To assume a compromise in our quality is a sweeping statement: William Bissell


To assume a compromise in our quality is a sweeping statement: William Bissell

You will never see William Bissell, the managing director of Fabindia since 1999, on a style list, “most powerful” list or in stories that tell you where to travel, what to eat or buy. In fact, he is seldom seen or heard. He hasn’t been photographed in the last few years by any publication and his last print interview was in 2014. In an “exclusive” conversation at his Okhla office, Delhi, over home-cooked pasta, followed by what he termed the “world’s most expensive tea” from a gift set, he amiably took questions on Fabindia’s relevance and future vision. Edited excerpts from the interview.

How do you react to criticism from your customers?

Customers put a mirror in front of you. Everything that we have done in the last few years—whether it is with Home Linen, Fabels, which is our line of Western clothing, or Organics—has emerged from feedback. It has been about listening holistically to customers.

Everyone who looks at Fabindia must know that one of the challenges we consistently work on is developing and maintaining our complex supply chain. We work with artisans, often in remote areas, creating bridges and providing much-needed access to markets. Our kind of supply base is unique across the world.

Beyond profit, Fabindia’s mission is to follow other equally important objectives like creating livelihoods and markets for products and producer groups that might not have such access. With the kind of artisanal products we offer, many of our customers are aware of this and while they are philosophically aligned with us, some are not. After all, we have not centralized our manufacturing processes and moved them to Bangladesh or China. That’s not our mandate. We are not into green wash or white wash and we have been saying this long before these ideas and words entered common parlance.

How do you define Fabindia today?

Fabindia is an Indian-owned and controlled lifestyle brand. It gives people a place where the company’s values resonate with their own. It is a brand that helps people define themselves. That’s how Fabindia’s identity was when it was launched. The core remains the same. It helps people articulate their identity when they say, “I feel like a contemporary Indian”.

Have you been able to measure the impact of Fabindia’s social mission?

In developing our social mission we have received a lot of support from Premji Invest, whose teams have consistently supported out pursuit of the “triple bottom-line”. We have a balanced scorecard approach that measures other very well-defined parameters like livelihoods created, crafts sustained, development initiatives in “clusters”, along with the profits, sales and growth.

There are wider objectives beyond what the market purely dictates. It aligns with corporate social responsibility (CSR). People and companies have to look deep within themselves to ask what they are doing. Is what we do a mere stamp or is this improving our lives?

Fabindia has an entire range of Organics. But at a broader level, in the Indian market, what is your opinion on the excessive use of terms like organic and natural?

Organic Foods is based on a philosophy and backed by scientific research that shows that herbs, vegetables, grains and fruits that are grown in soils with organic and green manures, using natural and traditional methods of farming, have a significantly higher concentration of nutrients. The organic approach focuses on creating a healthy and diverse environment, with sustainability and local sourcing at its core. Customer involvement in the sustenance of such an approach is key.

Have growth and expansion had a detrimental effect on Fabindia? One of the criticisms your company faces is about quality being compromised because of growth.


Expansion has to be methodical, not breakneck. No company should shake under its own expansion. Expansion has urged a shift in our thinking. Growth can stress and strain an organization so expansion has to be in proportion to the growth. To assume a compromise in quality is a broad, sweeping statement because the nature of our supply chain is complex.

In what ways did the L Capital collaboration contribute to Fabindia?

L Capital sold their investment in Fabindia earlier this year. As an investor, they helped show us how global brands can be scaled up, and how different customers react to luxury, premium and boutique brands. They understand specialist brands and scale them to do extremely well. They also understood the DNA of Fabindia.

The megatrend of consumerism runs in three broad directions. Let me tell you an anecdote. I was in London and ran out of socks. I could easily find a pair for just £4 (around Rs340) at Uniqlo across the road. It is cheaper today to buy a new pair of socks than to get a worn pair laundered. This is where fast fashion or disposable fashion comes into play. Then there is the other side, brands like Armani. The luxury wearer now wears a mix (of mass and premium brands). Brands have to be differentiated, but the middle brands are the most under attack. That’s why we took a decision to go towards the premium segment in Fabindia. Premium, but one that reflects the skills of India and its traditions.

Who is competition for Fabindia? Do you even have competition?

Everyone has competition. I feel that there is a huge opportunity for a lot of brands in the Indian marketplace. Good competition helps us improve our standards, the value we give our customers and our service levels. Home-grown brands such as Manyavar, Anita Dongre and Urban Ladder, to name a few, have done a fantastic job in setting some great examples of what Indian brands can achieve.

Do you think brands that have a distinct Indian sensibility copy Fabindia?

No, I think they are original success stories in their own right. For instance, Shyam Ahuja made it chic to own a dhurrie in the 1980s and 1990s by showcasing dhurries as stylish home products. We benefitted from the way Shyam Ahuja popularized dhurries and yes, then we took dhurries to the middle class. This is a process. Brands benefit from the work done by other brands that have popularized a idea, a type of merchandise or a philosophy. They grow and improvise from there.

Fabindia’s fashion lines are the ones that find some critical feedback in the market.

There are broad fashion trends out there and we respond to them. But to be obsessed with fashion, that’s not our role.

What’s your vision for the coming years?

We believe there is global space for culturally relevant industries. People are open to these now in a way that they weren’t earlier. Brands like Paper Boat (which specializes in traditional Indian beverages) have done a terrific job in creating consumer demand and awareness for products inspired by local traditions. For us, the next revolution will go from physical transaction to retail as experience. It will be exciting to see how we reinvent ourselves.