Anita Dongre: “Designers can make a crucial difference in the sustainability conversation”

Anita Dongre: “Designers can make a crucial difference in the sustainability conversation”

Indian fashion’s senior most designer on the shift among women artisans and why international fashion brands have not been able to establish a firm foothold here 

On the sidelines of the Copenhagen Fashion Summit 2019 where she is a panelist, India’s top designer Anita Dongre speaks on the whirlpool of choices around sustainability and fashion

It is late afternoon in Copenhagen (Denmark), which is unusually cold and windy given that this is May, when Anita Dongre, one of India’s top designers descends down the elevator to the bustling lobby of Skt Petri hotel. Dressed in a plain black dress, black boots, without even the slightest hint of makeup, frills or jewellery, she allows the shine in her hair and eyes to accessorise her look.

Skt Petri, a posh address is also the hospitality venue for special guests and panelists who have arrived to participate in the 10th edition of the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, the annual sustainability conference organised by Global Fashion Agenda (a Danish non-profit organisation). Brands and businesses of all sizes, diverse groups of stakeholders, CEOs, thought leaders, designers, innovators and the media converge here once a year to explore and debate how they could make fashion more environmentally conscious and opt for sustainable solutions as a driver of growth.

Today, on May 15, the first day of the summit, Dongre, the chief creative officer of House of Anita Dongre—the only brand in India to have pushed the case for sustainability in a well-rounded and persistent manner—will be a part of a panel that discusses ‘Taking the Pulse of the Fashion Industry’. She is the only Indian speaking at the forum this year. Dongre’s co-panelists include Morten Lehmann, the chief sustainability officer of Global Fashion Agenda, a leadership forum for industry collaboration on sustainability, Sebastian Boger, from the Boston Consulting Group and Michael Preysman, founder and CEO of American retailer Everlane.

Here, Dongre keen to speak from the perspective of design and how that can lead towards a sustainability change, explains why the issue matters to her so much. Edited excerpts.

When the Copenhagen Fashion Summit 2019 invited you to be a panelist, what was your immediate response? Do you feel you owe it to your brand to be seen in forums like these?
I met Eva Kruse, the president and CEO of the Global Fashion Agenda in Davos (Switzerland) earlier this year. We connected on issues of sustainability and she invited me to participate. I am very happy to be here.

Taking the Pulse of the Fashion Industry—does this subject of the panel you are on, genuinely engage you?
I am a designer who thinks sustainably. For me, sustainability is really a lifestyle. I use it in fashion design, but also in lifestyle. Sustainability is everything that one does. I am aiming overall towards a more sustainable lifestyle but fashion is my profession. At the summit, I would like to speak from a designer view point; on how design can be made sustainable. Designers hold a lot of power and one of the questions we will be discussing tomorrow is how designers can make a crucial difference.


Model in a garment from Dongre’s sustainable label, Grassroot.


Back in India, while your brand Grassroot is clearly defined, the other brands Global Desi and AND will need a lot of directional work to go this route. Isn’t that so?
That process started more than a year ago. Devang Pandya is my sustainability officer and all our tie-ups are now about sustainability. The main collaboration you will hear about in a big way is with the Lenzing group. So both the brands—AND as well Global Desi are gradually moving towards sustainability.

Will that change their pricing and management?
Not really. May be a small amount but I think it will be negligible to the consumer.

Do you think the Indian consumer will soon be able to recognise a sustainable garment from the way it is made and designed or will she have to be informed or told?
I think customers are not so technically sound, they may not understand. That’s why these sustainability conferences are important. We should know how to communicate with customers, what we should tell them and that there should be honesty and transparency in that.

House of Anita Dongre is perhaps the only fashion house in India that looks at sustainability from a multi-dimensional perspective including working from a green building, worrying about composting garbage and the fact that you are a vegan yourself. Is it a struggle working from a home base where real conversion to sustainability may take a very long time?
I think the new generation is going to help change, they will want to buy from brands that are sustainable. Right now the awareness is dismally low but that should not stop top designers and individuals from doing what we are for the change. Someone has to start the change.


A training centre and production unit in Charoti village, Maharashtra, by The Anita Dongre Foundation set up to empower unskilled rural women.

There is no word in Hindi for sustainability. There are of course words about the right processes in manufacturing or sourcing but they haven’t been marked or recognised as “sustainability” vocabulary in languages other than English. How do you communicate with your craftspeople and your team on these issues?
The words that come to my mind are “achha hai”, sabke ke liye achha hai (it is good and it is good for all). Good for the planet, good for the people.

What are you looking forward to at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit?
Meeting a lot of like-minded people, looking forward to being a co-panelist with Michael Preysman of Everlane—I really like his work.