The Fabindia fit


The Fabindia fit

Elasticity is not frequently used to describe retail brands. Yet often, elasticity—the ability to change with times, mirror customer needs, expand, remain profitable and relevant without losing what some call “the soul”—is what turns a label into a cult brand. Fabindia is a cult brand. It was founded by John Bissell, an employee of American export house Far Eastern Fabrics, who came to India as adviser to the Cottage Industries Emporium on a Ford Foundation Grant. Fabindia began in 1960 first as a corporation in Connecticut, US, for the “development of handloom and handicraft fabrics made in India for sale in the US and other export markets”. The company, more like an institution, is now 56. At the end of 2016, it stands on the cusp of introducing a transformative retail experience. Or what its current managing director, William Bissell (John’s son) calls the “next revolution”. This is also the year when global private equity firm L Capital (now L Catterton) sold its 8% stake in the company. In the four years from 2012, it aided Fabindia in scaling up like a global brand.

Three-thousand employees and the annual turnover rising tenfold in the last 10 years (sales turnover was around Rs911 crore in 2015-2016) notwithstanding, William describes Fabindia exactly as his late visionary father perhaps would have: “An Indian brand where the company’s values resonate with people’s own. A brand that helps people define themselves.”

This is indeed Fabindia’s raison d’etre. Its Indian-ness, its crafts-based identity resides in purpose as much as look, in meaning as much as in material; in imagery, in its diverse supply chain, in the public-private partnership model of business. Indigo, for instance, is not just a vegetable-dyed range of merchandise at Fabindia, it’s a sub narrative of the brand interpreting Indian crafts. If Fabindia’s Indian-ness had only been about style, it may not have plodded on despite the wars India fought, Emergency, economic downturns as well as reforms in markets and consumer behaviour. Or even the impact of Bollywood, global and local fashion, and online shopping in the last decade and more. In 2007, Fabindia became a case study for Harvard Business School (HBS), put together by the school’s assistant professor Mukti Khaire.

Today, Fabindia stores are larger and vitally different in merchandise as well as interiors, especially their new design studios, from what they were even five years back. The giftware is innovative, the furniture functional as well as whimsical, the upholstery prints impressionistic yet modern. There are new diaphanous Chanderi weaves, but you can still find a certain zigzag print in curtain cloth that you saw 10 years back. These stores communicate to well-informed shoppers and travellers, while reminding them about tangible possibilities of creating an Indian home with Indian goods. Fashion segments have changed enormously and while there is a lot of “variety”, that ubiquitous term used by shoppers, Fabindia fashion does not stand out as distinct. Regardless of the changes, most Fabindia stores exude a certain comforting familiarity.

Kurta, culture, kursi (chair), kapda—these words may sum up that resonating identity. Like the wooden door handle to Fabindia’s first flagship store in Delhi’s Greater Kailash market, which is still a panel of framed indigo block prints as it was the day the store first opened. In Radhika Singh’s 2010 book, The Fabric Of Our Lives: The Story Of Fabindia, there is a fond reference to Delhi Homespun cotton (trademarked), mentioned in a letter to John’s parents in 1960. One of the company’s first ever products, it sold out continuously for 50 years after it was first stocked. A number of other signature fabrics and dhurries still remain best-sellers at Fabindia.

That also leads to the inevitable, midlife question: How relevant is Fabindia today? Is it a homage-worthy part of India’s post-independence legacy like Amul, Doordarshan, Khadi Bhandar, Bata, Ambassador car and Bajaj scooter? Is it a habitual comfort zone for locals and a must-visit store for foreign tourists? Given the competition, where does it stand in sizing, pricing, quality, variety, online positioning, retail experience, modernity—concerns that continue to emerge in discussions about Fabindia?

“People will always have questions about iconic, loved brands. There will always be bi-polar commentary. Some will say it should become hipper, younger. Others will expect it to stay the course,” says designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee.

