Anita Dongre thinks you should stop rushing through your meals. Over a mid-day dessert of chocolate vegan ice cream at her sun-drenched SoHo store, I learned that taking your time and socializing over food is something she practices daily; another is empowering women. "This is the company's focus and my personal mission," she tells Teen Vogue.
Anita has been designing clothing under her eponymous fashion house for the past 25 years, allowing herself to be in a position to both elevate women's wardrobes with her traditional, handcrafted Indian garments and employ women behind the scenes (or, better yet, seams). The House of Anita Dongre is one of the biggest fashion brands in India and boasts 12 stores across the world, including its flagship store in the heart of New York City's SoHo neighborhood. Her fashion labels include bridal (Anita Dongre Wedding Couture), luxury prêt (Grassroot), ready-to-wear (AND, Global Desi), and fine jewelry (Pink City). Scores of teenage girls turn to Anita for its couture lehengas, or evening gowns for formal events. And last year, Beyoncé, Kim Kardashian West, Priyanka Chopra, and Sophie Turner all wore her designs, with the latter wearing an Anita Dongre lehenga to Priyanka’s nuptials with Nick Jonas.
Anita was born in Mumbai, India, but it's the rural area of Jaipur, where she spent holidays with her grandparents, that runs deep in her fashion company's grassroots initiative. She still goes back to visit the same villages, but now to employ and empower women in those communities. At Anita's community tailoring center, her team professionally trains women to make garments, allowing them to gain skills they wouldn't have been able to learn before — and, most importantly, to secure their own financial independence. The more successful Anita becomes, the more she pours back into the villages she visited as a child.
Teen Vogue spoke with Dongre about women's empowerment, sustainability, and what it's like to dress the biggest stars in the world.
Teen Vogue: Why is it important to you to empower women through your line?
Anita Dongre: Growing up in a conservative family in India, I had to navigate a lot of hardships to finally make my way as an entrepreneur. Still, today, so many women lack the independence and opportunities they deserve. Their challenges resonate with me on a deeply personal level. I've made it my mission to use fashion to empower the disempowered.
TV: Tell me about the production process and how it's connected to your roots in India.
AD: Industrialization has shifted much of the fashion industry to the larger cities. Large factories operate out of these congested, urban environments, and workers leave their hometowns to commute into these urban centers for their jobs.
Through our grassroots initiative, we've been working with the Indian government to revitalize the villages of India for a greener, healthier, more sustainable way of living. Our self-help groups train and provide work for [mostly low-skilled female] workers. These women gain incredible skills, as well as financial independence, and after their training, [they] can work for our company or on their own. Instead of commuting, they can work where they live. And instead of being subservient to the men in their lives, they gain equality and independence as respected wage-earners supporting their families. This is the company's focus and my personal mission.
TV: You've been able to dress some of today's top celebrities. How did you end up working with Beyoncé?
AD: Her team ed us because they knew of our designs and wanted her to wear them when she performed at the Ambani wedding. It was lovely working with her team to select pieces from my Pink City fine jewelry collection that were every bit as luxurious and vibrant as the incredible performer wearing them. In fact, a number of notable strong women, including Hillary Clinton and her former chief of staff [Huma Abedin], also wore my designs at that event. It's always an honor to dress fierce, independent women.
TV: What was the process like for designing for Priyanka's wedding?
AD: For Priyanka’s wedding, I dressed several members of the Jonas family, including Kevin Jonas and his wife, Danielle, as well as Sophie Turner. They were engulfed in luxury with handpicked pieces from our luxe Bridal Couture collection.
TV: What are some of the most popular items in your line among the younger demographic?
AD: I'm seeing that many young people would rather own a few spectacular items instead of many low-quality pieces. There has been a surge of young women saving up to wear our designs to their first formal events, be they a Sweet 16 party or a friend's wedding. Our couture lehengas win the hearts of those seeking tradition, but luxurious evening gowns are also becoming very popular.
TV: What challenges do women often face in the design world as they strive to develop and expand their own clothing brands? Have things improved over the course of your design career?
AD: Things have improved dramatically for women in the design world. In fact, conditions have improved dramatically for women in India across most industries. Today many employers are providing equal rights to their female employees, and more parents are raising their children to expect equality. Even the ad campaigns that fill our magazines and airwaves are flooded with positive messages of empowerment.
The single greatest challenge for entrepreneurs today is the breadth of knowledge they must possess. That's why mentors are so valuable. In the design world, entrepreneurs need to be experts not only in design, but also in production, operations, leadership, and financial processes like securing loans, accounting, and cash flow management. No matter how much things improve, it'll always be a challenge to build a brand.
TV: How should the industry evolve to create more opportunities for women working in fashion at every level, from production to leadership roles?
AD: The Indian government is actually doing a lot to support women in every industry. Specifically, they recently passed a rule requiring six months of fully paid maternity leave. Companies are also working hard to improve opportunities for women in the workplace. In many ways, I think that fashion has become a stronger industry for women, especially over the past three to four years. When I think about the major brands and retailers in India, quite a few of them are now led by women.