Anita Dongre talks to Avenue T about the future of fashion
One of the side effects of the pandemic bringing the world to a halt is that there is time to pause and reflect on important issues. This is a chance for us to examine our patterns and perhaps change our practices for better. Even before this decade kicked off with the black swan event, the global fashion industry was under serious heat for offences ranging from a giant carbon footprint, to exploitation of workers, to cases of cultural appropriation and more. With fast fashion taking up all the oxygen in the conversation, it was getting harder and harder to listen to those promoting good practices and sustainable, socially conscious ways of wearing one’s culture.
With the cacophony on mute, we are now finally able to tune into those important voices as a way of finding a harmonious way forward. Representing our corner of the globe, Anita Dongre is a name that really needs no introduction. A truly global South Asian icon, she has dressed celebrities and royals, and has always championed the artisans and the rich cultural heritage of India. Avenue T was fortunate enough to be able to catch up with this iconic designer for a quick chat.
We are absolutely in love with your latest Grassroot collection! We know sustainability has been a driving force in your design sensibilities for a long time, but has the current global situation informed the designs in any way?
Grassroot began five years ago as a true labour of love. A love which is rooted in reviving interest in our heritage crafts, and at the same time empowering the artisans who place their decades-old expertise behind every stitch, and embroidery. It’s gratifying to see that what started out as a brand ideology for us is now becoming an industry standard; think local, shifts towards sustainability, empowering local artisans are now becoming mainstream conversations. This has only confirmed why Grassroot’s journey is so important, and our current global scenario hasn’t altered our design principles in the least. We only intend on perfecting our collection with each new release and continue protecting the artisans who are the most vulnerable.
We laud you in being amongst the first designers to pivot to the production of cotton masks, both as a safety measure, as well as a way to protect the artisans you work with. How has the response been? Do you see protective gear retaining mainstream popularity in a post-pandemic world?
All of the masks produced at our community tailoring centres are donations made to the government agencies and NGOs in the area. When the requests initially stated coming in, it is the women from these centres who volunteered to help out. It is thanks to them that we are now close to the one lakh mark in mask production.
Our community tailoring centres were set up four years ago in rural Maharashtra in partnership with the local governments where we help skill women in stitching and sewing, and empower them to lead a more financially independent life. It is these women who have now stepped up to serve their community.
Take us behind the scenes of your virtual trunk show! What were the challenges of pulling off this amazing feat in these crazy times? How has the response been?
Even under normal circumstances, Trunk Shows are an exciting time for us. Our clients are keen to glimpse at what we have to showcase and discover something new for their wardrobes. With COVID bringing all public events to a halt, including the trunk shows we had planned for May-June in the USA, we decided to gear our passions towards recreating the magic of our brick-and-mortar shows in the digital space. There is no better time to embrace digital opportunities, and for us the response from it was extremely encouraging.
The shock waves currently rippling through the fashion and apparel industries make it more urgent than ever to take those steps towards more sustainable, eco-friendly practices and reach that closed-loop fashion, but this obviously has to happen across the board for any meaningful change to occur. Given that the present circumstances are driving consumers and retailers alike to seek local sources, what does regional cooperation look like?
The “we are in this together” sentiment is a unifying feeling, and has in fact brought the industry closer. Now is the time to look out for one another, discard and replace practices that are unsustainable for the future, empower our artisans with gainful, sustainable livelihoods and nurture our heirloom crafts to keep alive our vibrant art and textile culture. Given that the art and handicraft sector is the second largest generator of employment after agriculture, championing artisans will have ripple effects not just locally but nationally as well. Government and private bodies must come together to ensure artisans are provided and cared for as we move forward.
Given that the global economy has taken a hit and affordability is an issue, how do designers and retailers plan to balance the ability to pay their artisans and workers, with providing affordable fashion for the cash-strapped clientele? How do we democratize fashion in a way that is sustainable?
It has been a tough balancing act, especially given that we have been under lockdown for the past four months. For us, it was imperative that the artisans who operate from home are being given a steady flow of work in order for them to maintain an income. Which is what we began with when we were given the go-ahead to re-open our design headquarters.
Our clients have valued the principles behind our clothes just as much as they value the clothes themselves. In the near future, we will only see this sentiment expanding. Spending will become more purpose-driven, people on the whole may shop for fewer products but would want to ensure that the products they invest in mirrors their own values. In order to strike a balance between sustainability and affordability, I recommending relooking at the policies that define your operations. One that has sustainability at its core will tend to be the one that favours all its stakeholders, including the customers.
Can we expect to see a greater Anita Dongre presence in Bangladesh soon?
If all things work out, I look forward to having a store in Bangladesh. Our Kolkata Flagship Store has received so much love and appreciation from our Bangladeshi clients that it would only make me happy to bring my own influences into Bangladesh’s vibrant culture.