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Home products on display at Fabindia’s outlet in Greater Kailash, New Delhi.
Home products on display at Fabindia’s outlet in Greater Kailash, New Delhi.

The Fabindia Story

For our 50th anniversary this year, SPAN is reprinting articles from past editions that reflect on issues we are reporting about today. For this issue focusing on business, we are reprinting these articles from September/October 1998 about Fabindia, which is also celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.


Economists, social historians and market researchers engaged in defining the Great Indian Middle Class are apt to lose themselves in a vast territory governed by approximate figures. The swelling numbers of such a class are elusive and its patterns of income and consumption much too variable: defining the nature of the beast, moreover, in terms of style and taste can be a waste of time. But if indicators must be found—and labels sought—then Fabindia would feature high on the list of trendsetting establishments that have shaped the way a prominent swathe of the urban Indian middle class dresses and furnishes its homes.

There cannot be many professionals in Indian cities who have not, at one time or another in the last 25 years, possessed either a Fabindia shirt, kurta, bed cover, dhurrie or napkin. More than any arriviste fashion dictator, social marketing whiz kid or aggressive foreign retail chain, Fabindia has defined the look of the Indian middle class. It has succeeded in doing so by adhering steadfastly, in four decades of planned growth, to principles of quality, fair pricing and customer satisfaction. But, above all, in its overriding commitment to provide work to thousands of village weavers and artisans, in more than a dozen states, who produce handwoven and handprinted fabrics, often solely for Fabindia. 

A couple of unusual aspects of the Fabindia success story distinguish it from other Indian export cum retail enterprises. Although it began in 1960 exclusively as an exporter of fabrics, Fabindia never went into direct manufacture. Without the draining costs of infrastructure and the encumbrance of labor unions, prices stayed low and profit margins were tight. Unlike many export houses in the formative decades of the 1970s and 1980s who burnt their fingers in retail markets, or grew so fast in exports that they grew out of touch, Fabindia’s retail business steadily overtook its exports. “In the late 1960s, if we managed to sell fabric worth Rs. 3,000 locally we considered it a boom month,” recalls Meena Chowdhury, who joined Fabindia’s American founder John Bissell as a part-time dogsbody on a salary of Rs. 150 a month in 1962 and is now a senior shareholding director in the company. Today, Fabindia’s total turnover is Rs. 250 million and its retail outlets continue to grow apace. 

Apart from the “parent body”—a nucleus of four famous shops in Greater Kailash market in south Delhi—and a three-storey outlet in the suburb of Vasant Kunj, Fabindia now has shops in Bangalore and Chennai. A 250-square-meter twin outlet opened in Pali Hill in Mumbai in September, taking Fabindia’s retail floor space to a total of nearly 2,230 square meters nationally. That was not the future Bissell could have imagined when he started his one-man export company in two small rooms adjoining his bedroom in his Golf Links flat. He called it Fabindia Inc. and incorporated the modest venture in his hometown of Canton, Connecticut, thousands of kilometers away. 

Two women provided the initial impetus that eased Fabindia’s birth and changed the direction of Bissell’s life. Not long after he came to India his grandmother died in Connecticut, leaving him a legacy of $20,000 that he used as start-up capital. And the day after he landed in Delhi he met Bim Nanda, whom he fell in love with and eventually persuaded to marry him, and who, in turn, persuaded him to stay on.

Two remarkable business partnerships, one Indian, the other British, also developed in the restless 1960s, as the sandyhaired American plowed through the dusty, small towns and villages of north India, knocking on doors, showing swatches to weavers and coaxing entrepreneurs to produce the flat weaves, pale colors and precise weights in handloom yardage and cotton carpets that he wanted. After many trial and error starts in Panipat—not then the boom town it is now—he forged a link with the Khera family, a connection that flourishes to this day. In 1964 he also met Terence Conran, progenitor of the Habitat chain that ushered in a furnishings revolution in Europe, who believed that Fabindia’s Bissell embodied the honesty and clarity of purpose to source the right materials out of India. 

Like any business venture, Fabindia was susceptible to the winds of sweeping political and economic change but it prospered by abiding by the rules. In 1975-76, at the height of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency regime, Fabindia was forced out of its second premises in a house on Mathura Road. Bim Bissell recalls that, later on, John would laugh and say that he owed Sanjay Gandhi thanks for effecting the rule that barred commercial establishments from operating in residential properties because that is what prompted Fabindia to open its first big showroom in Greater Kailash market. “It was my father’s belief that retail outlets should move to suburbs rather than the city center to service the needs of the newer and younger householders,” says William Bissell, John’s 32-year-old son, who has been pushing Fabindia’s growth in other cities since he joined the business and will soon be introducing a Fabindia line in children’s clothing.

