During Donald Trump’s recent state visit to India, the US president’s daughter Ivanka displayed some fashion diplomacy: she wore a trouser and jacket ‘sherwani’ ensemble made from white handwoven Indian silk sourced in Murshidabad, West Bengal by the Indian designer Anita Dongre.
While the association with Ivanka Trump invites controversy, Anita Dongre has a diverse list of past clients who have worn her designs on official engagements, including former secretary of state and first lady Hillary Clinton as well as the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton. The only Indian fashion designer to have established a global retail presence, with a flagship store in New York, the House of Anita Dongre (HOAD) has become a homegrown success story for India’s fashion industry. “Anita Dongre was the only designer to understand the need for designer pret [or ready-to-wear] and diffusion wear in India, and really is a case study for other Indian designers,” says Indian designer Rahul Mishra.
Founded 20 years ago, HOAD revenues will pass Rs1000 Crore (about $130 million) in 2020, according to the company. This milestone positions HOAD at the top of India’s league of local fashion businesses, bringing in more revenue than competitors Sabyasachi Mukherjee and Tarun Tahiliani, according to industry analysts.
HOAD now has five brands under its banner: AND, her first ready-to-wear label; Global Desi, a line of Indo-western boho clothing launched in 2007; her bespoke namesake bridal line launched in 2012; the jewellery brand Anita Dongre Pinkcity launched in 2013; and the sustainable fashion label, Grassroot, launched in 2015. Today, her retail network comprises almost 1,000 stores, including one in New York. The common thread unifying these brands is fuss-free design and details, like pockets added to the wedding lehenga, a hugely popular mix of traditional craft and textiles.
The brand has been bolstered by international support: in 2013, US private equity firm General Atlantic acquired a minority stake in HOAD, with a $20 million investment totalling roughly 23 per cent of the company. The deal marked General Atlantic’s first Indian fashion investment (the company also has an investment in New York brand Tory Burch) and served as a point of differentiation for HOAD, which was founded by Dongre, her brother Mukesh Sawlani and her sister Meena Sehra. Only a handful of Indian brands have attracted institutional capital.
“These founders were thinking like global people, and this was hard to find among other comparable companies in India,” says Shantanu Rastogi, GA’s managing director.
The queen of pret
With a focus on affordable ready-to-wear and Western wear made for young Indian women, Dongre has earned recognition as “the queen of pret”. Her approach differed from other Indian designers, who concentrated instead on the lucrative Indian bridal market and the festive ready-to-wear market at designer multi-brand boutiques.
“When we invested, we saw that there were more and more working women in India with disposable incomes who wanted to wear Western clothing yet loved their Indian sensibilities,” says Rastogi.
That market also defined Dongre’s marketing and distribution strategies. In the early 2000s, when contemporaries such as Manish Arora were relying on the fashion week circuit to grow their businesses, Dongre sought out relationships with department stores with a wide retail network such as Westside, becoming the first Indian designer to be retailed under her own brand there.
“Fashion week is not right for everyone,” says Fern Mallis, creator of New York Fashion Week and a long-time consultant to India’s Lakme Fashion Week. “It has to be the right time for a designer to take the leap to the runway. Anita stayed very focused on working to connect with her customers through her retail strategy.” Dongre’s pret label, AND, was among the first Indian designer labels to open a flagship store in a mall.
“My drive to partner with a department store came from the fact I wanted to sell to the consumer,” says Dongre. “As a designer, my biggest learnings came from the consumer – what appealed to her and how her purchases were evolving. Department stores provide that large audience for me.”
Fashion is a complicated business in a country of India’s size due to geographical differences and varying customer tastes. In the south of India, sleeveless clothes do not match local conservative mores of dress; in the north, winter wear is a standard in middle-class wardrobes. Dongre was quick to adapt her designs with her learnings.
“It is very important to listen to the consumer and give them what they want. Being nimble, I think, is hygiene now in any business,” says Dongre. When Kate Middleton wore a tunic dress with a Jaipur-inspired print from Anita Dongre’s label in 2016, her company website overloaded with requests and crashed. Overnight, her operations team set production channels to satisfy the influx of orders without interfering with the regular retail schedule.
That agility has helped her find success in markets outside India, too. Having always wanted to take the Indian textile and craft story global, she decided to open a store in New York, the only country HOAD has a bricks-and-mortar store outside of India today. The company initially opened with two New York stores, a bridal shop and Grassroot, HOAD’s sustainable fashion label. But customer response changed the brand’s strategy. “The consumer wanted both concepts under one roof,” says Dongre. The stores merged into one 4,500-square-foot flagship in May 2018.
Globalising Indian fashion
Between HOAD’s commitment to working with female artisans or its green 120,000-square-foot headquarters nestled in the hills of Navi Mumbai, harnessing the power of the earth has always been a key value of Dongre’s “Indian Modern” design philosophy.
“I come from the Indian subcontinent where we have, for millennia, been extremely conscious of the earth and our community,” she says. These are the traditions of India that she wants to embed in her designs in India, and then take them global.
This approach is taken across all of the company’s production lines. HOAD runs six village production units in Maharashtra, an area that has seen employment issues for women in some rural areas. As a part of this project, 200 unskilled workers were trained to join the HOAD workforce.
With India having such a design heritage, GA believed that it was time for an India brand to go global. Rustagi is of the firm belief that HOAD, with a solid social media base (her Instagram account has over 1.4 million followers) and success dressing international dignitaries, is now positioned to take on the world through online retailing methods.
“The next frontier is clearly bridging the gap between the online and offline experience,” says Dongre.