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The Fabric of our Lives

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The Fabric of our Lives: The Story of Fabindia

Singh, Radhika

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Most urban Indians would refer to Fabindia as an iconic Indian retail brand with stores all over the country. The popular perception is that Fabindia sells cotton and silk garments and accessories at good value. Most college students head to a Fabindia store to pick up cotton kurtas, or tunics as the trendy new cuts are called. Young professionals must have a couple of stylish kurta pajamas in their wardrobe for their summer soirees. Foreigners flock to Fabindia to purchase Indian (ethnic) wear, stoles and scarves to gift to their friends ‘back home’.

The question is how did this come about? The company is celebrating its 50th anniversary but over the years there have been no advertisements in the magazines, no blatant brand building on television, no 20 second commercial spots before the main movie.

In 1960 Fabindia Inc. was born as a US trading company with an office in Delhi. It exported beautifully designed and colored handwoven upholstery fabric and cotton durries. Only the select few Dilli-wallahs who were friends of the family knew that they could furnish their homes with the export reject stock that John Bissell always bought off the weavers so as not to discourage them. The first Fabindia store opened in 1976 in the GK1 market in south Delhi to sell only furnishing fabric and hand-woven durries. For almost 20 years Fabindia was a single retail store in one city and an international trading company. In 2011 there are 138 stores around India, and as many as 11 in some metros. The baton has passed on to the second generation of the Bissell family and the Fabindia look is a fashion accessory for the double income middle class that defines the market in India today.

So who and what built the Fabindia look and when did it happen? Well that is the story of the book but in the meantime here is a small excerpt to tease the taste-buds.

‘That year (1977) John Bissell and Meena Chowdhury decided to experiment with printed bedspreads for the Fabindia store. Many years earlier Riten (Mazumdar) had printed some fabric with a paisley design which had proved to be very popular with friends. But funds had been scarce in those days and local retail was not being considered (then). This time Riten was given a free hand and he designed a line of bedspreads with bold, colorful tantric patterns – large red and orange circles on black and white squares, and black and red lines running diagonally across the fabric.

 The experiment also included printing different types of fabric which could be used for curtains, bedspreads or cushion covers as required. The designs were an instant success and the Fabindia team quickly assembled a line of products from their stock to complement the Riten Mazumdar look. So there was PP Handspun (named for Panipat where it was woven) cotton fabric for curtains, natural woolen durries from Madhukar Khera (also) in Panipat, the bright Haseena cotton durrie from Ambala, and Riten Mazumdar’s bold geometric bedspreads and cushion covers. As Meena describes so eloquently, the idea hit the Delhi public in the eye and overnight a Fabindia look was born. To complete the style low chairs and moorahs and grass matting, which had been brought in from Mr.Prasad’s factory near Cochin, were added. Meena says:

“You put a grass mat on the floor with a bright Haseena durrie on top of it, a Riten Mazumdar bedspread on the bed, scatter some cushions with Riten’s designs on them, and you were done. It was different. It was stylish. And it was affordable.”

 She recalls a young couple walking into her office at the back of the shop and thanking her for having made it possible for them to furnish their entire home within a budget of three thousand rupees! She adds that that the favored Riten bedspread, named Target (with an inner circle of orange within a thin outer circle of red orange) literally became the focal point of a room whether it was used on the bed or as a wall-hanging. Suddenly young professionals were keeping their bedroom doors open while entertaining guests in their drawing rooms. Fabindia products had become a status symbol.’

This is the story of a passion for India’s heritage of handcrafted products and the sustained commitment of a 50-year relay team of people to support the artisans who produced them.

Radhika Singh

March 2011

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