In compliance with a Reserve Bank diktat of the early 1970s instructing foreign companies to reduce their foreign equity to 40 percent of the total, Bissell offered shares in Fabindia to close family members and associates. Madhukar Khera, son of a Punjabi refugee family resettled in Panipat who helped his father run a small, struggling carpet business, had decided early on to manufacture for Fabindia. When Bissell’s letter offering the shares came in 1976, Khera, by then a key figure in Fabindia’s success, bought them for Rs. 45,000. Today, he reckons, they are worth at least 400 times as much. That letter, thumped out on Bissell’s trusty Olivetti portable, set down the company’s simple, heartfelt credo: “In addition to making profits, our aims are constant development of new handwoven products, a fair, equitable and helpful relationship with our producers and the maintenance of quality on which our reputation rests.” 

Throughout his life Bissell remained a prolific letter-writer—notes, memos and accounts flowed from his Olivetti with the same regularity as pithily voiced observations and opinions, some bitingly funny, others astutely argued, all usually helpful. (After his stroke, he began again from scratch—first painfully holding chalk to slate, then pad and pencil, before graduating to a PC with enlarged lettering.) Almost anyone connected with the Fabindia story—and there are hundreds—has lovingly preserved every scrap received from Bissell, as if, says his daughter Monsoon Bissell, “we were all being invited to participate in some great unfolding adventure story.” 

It was also his custom to personally type the company’s annual report, which he would then dispatch to shareholders, employees, friends and—much to the irritation of Fabindia managers—to the company’s competitors. Bissell espoused transparency in all business affairs just as he held on to [Ernst Friedrich] Schumacher’s small-is-beautiful theory of development economics—he hated the office paraphernalia of peons and secretaries and everyone in Fabindia even now prepare their own invoices and make their own tea.

Working for endless hours on Fabindia’s annual financial report, Meena Chowdhury remembers that Bissell would shout across the dividing screen to ask: “How many people do we now employ? One year I said 20, the next year it was 40 and the year after that, I think, I said 82.” A dead silence would follow this exchange, so Meena would go over to assure him, and find the same look of exasperation, worry and unanswered questions writ on his face. “...Meena,” Bissell would say year after year. “How did we grow this big?”


 

A Connecticut Yankee in India

 

Fabindia, the business the late John L. Bissell built, set trends in the textile trade. But it was for different reasons the transplanted American was so highly esteemed by associates. A friend recalls the man and his work.

 

With their antennae permanently positioned to lure the passing customer, retailers tend to be the most sensitive denizens of the marketplace. Everything affects them—bad weather, rent laws, shrinking wallets or a depressed economy. But there are some shops that acquire an immunity to these and allied bazaar disorders. One such exception is Fabindia—drop in on any slow-selling summer afternoon and its showrooms are a buzzing hive of activity. John L. Bissell, the man who started Fabindia as a small enterprise 38 years ago and turned it into a household word representing good taste at affordable prices, was an exceptional man himself.

He was a highly individual American who brought New World merchandising to Old World handlooms, and succeeded in striking the precise balance between commercial profit and social commitment. He left the world of Seventh Avenue retail to make India his home but carried with him the lingering spirit of American liberalism that staunchly defends the virtues of honesty, self reliance and respect for the dissenting voice. In this he remained, as his banker friend Peter Jeffreys put it, “the quintessential Connecticut Yankee...captivated but not deceived by India.... His observant eye and critical tongue were not the least of the innumerable contributions he made to India.” Together with his wife, Bimla Nanda, John struck a talent for friendship and hospitality that placed the Bissells at the heart of political, social and diplomatic Delhi for 40 years. A more consistently successful, influential and enjoyable Indo-American partnership can scarcely be imagined. 

When Bissell died in March, aged 66, after a long, valiantly-borne illness, John Burns, The New York Times’  South Asia correspondent, sent a couple of personal dispatches to his managing editor, Joe Lelyveld: “...I went to a memorial gathering for John Bissell this evening, along with le tout Delhi. Ministers, top bureaucrats, academics, artists, industrialists, writers, journalists, philanthropists, ambassadors, friends; all were there, about 300 people gathered under a shamiana in the drizzling rain that El Nino has brought to north India this year.” I.K. Gujral, then prime minister, was politely requested not to come lest his security disturb others; but M.S. Gill, the chief election commissioner, was there, reported Burns, “fresh from shepherding 330 million souls into his polling booths....” 

Unknown aspects of Bissell came to light that evening, as family and friends took turns to remember him; most moving of all was a tribute read out in an emotion-choked voice by Arun Shourie, the writer and member of Parliament, on behalf of Mita Nandy, the moving spirit behind the Spastics Society, herself too ill to attend the memorial. “I met John 19 years ago,” she wrote, “when we started the Spastics Society in rented premises without the money to pay the first month’s rent.... He not only gave us all that we asked for continuously but also, unsolicited, gave us very large donations which helped to pay our salary bills. There was such dignity in John’s giving. He was a shy giver, he did not want to be thanked.” 

