Prominent Indian Designer Anita Dongre Talks Inspiration, Sustainability, and Empowering Other Women

Dongre, who's dressed everyone from Beyoncé to Hillary Clinton, recently brought her latest collection to Houston.

By Abby Ledoux September 23, 2019

Anita Dongre and Sneha Merchant at Dongre's Sept. 14 trunk show at the Post Oak Hotel.

Image: Quy Tran

More than 700 Houstonians came to the Post Oak Hotel on September 14 for a trunk show by Anita Dongre, the prominent Indian designer known for her commitment to sustainable fashion. Called the "Queen of Pret," Dongre draws on the intricate indigenous craft of the northern Indian state of Rajasthan for inspiration in her work. She's dressed international luminaries from Kate Middleton and Hillary Clinton to Priyanka Chopra and Houston's own Beyoncé. (She's got pop culture cred, too, having outfitted the Jonas Brothers and their wives for Nick and Priyanka's stunning traditional Indian nuptials.)

With over 1,000 retail locations across India, Dongre is also the first Indian designer to have her own stores in the U.S., including a flagship location in New York City. This month marked only her second time in Houston, though—her first visit, for a fashion show in April, lasted just 24 hours.

She was in the Bayou City slightly longer this time to showcase her latest collection of bridal couture, ready-to-wear womenswear, menswear, and silver jewelry at the trunk show, a percentage of sales from which benefited international medical non-profit Operation Smile. Then it was off to Dallas.

Before that, though, Dongre spoke with Bibi Magazine publisher Ayesha Hakki before an intimate group of invited guests at a private luncheon hosted by Sneha Merchant and host committee Sadaf Chaudhry, Stacey Lindseth, Shehla Rena, Mona Khan, Sanah Khan, Sabiha Rehmutalla, Amy Dichoso, Shara Kuy, Viet Huong, and Nikki Haq. And before that, she sat down with Houstonia to talk style, craftsmanship, and her legacy.

Anita Dongre Collection

What brings you to Houston?

We brought the Anita Dongre brand to the U.S. about a year and a half ago, and honestly I never thought I'd be in Texas. But when we came to the U.S. market, we realized there's such a strong South Asian community over here, and a lot of people told us, "You must come here!" We did have clients from here shopping with us in our India stores, but I wasn't paying it that much attention. You go to a market when people ask for you and want you to be there.

What are your impressions so far?

I've just discovered it's so different from New York. I used to think the USA is New York, which is quite foolish. I'm just discovering that, like India, America is quite different in every region. It's quite like our country, where everything changes a few kilometers. Every state is its own. Texas has such a different vibe, more friendly and warm; people have time. You don't see that in New York; everything is so brisk. I love the warmth of Texas.

Part of Dongre's Grassroot Collection

Through your sustainable line, Grassroot, you provide work for rural and underprivileged women artisans. What's the importance of traditional craftsmanship in your designs?

It's become extremely important to me to link my work with empowering women. As a design house, we employ thousands and thousands of people, but what we do in Grassroot is go into villages. India has such amazing crafts—in every state there's a different craft, and it's fascinating—and we work primarily with NGOs, we partner with them and ensure that we take work back to the villages. I think there's a great sense of fulfillment that comes into creating a design; we are creating that design for good, specifically to benefit a woman artisan who works from the comfort of her home or to sustain a craft that's otherwise going to die out. Rural economic development for women is a part of sustainability for me.

Lately, it seems, more and more designers are starting to think about ethics and their impact.

We've always done that. We started 20 years ago, and we've never used for leather or fur—ever. That's such a core belief to me, my younger sister, and my brother. We started the company together, and we're all vegan, so it has come naturally to us. Now it's become fashionable, which is sad. Design houses are doing it because it's fashionable, but they've made millions and millions of leather bags. I think the consumer is asking for it ... [but] we've been practicing this for 20 years. These are values that we have as a family, and I took those same values to my work. I don't have one set of values for me personally and one for my work, because I think your work has to speak about what you are as a person.

What's it like to see such powerful and prominent women wear your designs?

It definitely feels gratifying, and I think you attract your tribe. My clothes are for independent women with a strong mind of their own, a strong voice of their own, and I think those women resonate with me and choose to wear me. I'm asked so often from so many Indian designers, "why you?" Like I said, you attract your tribe.

Is there anyone you haven't dressed yet that you'd like to?

I don't think like that. You don't go to work thinking, who's going to wear me? You just go to work every day, you create a beautiful design, you're flattered by some of the people who wear you, and that's it.

What inspires your work?

I'm blessed to have been born in India. You can never be short of inspiration in that country; every state offers so much, and I come from the richest craft region. One lifetime is not enough to explore everything that India has to offer. You haven't lived if you haven't been to India.

Are there major differences in style between India and the U.S.?

The world has become such a small place with Instagram—everybody knows how everyone is dressing in every part of the world. Influencers are traveling from Europe to the U.S., and then you're in India watching what they are doing. A woman can be in Texas and buy [my pieces]; a woman can be in New York, L.A., London, Dubai, Bombay. She's the same.  I think the digital world has really just made it all at one level.

What's next for your brand?

I'm the creative head, so I live from collection to collection. I'm super excited about my next two collections, because I'm always working on two seasons simultaneously. I'm doing research into my fall season for next year, but I have to go back and finish up summer. It's looking nice, but I'm doing most of it on WhatsApp since I've started traveling. It's always about going and creating new stuff, and I feel blessed that I can go in every day and make something new.

What do you want your legacy to be as a designer?

A designer who worked toward sustainability and women's empowerment. Those are the two subjects closest to my heart. Every day I walk in and I say, this is your goal now, to use design to empower and to use design to sustain.

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