Like the Jensen and Nicholson ad, that for the iconic Fabindia chain of stores could be, whenever you see fabric, think of us. Except, of course, that the store today stocks everything from the ubiquitous kurtas, to home accessories, to furnishings to organic food. In fact, so pervasive has been the influence of the store started by that visionary extraordinaire John Bissell, an idealist American, that this writer has often gone to people’s homes only to find my Fabindia kurta matching their bedcovers and sometimes, much to my chagrin, their curtains. But, it really is ‘The Fabric of our Lives’, the title of the book on the evolution of Fabindia by Radhika Singh.
The story of Fabindia is also the story of the prescience of Bissell, who saw the potential of Indian fabrics and who had a burning desire to help the neglected weavers who spun such magnificent tales of splendour on the multifarious variety of cloth that India has to offer. From being ‘wide-eyed in Wonderland’, as his friend Patwant Singh who owned a design magazine put it, John put Indian fabrics on the world map. Today, no tourist goes away from India without at least one piece of clothing or accessory from Fabindia.
Though the brand did amazingly well, it was never John’s desire to solely make profits, a vision carried on by his son William today. The book meanders through John’s discovery of India and his zealous efforts to promote the colours of India. His tender romance with Bim, who later becomes his wife, is engagingly dealt with by Radhika. It was a marriage of equals built on love and respect.
As he goes through the Byzantine Indian bureaucracy to set up more and more shops, John also recounts his experiences of a turbulent time in India’s history, namely the Emergency. Never judgmental, nevertheless he’s disturbed by the turn of events.
It was John who was able to foresee the potential of fabrics like ikat, something that proved a bestseller. Though immensely successful, Bissell never gave his children any sense of entitlement. As his daughter Monsoon says, “Everything in life is not a right, it is a privilege.” The brand never has, and with William at the helm, never will stray far from its artisanal roots, the unique selling point of the business. It was William who added the furniture line and the organic food products. With its loyal client base, the success of the add-ons was a given. However, William left nothing to chance, tackling each new product with the zeal of a Michelin-star chef creating a new dish.
In its 50th year, it is a tribute to its founder John Bissell that a Fabindia share bought in 1977 for R5,000 is worth R1.6 crore today. From three people at its inception, there are 850 employees today. A grand story if there ever was one.
Radhika does a fine job of painstaking research. But such a colourful story about colourful personalities is diminished by the rather dry and factual narration. If the book errs, it’s on the side of caution by including far more detail than we need to know. But for those of us who have grown from small sizes to extra large ones in Fabindia clothes and whose homes were able to take on a faintly sophisticated hue on unsophisticated budgets, we are forever in the debt of Fabindia and its incredible founder John Bissell.