The Fabric of Our Lives: The Story of Fabindia by Radhika Singh
FabIndia is probably the best-known fabric/garment brand for middle-class India. It would not be an aberration to say that it almost defines the Indian middle-class look. From college goers to office workers to political leaders to city socialites, everyone can be spotted wearing FabIndia garments. They are distinctly Indian fabrics with a lot of modern-day styling, simple and yet elegant. There are many homes that have been completely designed using everything that FabIndia sells. Like the curtains, home linen, lampshades, and furniture. I have to admit that my own home and wardrobe are dotted with FabIndia products.
In last 10 years, this quintessential Delhi brand has become a national brand. And is aspiring to become international through its exquisitely designed stores and products. The company that was born 50 years ago as a handmade fabric exporter. Started its first retail store 35 years back. As the export markets opened up and buyers started dealing directly with the producers, FabIndia smoothly and smartly reversed its export retail mix and business is booming.
The book The Fabric of Our Lives is the story of FabIndia and the person behind it, John Bissell. It is a story of building a Greenfield industry where the small time weavers scattered in various small towns in India were linked to the world markets through FabIndia. The story of one man who went around India in search of various hand-woven fabrics. And who worked with the artisans to design the fabrics as per the western tastes to make them exportable. It is the story of someone who was working across three continents when it was not a norm. The story of an American who decided to make India or Delhi, to be specific, his home. And also gives you glimpses of post-independence Delhi.
It is the story of a man who sold his idea to his family and friends. And generated huge returns for them over the years. It is the story of his gathering a small team comprising mostly of women who ran his company like a family. It is the story of building long-lasting relationships that were professional but with a personal touch.
By the mid-nineties, the story of FabIndia had two major scene changes. One the Indian economy opened up. And it opened doors for buyers who could come to India and buy directly. Also opened up the producers who could reach out to the global markets on their own. The second was that John’s son William took over the operations of FabIndia. William focused on developing the retail business of FabIndia. He started opening multiple stores, starting with Delhi and Bangalore. After the success of initial stores, there were a series of stores opened in cities across the country. And all of them are running successfully. The business has increased manifold. And a new business model of Community owned companies has been launched to manage the scale of operations and to fuel the further growth.
The story is amazing. But the storytelling leaves a lot wanted. Though in the preface William Bissell says it is a story of people and do not look for any business models here. But at a lot of places, the book The Fabric of Our Lives just reads the order book of FabIndia. And there are numbers and numbers everywhere giving a sense that the company is completely number driven. And people are required only to drive those numbers. It could have been a biography of John Bissell, but the personal life and his thoughts have hardly been captured. The second half of the story, which is really a turnaround and growth story has been written in a rush. And hardly captures the essence of this huge change. Various letters, which could have been the stars of the story, have been haphazardly put through the book.
I think the author could have done a better justice to this remarkable story. Her lack of business understanding is evident. The author seems to be confused between doing a biography, a business book and simply writing a story about a brand.
Nonetheless, read this book The Fabric of Our Lives for the story of India’s favorite brand, which remains largely unknown to its wide consumer base.