Suneera Tandon, Quartz
New Delhi, 12 September
The Platonic ideal
is doing better what is already being done.” - Peter Drucker,
Innovation & Entrepreneurship: Practices and Principles
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
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.
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 décor, 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).
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,”
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.”
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.
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.
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.