Strong impulses, freak occurrences and unshakable convictions shaped the life of this lanky New Englander, with his slight stoop, air of quizzical concentration and donnish wardrobe composed entirely, it seemed, of crumpled kurtas and worn trousers. Professor Bissell, you were most likely to assume. But suddenly the gruff voice and taciturn manner—for he was hopeless at small talk—would dissolve into loud guffaws at a ribald joke retold with a string of expletives (“John, John!” Bim would remonstrate, and ever the decorous Punjabi matron, color deeply to the roots of her hair). 

Bissell came, though he would be appalled in any way to show it, from a wealthy, well-connected family. His great-grandfather had presided over the fortunes of one of the great Midwestern railroads, and from that came his endless love of train travel. His grandfather was president of the Hartford Fire & Life Insurance Company, in the insurance town of Hartford, Connecticut, who later bought and lived in Mark Twain’s house. That gave Bissell the confidence to handle money responsibly and the feeling for spacious, comfortable homes. And his father, later an editor at Newsweek magazine, who had traveled to India after World War II, fired his son’s imagination about the subcontinent. Young Bissell went to an exclusive prep school in Andover, Massachusetts, later to Yale, and spent two years in the U.S. Navy in Korea. 

*****

Laila Tyabji, chairperson of the crafts society, Dastkar, who dealt with him professionally for 26 years, says: “All doors opened to the Bissells, just as their doors were always open to everyone, but I don’t ever remember John in a five-star hotel.”

Bissell’s work ethic was essentially founded on the belief that successful merchandising must benefit the producer and consumer equally. As a middleman he saw his role as that of catalyst, not as percentage man or empire builder. The first inkling he had that he liked selling was during a coast-to-coast trip during college, which he financed by selling Isamu Noguchi lamps. After Korea, he went to work for a fabric importer in New York who had landed the contract to supply costumes for the film “Anna and the King of Siam.” John found Indian fabrics attractive but wondered why they never got what they ordered.

Soon afterward came his chance to find out why. He was training at Macy’s when its president, Martin Uzzi, received a request from the Indian government for an American professional who would help design and market Indian textiles for export on a Ford Foundation grant. Uzzi put up his son’s name but at the last minute the fellow backed out. Bissell was asked if he was interested and he said he could leave the next day. He landed in Delhi on August 15, 1958; on his first working day at the Cottage Industries Emporium he met the young woman who had been asked to vacate her office for him. She had just returned from America, after taking a degree in education, following the breakdown of her first marriage. L.C. Jain, till recently India’s ambassador to South Africa, was her boss and felt sorry about asking her to give up her room. “Don’t worry, Bim, he’s a Yank. Won’t last more than three months.”

Remarriage, says Bim Nanda, was not on her mind but Bissell courted her so assiduously for five years that she finally relented. “He would send me a rose and a note every morning. He waited and waited and wouldn’t take no for an answer.” By this time, she was working as social secretary to Chester Bowles, the U.S. Ambassador. Richard Celeste, the present U.S. Ambassador, was Bowles’ personal assistant. Celeste remembers “a lanky American lurking in Bim’s shadow who danced the jitterbug terrifically.” Celeste attended their wedding in 1963 and the Nanda-Bissells, he says, became “my surrogate family.” Bissell himself, typically, summed up the turning point of his life more succinctly: “I’m the guy who struck lucky twice,” he would tell friends, “I got the job first—then I got the girl.” 

But it was India, their Indian family and Indian enthusiasms that held them together. Only once during his years in his adopted country, did he ever express the desire to return to America. “His parents were ill and he wanted to take a sabbatical year in 1984 but we compromised. Instead of two trips a year, he made three,” says Bim. Monsoon Bissell, his daughter, says that her father’s greatest contribution to her life was that he never made her feel “culturally divided...his essential Americanness, whatever that is, remained. For 17 years he took Hindi lessons but never mastered the language. The simple reason was that he was too interested in masterji’s everyday life for the lessons to matter.”

In the summer of 1993, while driving home in Connecticut, his wife beside him, Bissell suffered a massive stroke. At first he could neither speak, see, swallow nor walk but as soon as he could communicate he wanted to return to India. Very slowly he taught himself to eat and read and write again; he would go to Fabindia each morning in his wheelchair and got a special Trax vehicle made that enabled him to travel. Once he demanded to go to Lucknow and, on arrival, was taken to several weavers’ villages outside the city. At one such village, the weavers wanted to know who he was and what he was doing there. On being introduced as the man from Fabindia, some of the weavers echoed the name. “Fabindia?” they said, “you mean, the kurta people from Delhi?” Meena Chowdhury, his oldest associate at Fabindia, says that it was his favorite story during his last days. 

Richard Celeste places John Bissell’s life in a wider context when he says that he was a spiritual child of Thoreau’s New England who discovered himself in a Gandhian setting. “It’s hard for me to imagine that a couple like them will ever exist again,” he says.

 

Sunil Sethi is a consultant editor at New Delhi Television. 


 

 

 

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