually. “We’ve set four seasons for GD and AND in a year. This means four collections, four campaigns, four look books…” Ruthless self-discipline and simultaneous letting go has been the magic formula. “I do creative work only in the mornings when I’m freshest, including sitting with the design teams of each line daily,” she says. Marketing, HR, press i.e. “everything I hate” is for sluggish afternoons. She also meditates for an hour daily, has a ‘no personal calls at work’ rule for herself, keeps family engagements for after 7pm and is comatose in bed by 10pm latest.

Beyond that, she doesn’t bother. “I have so many labels that I can’t handle them all, I have to trust the teams,” she says. “They look to me for the seed of the idea; the overall concept comes from me and then the team executes it.” For now, AD is her spoilt child and soon Grassroots will be the prodigal son that will consume all her energies — “I started Grassroots some years ago, but wasn’t able to give it much attention. Now I’m ready.” She refuses to say what form the eco-friendly line that formerly used organic fabrics and natural dyes, will now take, except that “it will revolutionise the way we work with artisans” and that there is a Grassroots store coming to Mumbai in July, and she’d like to live in it if possible.

Sustainability, conservation and staying close to the earth are the things that have begun to matter to her, now that running a vast clothing empire has become second nature. She’s all glee as she talks about her the new ADIL base, a 1,80,000 sq ft centralised production unit in Rabale, Navi Mumbai, a completely green project which she helped scout and design from scratch. “It harnesses solar power and has a water recycling plant, and the buildings have in-built vents so that I have no use for air-conditioning for almost nine months of the year.”

Ask her what’s next and she meets your gaze with a wry, almost conspiratorial smile. “I’m obsessed with reviving handicrafts and various weaves and ancient techniques,” she says. She has ongoing projects with artisans in Bhuj, in the south and Benares. “There is so much to be done!” she exclaims suddenly and sits up like a bolt. “The only reasons I have to leave my desk are if I’m famished or dying. Otherwise, I’m staying put.”   

Photographs: Manasi Sawant; Styling: Nidhi Jacob; Art Director: Reshma Rajiwdekar; Make-Up and Hair: Devika Heroor; Models: Tanya And Suzy/Anima Creative Management, Aditi/Inega Models; Assisted by: Neha Salvi

 

 

Back in my first days of employment, fresh out of college and only for the first time noticing that scuffed canvas shoes, a worn T-shirt and carefully baggy jeans didn’t make the right sort of professional statement (“I don’t care but oh god I do”; hipsters, bless them, would not be around for another five years or so) — I remember uncertainly entering my first AND store on Linking Road in Bandra, Mumbai. There were no Zaras back then (hush now, it doesn’t bear recalling), to ease the transition from the affordable, functional but largely unspecial chainstore fashions to the elusive designer offerings, exorbitant and often with too many curly bits to be of any use to women who wanted to project light and smart. After pounding the pavement for hours without finding one thing I could wear to an upcoming office event, an unfussy white silk shift dress with a pretty boat neckline (and pockets!) hanging at the far end of the store felt like providence. I picked it up with the kind of nonchalance you reserve for things that really excite, and checked its tag. Wait, Rs 1,000? Holy shit. Could I afford this without any guilt? Did other customers in the store know about this great reasonableness of pricing and how could I keep them from ever finding out?!

Now, years later, sitting across from Anita Dongre at her Mumbai workshop, as she tells me about the squad of merchandisers she deploys countrywide to be her eyes and ears in the market, I feel as though I may have been watched that day in the store. Having style and pricing intersect in a way that provides a springboard for cautious designerwear virgins to take the leap has become an experience the 51-year-old designer has come to own since she began And Designs India Ltd (ADIL) 17 years ago. Her veritable clothing empire — which includes AND (semi-casual workwear), Global Desi (Indo-western fusion), Anita Dongre (AD, the mother brand for her signature prêt, couture, bridal and menswear lines) and Grassroots (the till-now latent eco-conscious label) — has as its engine her genuine curiosity about what women need and want.

“Today’s bride, for example, drinks and dances the whole night,” she explains. “She’s not about to stand in a corner decked from head to toe in every piece of jewellery she owns, like some showpiece. You have to design for the times.” Her dreamlike bridal lehengas (many come with handy pockets for phones, tissues and sugary sweets, in case one is feeling faint), in breezy, fluid georgette foils and chiffons with her exquisite zardosi and gotapatti signatures are conducive to busting out some serious moves on your big night. “I have brides sending me iPhone pictures of themselves in AD lehengas at the end of the wedding party saying they danced all night. They need to be able
to have fun,” she says.

 

Her core customer is “intelligent, sharp, focused and independent” — and she wants bang for her every last buck. Dongre doesn’t always get it right, she’ll readily admit; there have been heartbreaking flops. Like the beaded crop top and skirt set she did for AD last spring/summer that was priced at a lakh-and-a-half. “I was dead sure it would be wiped out in one week of hitting the store,” she laughs. It didn’t sell for six months. “My salespeople told me nearly every customer picked it from the rack, saw the price tag and put it back. It’s why I’m constantly checking with [my merchandisers], it’s very important for me to suss out what they like so I can keep my pricing sharp.”

