Fabindia: How an American-Founded Brand Defined the Handcrafted Indian Aesthetic

John Bissell’s cult lifestyle brand has supported rural artisans for over 60 years. But will the company’s looming IPO put this very mission at risk?

Sneha Mehta

November 16, 2021

Fabindia: How an American-Founded Brand Defined the Handcrafted Indian Aesthetic
John Bissell at the Fabindia store in New Delhi (Fabindia)

When John Bissell, a buyer at Macy’s, came to Benaras to source fabrics for the 1956 film The King and I, weavers told him that since each handloom produced three saris, they could guarantee consistent colors only in those three, not across the 70 to 80 pieces Bissell needed. Bissell realized the untapped potential of standardized Indian textiles in the global market, an idea which would eventually lead him to open the first Fabindia store in 1975.

Fabindia is the store where most Indians take international visitors, whether to shop for a wedding or souvenirs, but is also beloved by college students looking for affordable kurtas. With 330 stores across 105 Indian cities and 14 outside the country, New Delhi-headquartered Fabindia is India’s largest private retailer of craft-based products, and one of the only Indian brands whose products span clothing, home decor, organic foods, and skincare.

“Fabindia was founded out of the passion my father had for the incredible craft traditions of India,” says William, Bissell’s son and the current Managing Director of the company, in The Fabric of Our Lives: The Story of Fabindia by Radhika Singh. “He believed that they needed a market so that the producers could make a decent living practicing their craft.”

Today, it’s hard to imagine that an Indian did not found Fabindia (“fabrics of India”), with its pan-Indian cultural relevance. The retailer has grown manifold since its founding, as both the creator and beneficiary of the enduring trendiness of artisanal Indian and Indo-Western garments, and may soon go public. But it’s not all rosy: such growth comes with challenges, especially when it comes to preserving its mission to support artisans. The company’s vision of universal Indian-ness also landed it in hot water only a few weeks ago.