India’s Favorite Designer Makes a Bid for Western Acclaim


The Grassroot collections combine contemporary silhouettes, such as a strappy dress ($335), a drawstring top ($95) or a billow-sleeved shirt in blush pink ($225), with traditional techniques, such as bandhani, a tie and dye method used for creating patterns, jamdani, a way of weaving on the loom, or Chikankari embroidery.

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Catherine, the duchess of Cambridge, wearing a dress by Ms. Dongre, during a royal visit to Mumbai in 2016.

“We grew up in this environment having handicrafts available,” Mr. Dongre said of customers in India, “so we take them for granted. People are more price conscious. They don’t care about the stories. In the U.S., we can price it at a premium, and that won’t make it inaccessible.”

Ms. Dongre, 53, a fast talker and vegetarian who keeps to a strict 9 p.m. bedtime no matter where she is, began designing for herself when she was 15. Though born and raised in Mumbai, she spent her summers in Jaipur, India, and would work with local artisans to customize outfits, bangles and mojari (a type of shoe).

“I came from a traditional family where good little girls didn’t work,” Ms. Dongre said. “They studied and got married. When I chose my career path, it was actually quite shocking to my parents. The only reason they allowed me to learn stitching and embroidery was, they said, ‘Oh, that will be a good attribute when we go to the arranged marriage.’”

She studied design at SNDT Women’s University in Mumbai, despite her family’s reservations, and began working immediately after graduation. In 1995, she started her company with the help of her sister, Meena Sehra. From the early years, Ms. Dongre incorporated artisanal techniques into her work, using block-printing, embroidery and more. But in the last few years, her perspective on the value of these traditions has deepened.

“At that time, I worked with it because I liked the craft,” she said. “Now I’m working with it, 25 years later, because the artisans are dwindling, and the next generation doesn’t know the techniques. I’m realizing the craft may die.”

Ms. Dongre conceived of Grassroot about 10 years ago but kept it on the back burner because of time constraints. “I kept saying I would make Grassroot big one day,” she said.

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One of Ms. Dongre’s dresses.

Two and a half years ago, she decided to meet with members of the Self-Employed Women’s Association, a trade union in the Indian state Gujarat. “I realized I could not keep wasting time” Ms. Dongre said. She opened the first Grassroot store in August 2015 and has worked with the association since, as well as with a nongovernment group called Women Weave to produce handmade pieces in limited quantities with artisans across India.

“I have come to the stage where I’m questioning everything,” she said. “One thing on my bucket list is to record my grandmother’s recipes. She had a repertoire of 200 recipes. My mom has 100. Out of those 100 I know 25.” She added: “Whether it’s losing out on your grandmother’s recipes or your culture or artisan techniques, I suppose when you get older, you think back: ‘What am I doing to preserve that? What am I doing with the environment and saving it for the next generation?’”

The new store is part of her answer. “It takes courage,” she said. But, “The handcrafted traditions of India really need a global platform, and New York is the best place to start.”

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