Fabindia has been doing both, adding bulk and diversity over the years. While it started with exporting handmade fabrics (literally fabrics of India), the Fabindia Khadi shirt, made of Khadi from Khadi Gramodyog Bhavan, was introduced in 1978. The Khadi kurta arrived soon after. Cotton pyjamas made from soft mill-spun cotton to complement the kurtas joined later. Unlike the coloured Khadi Bhandar kurtas priced under Rs100, trend-setting in their own way and symbols then of a left-wing identity, the Fabindia Khadi kurtas were unisex and stood for taste and artsy elitism. They were the chosen garments of the English educated artists, writers, feminists, a select band of politicians and smart Delhiites or the “India International Centre crowd”, as some may say, who wanted to look distinctive. Outside it, the retail environment was a tadpole pond anyway in the 1970s and 1980s—few things to buy, even less money to buy them and nowhere to go. It was “Indira’s India” or the India of the Hindu rate of growth.

Today identity is about attention-seeking projection, both in dressing and rhetoric. The kurta has gone from left to right, while handspun Khadi, unlike its humble avatar in post-Nehruvian India, has become an elite fabric. Shopping is spurred by global fast fashion brands, online buying and sales, contrasted by surges of minimalism and renewed interest in the handmade. No one product, no one store is definitive of this explosion.

The “Fabindia person” too has become an itinerant, experimental shopper. The brand still has staunch loyalists but they are fewer, they migrate in and out of other brands, including global fast-fashion labels. The younger customer is undoubtedly a mix-and-match artist—who blends Indian bohemia with Western cool; indigo-dyed deconstructed harem pants with faux leather boots from H&M, a Zara crop top with a Fabindia block-printed ankle skirt.

Also, if the “India story” made Fabindia unique in the decades of John Bissell, today a number of lifestyle and fashion brands have inked “India” into their tag lines.

“In a nutshell, the sentiment about Fabindia is that it is indeed a cult brand. Founded on a hugely influential idea and worthy of admiration, it connected and formed bridges balancing internal beliefs with external realities, focusing as much on supply as on the demand side, reflecting the sense of self of its creators as well as defining a story,” says social commentator Santosh Desai, the managing director of Future Brands. Desai says he is a Fabindia believer and customer. “Fabindia grew organically, leveraging assets, pushing buttons, expanding geographically,” he says. “However, often belief-led brands, which argue for consistency of values and inclusivity, begin to follow the footsteps of what they perceive are customer needs instead of leading the change in the market,” says Desai.

Most agree that Fabindia initially led the retail market. Shilpa Sharma, co-founder of crafts and design-based portal Jaypore, who quit Fabindia in 2009 after a 12-year stint in store operations and then buying and merchandising, calls the company “a legacy”. She also credits the now trendy aesthetic of mix-and-match separates (kurtas, churidars, dupattas, shawls, stoles, bandhgalas) to Fabindia, a trend that continues to dominate mass brands from Westside,W and Biba to Max Lifestyle and Pantaloons.

Fabindia’s primary product categories today are garments and home followed by jewellery, organic foods (Organic India is a subsidiary of Fabindia) and personal care, and it includes occasion, festive wear and fusion garments for teens and children. In 2014, it launched Fabels, a Western fashion line for men and women. Fabels is hardly an outstanding Fabindia milestone but the company’s home lines, including the recently launched Interior Design Service (IDS), are big statements. They retain an authentic crafts appeal, are designed with purpose, and use responsible materials.

The multiplication of Fabindia stores though is another story. The first store opened in N block of Delhi’s Greater Kailash in 1976, 16 years after the company was founded in a warehouse office in Golf Links. That was the only store till 1994. After that one store was added every year, starting with a destination store in Bengaluru followed by one in Mumbai’s Kalaghoda district. Twelve stores opened in 2005 and 21 in 2012. Last year, 25 stores were opened across the country and 30 this year. Today it has 226 stores in 87 Indian cities and 10 abroad in Rome, Dubai, Malaysia, Mauritius, Singapore, Nepal and Dallas in the US.

Sharma, who witnessed Fabindia’s expansion to tier 2 and tier 3 cities, says it came at a cost. “Sometimes there is a choice between attention to ramping up your geographical footprint and attention to fine tuning quality of your offerings. It is all an outcome of priorities and choices,” says Sharma.

