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Photos: Grassroot

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The Clothing Designer Bringing Traditional Indian Crafts to the US

Anita Dongre started Grassroot to keep handcrafted clothing alive.

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Designer Anita Dongre opened her first US store, Grassroot, in July in New York City’s Soho neighborhood — and just three weeks later, back in India, she debuted a new high-end collection at Couture Week in Delhi. “It’s always busy in fashion,” she says when we speak on the phone. And while things are particularly hectic for Dongre — she runs a fashion empire, after all — what keeps her particularly active is a commitment to working with artisans from villages in India to ensure their craftsmanship doesn’t get erased.

Dongre started Grassroot almost a decade ago, though her first brick-and-mortar store only opened less than three years ago. Now, there are two in Delhi and two in Mumbai, in addition to the new Soho location, and each makes the line’s central tenet clear: Grassroot exists to support India’s artisan clusters and their traditions.

Across India, the art of weaving and embroidery is dying off, and Grassroot works with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other organizations like Self Employed Women’s Assocation, a trade union, to sustain the crafts.

A woman artisan in India
An artisan in Maheshwar

As the younger generation loses interest in the art, Dongre works with women artisans from villages across India and does what she calls “design intervention” — she helps them apply their talents to make more contemporary clothes, “recreating designs and color combinations” from traditional Indian garments for a modern, global shopper. “These skills are so valuable, and are passed down generation to generation,” she says.

While the designer — a household name in India — boasts three other brands that range from South Asian bridal couture to everyday dresses and other “boho-chic” clothing, Dongre explains that Grassroot has a different business model, “in the sense that it creates collections mainly to provide work to the artisans.” She and her design team go to the (literal) drawing board and sketch out ideas; from there, whenever they identify artisans that need work, they amend the designs to suit the group’s skills.

“The beauty is working within those parameters of what the artisan can do with the craft,” she says. “And then bringing in a completely new fashion, style, and contemporary feel to it to make beautiful clothes that women will enjoy — with the added bonus that it’s all handwoven or handcrafted. “

Here, she talks more about how she incorporates traditional designs into her collections, the importance of comfort in fashion, and what’s coming up next.

Grassroot is about reviving and sustaining artisan craftwork from all over India. Collaborating with so many different groups of artisans sounds logistically challenging. How does it work, in practice?

We have very small lines of production right now, because making things by hand is slow. For the US market, we just make 12 to 20 pieces per design, because the process takes a long time. I’d like to increase it and work with more artisan groups, but we don’t want to overpromise.

Every group does a different craft, or does a craft in a different way. Weaving, embroidery, and bandhani, a tie-and-dye art made by plucking tiny knots in a fabric to create a design, are common traditions across India that we use in Grassroot designs, but no style or technique or way of stitching is the ever same across villages.

We have 29 states and so many more languages. And the number of languages we have, we have that many crafts. So every season there are different Grassroot collections, each made by different artisans.

How do you translate the traditional craftwork for a modern New York audience that’s always looking for the next trend?

I keep the designs very timeless and classic. I have a simple indigo shirt in white, black, and blue, and it’s just got this beautiful silk-on-silk embroidery. I have shift dresses; I’ve really done silhouettes that women will want to own. They’re relevant, but they’re not a fad of the moment.

A colorful rack of clothing
The Soho store

The clothing is simple: You will wear it and treasure it, and I don’t think you will ever throw it out or give it away. It’s got a very, very classic style; I want the styles to be timeless. I want the designs to be something that are easy to wear, that are comfortable, and that make you feel good — not just something you wear for the moment.

I brought the store to New York because a New York woman will truly appreciate these handwoven and handcrafted traditions.

What do you hope that your collection and your new store can show Americans about India?

It’s about Americans seeing the beauty of Indian crafts — and that’s the exact response I’ve gotten. People have walked in off the street and have said Grassroot is so different and that they’ve never seen anything like it, but at the same time they relate to it because they can pick up a dress and it’s something they can wear and walk right out of the store with.

I want people to walk in and discover the artisan handiwork. I want people to realize every garment has a beautiful story. I want them to love what we wear and wear it with love, and look after it and continue buying hand-crafted traditions, because otherwise they’ll disappear.

A woman weaving
Durga, a weaver

What about the next generation? How do you focus on growing and mentoring inside the industry?

I think, in my country, there’s a new surge of everyone wanting to do something to revive the craft, because now we’re all feeling that if we don’t do something, the craft will die out with this generation. I’ve always said that this is not the job of any one designer or one fashion house — it has to be a collective movement. And the movement has begun in India, and most of the young designers today are so keen and so excited to work with revival of craft. A lot of them are opting to do that. That’s a step in the right direction.

Even the Indian consumer is going through a sense of pride and an awareness to wear the craft, so Grassroot has been successful in India too because we all feel this need to hold on to what we have, because we might lose it forever otherwise. What we have is just so priceless. There’s no other country in the world that has such a rich legacy of textile as India does.

People have been calling you the queen of pret [or ready-to-wear clothing]. How do you balance that with your couture lines?

I love it. Both are part of our lives. Pret is a part of my own personal life — I wear Grassroot every day. And couture and bridal are something so important to Indians because we love weddings and celebrations, and we love dressing up. I use craft in both, and I enjoy doing both. When you design a couture garment, it’s this fantasy — you can put anything on it, and any amount of embroidery, and it’s more larger than life. And with pret, you’re looking for design solutions, something you’re able to wear every day while still wearing hand-crafted design. I find both exciting.

I very much believe that bridal wear should be about comfort, and today’s young woman is equally keen on being comfortable and looking great. So my bridal lenghas are very lightweight and have pockets. I practice gota patti on all my lenghas, which is a very lightweight craft that looks beautiful. Bridal wear doesn't have to be overdone; it can be simple and beautiful and elegant, and that’s what I do.

What’s next for you in the US?

Just starting this store has been overwhelming. I wanted to come and do this one store without thinking much more beyond it, but I would be happy to have a bigger online presence in the US, so I’m working on making sure the website works well from a customer service viewpoint. And I’ll see where this takes me.

I’d like to open another store in the US by summer of next year, but right now I have my hands full with this one [Ed note: Dongre will be launching bridalwear in the New York store in the next few months as well] and getting the next collection out, and getting to know my artisans closer. It’s always busy in fashion. You try to do it better every day, and that’s what I’m doing.

Sonia Chopra is Eater’s managing editor. You can subscribe to Namaslay, her newsletter about South Asian culture, here.


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