ANITA DONGRE and MEENA SEHRA are not only sisters but business partners as well. We talk with the duo about the perks of working with each other and why the world would benefit from more women partnerships
Picture this: in 1995, two sisters armed with two sewing machines started a womenswear company from the balcony of their bedroom. That initiative has grown to be House of Anita Dongre that is a culmination of AND, Global Desi, Anita Dongre Bridal Couture, Anita Dongre Grassroot, and Anita Dongre Pink City. Over 1.6 million people follow the official Anita Dongre account on Instagram today, women aspire to wear her lehengas on their wedding day, and entrepreneurs – both men and women – want to learn the designer’s trade secrets. The trick, we learn from the mavericks, is melding your individual imaginations into a crucible of genius and growing together. We talk to Anita Dongre, Chief Creative Officer, and Meena Sehra, President: Product Design, Merchandising and Innovation, and learn about their relationship as sisters and business partners, a collaboration that has paved the way for legions of women entrepreneurs in the country.
How did you come to decide that you wanted to start your own clothing line?
Anita Dongre: After graduating from fashion school, I worked for two years; first, with the royal family of Dhrangadhra that was making high-fashion garments, and later with an export house. During the two years I was working, Meena joined the same fashion school.
I would teach there once a week, and it was often awkward to teach the same class your younger sister was in!
When Meena graduated, I gave up the job, and we started our label together from our bedroom balcony. Starting a label had been on my mind since graduating from college. I am grateful I worked those two years, though. The experience was as important as a college education. There were so many ideas in my head – I started the business when I was still studying in college. During the three-month summer break, I put together a collection of a hundred garments with a couple of friends from college. We did two major exhibitions that required us to work on them throughout the year. So, in that sense, I was already an entrepreneur.
Meena, were you involved in the label from the very beginning? What was your role when you started?
Meena Sehra: When I graduated from college, I was very sure that I didn’t want to take up a job anywhere else because we had decided that we would start ourselves.
So I started immediately. The day after I left college, we started brainstorming, procured fabrics, got the tailors organised, and just started. In the beginning, Anita and I would do everything together until we started getting volume orders on our designs. Then I gradually shifted to the production side of the business.
Did the brand always make couture bridal wear?
AD: We had started designing bridal wear very early in our career when we were still in an unorganised set-up; we were supplying pieces to other stores that would place orders with us. Our first brand was AND, followed by Global Desi. We started Anita Dongre Bridal Couture as recently as 10 years ago.
Was it difficult being women designers and entrepreneurs when you started?
AD: Back in the day, we weren’t considered real designers. Designing was considered a hobby. But, for us, it was never a hobby. Even when we worked out of our bedroom balcony, we had the same strong work ethic. We were complete professionals who would start our work at 9 am and finish at 7 pm and seldom take any breaks. It was a time when travelling by air was not as easy as today. So, we would take the Rajdhani (Express) to Delhi carrying suitcases with our orders. I remember Meena’s first time. “It is so overwhelming,” she said to me.
MS: It was a complete culture shock! Most of the stores we supplied to had men at their helm. They were amused to see a woman walking in with heavy suitcases.
AD: We never felt for a minute that we were women entrepreneurs. We ran our business most professionally. People didn’t understand our passion, ambition or our commitment. I was considered too ambitious – it was frowned upon those days. It was unladylike. Society always wants to fit you into stereotypes and doesn’t like it when you break them, you know?
Do you believe that women designers today have it relatively easier?
AD: Yes! Now is the time to be a woman entrepreneur in India. Women are being encouraged to go out and achieve their dreams, and families are supporting them. We came from a time when our parents didn’t want us to work so hard. We were asked to stop many, many times in our careers.
You’re partners and sisters. What are the perks of working together?
AD: I can’t express how blessed I feel to have Meena in my life. We’ve always worked together, but, for the last two years, we’ve also lived together in a fully sustainable home about half an hour from the headquarters in Navi Mumbai that we co-own. I am a creative person, often forgetful, who lives in her world, and she’s very grounded, organised and systematic. She’s everything that I am not. So we’re a great combination.
MS: Anita has been very kind with her words. She is a visionary. I think where we are today is because of her vision, and it’s been a journey making that vision come true. As a person, I’m someone who is happy in her space and very content, and Anita always aspires to be more. And that has always pushed me to achieve more.
Would you say you have creative differences?
AD: So, I’ll tell you a secret: I trust Meena’s aesthetic more than mine. Anything I create goes to her, and she signs off on it. She’s also the official buyer in the company. I might be the designer, but she decides what goes into the stores, and I trust her instincts 200%!
What do you think about creative partnerships between women? Would you encourage more women to come together and support each other’s visions?
AD: Absolutely! You know, women can rule the world if they come together. For instance, look at us! Armed with two sewing machines, a dream, a vision and a lot of determination, we built a company where we’ve hired over two thousand people and supported so many families.
MS: As Anita said, we can shoulder responsibilities together. As women, sometimes, we are not taken seriously, and it is nice to have somebody else to fight the battle together.
AD: It’s also great to have the same perspective. You know, you have your marriages and kids, and it’s great to have a partner who understands you and supports you. Partnerships between women are so rewarding in that way. Your challenges are the same and so are the victories.
How would you sum up the years of working together with each other?
AD: It has been a fantastic journey with still so many years to go.
MS: I feel the same.
What is next for the House of Anita Dongre? What can we expect in the future?
MS: There’s a lot in store.
AD: There’s a lot coming from the two of us. We are two women together, remember?
Also Read: Two Halves And A Whole: Our Favourite Women Partnerships In Fashion