Choices that are rued by former devotees like Bappaditya Biswas of the Kolkata handloom brand bai lou. Biswas only wore Fabindia in his growing-up years. “I do believe with my own experience of working exclusively with handmade that expansion is a question mark when it comes to crafts-based brands. Ultimately it leads to corporatization which then harms both sides—craftspeople and the brand,” says Biswas. “Quality is not as important for craftspeople as it is for us who work with them. Most craftsmen weave and work for employment. To inculcate passion for quality in them takes patience but it stunts production. When you hurry them up, the quality of dyes and fabric suffers.”

There are divergent views. Fabindia’s big expansion came with L Capital’s private equity investment in 2012. William feels that L Capital taught them to scale up like global brands do, while understanding their DNA. Ravi Thakran, the managing partner and chairperson of L Catterton Asia, says there is no company in India that has kept its focus towards its root cause like Fabindia. “It provides half-a-million livelihoods without exploiting artisans. It is a story of great success, an experience we would like to repeat,” says Thakran, adding that no brand can live just in its glory and Fabindia too will have to address tomorrow’s customer. “It must carry India with itself,” says Thakran.


Two aspects stand out in considered opinions on Fabindia. One, it is really hard to criticize the company, forget about passing it over as a has-been brand. Even those who are sceptical about its fashion segments and fits say they continue to buy from its home and lifestyle departments. Two: Its unique supply chain—Fabindia works with 55,000 artisans across the country, including those in remote Naxalite-affected areas—remains unparalleled in the world. The company works with a large number of organizations like the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), Rangasutra, Dastakaar Andhra, Rehwa Textiles, Pochampally Handloom Park Ltd, to name just a few. As India’s largest private platform for products that are made from traditional techniques, skills and hand-based processes, it is a model enterprise even today. Besides access to markets, the inputs it provides to its suppliers include design, training, access to capital, yarn and raw material. Also, Fabindia never puts out seasonal sales or discount offers.

Gita Ram, co-founder of Industree, an artisanal enterprise, and the chairperson of Crafts Council India, says the ideological customer doesn’t understand that reaching out to artisans and weavers on the one hand and running retail,on the other, is not easy. “It’s not a simple question of handmade versus powerloom,” says Ram, who believes that Fabindia continues to reinvent itself. “Fabindia has created benchmarks in India unlike any other company. It brings products from remote areas, and offers standardization. It is still the leader in public-private partnerships while offering roti, kapda, makaan to consumers,” she adds.

Fabindia carries the Craft Mark or Organics labels where applicable, but nowhere does it claim that everything it sells is handmade. It can’t: The challenge of machine-made textiles exists as much for Fabindia as any other retailer. So in a chikankari-embroidered kurta, for instance, the tag details the hand embroidery but doesn’t claim that the base fabric is handloom. Fabindia carries a series of such tags on garments to explain the origin of a particular craft or textile, materials and dyes used and the technique—from Gudris (quilted coverlets from Gujarat) to Batik, Chanderi, Ikat or Kalamkari.

Uniquely, while Fabindia echoes the ideas of its founding father, it is not family-owned. William’s emphasis on decentralized and democratic leadership is persistent and unwavering. Desai however makes an important point. While arguing that the Fabindia customer of yesterday has changed and may want more storytelling, more diversity and fluidity of look than just being a “Fabindia person”, it is not entirely clear who Fabindia the brand is speaking to today or what are its impulses.

Besides, if competition indeed is a threat, there is enough brewing online. From specialized Indian brands like, to ethnicwear shelves on Myntra, Jabong, Amazon fashion and furniture brands like Pepperfry, there is a huge market out there. Fabindia’s online presence may have to be radically reinvented to be a market leader online.


Solutions spring up in many conversations. Darshan Mehta, president and CEO of Reliance Brands, feels Fabindia must contemporize its DNA, go after the young consumer even before it chases e-commerce, while Biswas feels it needs to identify what is exclusive and not available anywhere else. “They should stop sourcing from places which are accessible to many traders in the business,” he says.

Sabyasachi suggests a strategic rethink for Fabindia between being a purist brand and a younger, cooler, contemporary one. “They should restart a section called Fabindia Pure, stocking old classics and target it towards a smaller customer base of influencers. The rest can consist of its evolving collections.”

Till early next year, when the company unfurls its new retail scenario, Fabindia will remain what Singh calls it in her book. “A brand bigger than the company that created it.”