Half a century and 55,000 artists later: Fabindia’s journey from rural crafts to high-end stores 


September 12, 2016

Suneera Tandon, Quartz
New Delhi, 12 September 2016 

The Platonic ideal

“Efficiency is doing better what is already being done.” – Peter Drucker, Innovation & Entrepreneurship: Practices and Principles

The practice

Research firm Gartner defines supply chain as, “…the processes of creating and fulfilling demands for goods and services. It encompasses a trading partner community engaged in the common goal of satisfying end customers.”

Sounds simple? But it hardly is. In fact, the supply chain can be one of the most complex structures in a business, piecing together design, development, sourcing, manufacturing, and distribution. It gets even more complex when it relies on rural India, which is scattered over 640,867 villages and are often hard to access. Fabindia, a chain of retail stores, has spent close to five decades scoping India’s hinterland to connect rural Indian artisans to urban shoppers. Here’s how they did it.

Fabindia began its India sojourn back in 1960 when John Bissell, who was first introduced to the country in 1958 while on a two-year grant from the Ford Foundation, decided to set up an export shop to sell home furnishings to overseas customers. Bissell, whose work at the foundation involved advising government-based craft organizations on handloom fabrics, spent a lot of time traversing the length and breadth of the country.

In 1976, the export house diversified into retail through a small store that sold leftovers from export orders in Delhi’s tony market of Greater Kailash. It took another two decades for retail to became the mainstay of the company’s business.

Fifty years later, Fabindia, managed by John’s son William Bissell, is a widely recognized global brand, known for handwoven and hand-made goods that connect some 55,000 artisans from the country to consumers worldwide. In the process, it has achieved two broad goals: to market the handloom tradition of India to the rest of the world and to provide sustained employment to artisans in rural areas.

The chain sells everything from handwoven saris, rugs, apparel, home d�cor, and organic food in its 220 stores across 83 cities in India, including eight stores in overseas markets such as Dubai, Singapore, Malaysia etc. It also retails its products online to 33 countries. For the fiscal year 2014-15, Fabindia had a turnover of Rs1,148 crore (approximately $170 million).
But behind the red and black Ikat-printed scarves, Kalamkari prints from south India, and block-printed Bagru fabric from north India is an extensive and complex supply chain that runs from villages across the country, covering a third of India’s over 650 districts.

The retailer has successfully taken its founder’s vision to enable social change at the grassroots level while engaging in a profit-making business for urban shoppers. It does this while building systems that encourage not just fair remuneration to India’s rural artisans, but also provides infrastructure, access to technology and systems, quality guidelines, and timely payments to these craftsmen. Fabindia also offers access to capital and raw materials to artisans working with the retailer.

As William Bissell puts it in a Harvard Business School case study: “It seems contradictory that we pursue both a social goal and a profit, but I believe that is the only way to do it.”

Through most of the ’90s and early 2000s, Fabindia grew as a retail chain expanding modestly in the country’s top metros.

Since the opening of the Indian economy through the economic reforms of 1991, Fabindia’s interaction with artisans scattered across the country has grown significantly (pdf). The complexity of the company’s supply chain is far different from that of a regular manufacturer that works through designated factories.
The company’s interaction with these artisans is very localized since it works with them through multiple associations. The retailer deals directly with individual artisans who work out of their homes and also with clusters of crafters and rural NGOs and organizations that have a crafts supply base.

In addition, the company uses its 11 production hubs across the country, which are basically aggregation points, to centralize orders and pair up vendors with artisans. Each hub has a number of field offices attached to it.

“The production hubs and field offices act as nodal points for interaction with the artisans that constitute the supply chain, which is one of the most unique in the world,” said Prableen Sabhaney, head of communications and public affairs at Fabindia Overseas.

While most artists have the skill and the craft, they don’t have the acumen to decipher fashion trends for the season. So Fabindia acts like a conduit between their crafts and the market.

At Fabindia, a large proportion of products carry some element of the handmade, which requires an ability to communicate with artisans and institute quality control as most artisans work largely in India’s hinterland. For instance, an 18-step process is required to create a simple pattern in Bagru print, a traditional form of block-printing using natural dyes perfected in the northern state of Rajasthan.

And the company has spent years putting processes to ensure newer collections reach the stores on time. Recently, the product range has become more diversified as well.

As for remuneration, Fabindia follows a bottom-up structure. It asks artists what it costs them in terms of—time, energy, skills, and raw material to hand-make a certain fabric or accessory and pays accordingly.

Analysts who track the sector believe that Fabindia’s unique model sets it apart from other domestic or export-focused handicraft companies purely because of the sheer volume of artisans it works with.

“In handicraft, there are several companies that have created substantial export-led supply bases, which tap into craft both from the rural artisans as well as those based in smaller urban centers,” Devangshu Dutta, chief executive at consulting firm, Third Eyesight said. 

“Among these, Fabindia has certainly had the most visible success in terms of size and brand profile domestically. Fabindia has achieved scale by working through artists, intermediaries and supplier companies who have acted as anchors in the rural communities,” said Dutta.

Sabhaney offers that challenges span from co-creating contemporary products while using traditional techniques to quality issues, since the products are created in environments that are very different from where they are finally used. The company also works hard to provide access to raw material and capital across many hard-to-access areas—and doing all of this at scale.

“The ability to do this and not lose anything in translation has been and will continue to be Fabindia’s strength,” added Sabhaney.

The takeaways

As the market evolves with e-commerce and the entry of foreign brands, which has altered consumer preferences and style-cycles, Fabindia knows it needs to quicken its response to these changes.

Not all of the innovations the company has tested remain. In a unique ownership structure created by Bissell, Fabindia set up supplier regional communities (SRCs), which were community owned companies, self-managed by a group of artisans, weavers and craft workers in a particular geography back in 2007. According to a case study by INSEAD (pdf), these SRC’s “offered artisans joint ownership of resources and access to common facilities. It also trained artisans and developed new handicrafts. The SRC allowed Fabindia to consolidate supply capacity instead of dealing with single-loom weaver units, and to implement a standard system for production and delivery control.”

The 2010 book, The Fabric of Our Lives reveals how production worked under the SRC model. A number of dedicated designers and sourcing officers worked closely with rural artists giving them design inputs in tandem with the latest trends in the market and order quantities through dedicated distribution centers in key villages. These designers worked with the weaver to develop samples. They were then shown by the designers that refer it to a product selection committee. The fabric was then approved and the cost price finalized. The quantity of fabric to be produced the first time was pre-determined by software based on a minimum stock requirement ratio and an order is given to the weaver to make the product. The weaver produced the requisite amount of fabric in a month and brought it into the distribution centers.

But the SRC model has now been diluted as the company looks more innovative ways to engage rural artisans.

In the company’s next vision plan, it is focusing more on cluster development that will basically help bring artisans up to speed with the processes and market trends.

“There are plans for a greater focus on the handloom and hand-craft sector,” Sabhaney said.

“There is a much bigger focus on the social aspect, there are going to be significant investments in developing clusters and bringing them up to what is required around the country,” she added.

(Published in Quartz)