This thread of accessibility runs across the brand lines, understandably for the high-colour, print-crazy, festival-friendly GD (“we abbreviate everything in this company” she chuckles), and though she gives it a longer leash, the craft-intense AD, as well. “Craft comes at a price and we pay our artisans well. I want the bridalwear at least to be aspirational, but even there, I’m being told I’m affordable luxury,” she shrugs.

The economies of scale work out, though. In a big way. But the news reports can’t seem to agree on a number for how many points of sale she has across the country: 600+ seems to be the ballpark figure. And in the last couple of years she’s become a regular fixture on business power lists, has financial pundits dissecting her multi-crore yearly turnover (rumouredly, Rs 300 crores for 2013-2014, surpassing big-ticket players like Manish Malhotra and Sabyasachi) and lauding her for her visionary entrepreneurship.

How does it feel to be recognised for how far she’s come from the two-sewing-machines-in-the-balcony-of-the-family-home-against-her-conservative-father’s-wishes enterprise she started out with? She hates it, actually. “I’m really upset that everybody is talking about the numbers,” she says, “I have never been bothered about them. It’s actually a joke in the industry, and with the investment bankers — when they ask me how many stores there are, I just stare at them and say I don’t know, ask my brother [ADIL CEO, Mukesh Sawlani].” The design, the art of it, the process — hunting for the perfect fabric, coaxing a new piece that didn’t exist just days before from it, working with creative minds — is what drives her, she wants to make very clear. “My passion is the clothes; once the enthusiasm for my clothes dries up, I’ll shut shop, no questions.”

It might be tempting to baulk at the self-effacing multi-millionaire, but she’s got the stripes to show for it. When she launched her own label in 1998, she was gambling against all kinds of conventional wisdom. After graduating NIFT in the mid ’80s, she supplied opulent Indianwear as per brief to stores like Benzer and Sheetal in Mumbai. “But I didn’t enjoy it,” she says. “I wanted to do the kind of clothes I had seen on trips abroad, the kind a girl like me would enjoy wearing — they were simply not available here.”  Helped by her sister Meena Sehra [now the director of ADIL] she began supplying her prêt designs, a line of linen dresses for starters, to several stores for the next few years. When she eventually floated the idea of retailing ready-to-wear under her own name (an industry reverse incidentally; most designers begin with the economically safer bridalwear) she was largely discouraged. “I was told my clothes wouldn’t sell, and the shops refused to stock me,” she says. “So I decided to do it on my own.”

 

Anita Dongre (AND) Designs was started out of a 300 sq ft shop in Crossroads, Mumbai’s first mall, with help from her brother who quit his job as a banker to help her kickstart the business. “You have to have mad passion,” she says. “Whether it’s your first exhibition after college attended only by family and friends, or debuting a new season’s collection in your stores, it has to stay the same.”

This mad passion is the one thing keeping her from going utterly mad, actually. “We’ve set four seasons for GD and AND in a year. This means four collections, four campaigns, four look books…” Ruthless self-discipline and simultaneous letting go has been the magic formula. “I do creative work only in the mornings when I’m freshest, including sitting with the design teams of each line daily,” she says. Marketing, HR, press i.e. “everything I hate” is for sluggish afternoons. She also meditates for an hour daily, has a ‘no personal calls at work’ rule for herself, keeps family engagements for after 7pm and is comatose in bed by 10pm latest.

Beyond that, she doesn’t bother. “I have so many labels that I can’t handle them all, I have to trust the teams,” she says. “They look to me for the seed of the idea; the overall concept comes from me and then the team executes it.” For now, AD is her spoilt child and soon Grassroots will be the prodigal son that will consume all her energies — “I started Grassroots some years ago, but wasn’t able to give it much attention. Now I’m ready.” She refuses to say what form the eco-friendly line that formerly used organic fabrics and natural dyes, will now take, except that “it will revolutionise the way we work with artisans” and that there is a Grassroots store coming to Mumbai in July, and she’d like to live in it if possible.

Sustainability, conservation and staying close to the earth are the things that have begun to matter to her, now that running a vast clothing empire has become second nature. She’s all glee as she talks about her the new ADIL base, a 1,80,000 sq ft centralised production unit in Rabale, Navi Mumbai, a completely green project which she helped scout and design from scratch. “It harnesses solar power and has a water recycling plant, and the buildings have in-built vents so that I have no use for air-conditioning for almost nine months of the year.”

Ask her what’s next and she meets your gaze with a wry, almost conspiratorial smile. “I’m obsessed with reviving handicrafts and various weaves and ancient techniques,” she says. She has ongoing projects with artisans in Bhuj, in the south and Benares. “There is so much to be done!” she exclaims suddenly and sits up like a bolt. “The only reasons I have to leave my desk are if I’m famished or dying. Otherwise, I’m staying put.”   

Photographs: Manasi Sawant; Styling: Nidhi Jacob; Art Director: Reshma Rajiwdekar; Make-Up and Hair: Devika Heroor; Models: Tanya And Suzy/Anima Creative Management, Aditi/Inega Models; Assisted by: Neha Salvi