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Decoding the FabIndia Woman

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Hip? Green friendly? Bleeding heart liberal? You know her, you may even be her. So who are you, Fabwoman?

You know her. We all do. She is urbane, self-sufficient, concerned about global warming, women’s rights, the economy. She is opinionated (critics say argumentative), loves poetry and Philip Roth, but thinks Mohammed Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes is frivolous. Her jewellery is indigenous and kohl is her favourite piece of make-up. She’s a cotton girl who’s an associate member of Paramparik Karigar and a Prithvi Theatre volunteer. You know her. She’s the FabIndia Woman.

Established in 1960 by John Bissell, an American, FabIndia with 97 stores from Amritsar to Vizag, has changed the way Indians, especially women, dress and choose apparel. If you are what you wear then Fab is a label so ethnic and culture-conscious that, as if by osmosis, the wearer becomes a champion of those wholesome values. Over the decades, FabIndia garments have become the ubiquitous attire of artists, politicians, social workers and all sorts of people who ostensibly answer to the higher gods of social welfare, creativity and deep thought. In sharp contrast to the ladies who frequent Ensemble, an haute couture fashion store in Mumbai.

WHAT IT MEANS

FabIndia is a post-Gandhian fairy tale about the commercial viability of the organic, khadi way of life. Who wouldn’t want to buy into that? “Whether you call it environmental concern or value of tradition, the fact is everyone is quite clear what is meant by the ‘FabIndia type’,” says William Bissell, the company’s managing director and son of the founder.
The connotations are so strong that a simple mention is enough. In Me, Kash & Cruise, a play set in 1986, protagonist Kash (for Kashyap) derides his ex-girlfriend Pooja by saying, “You can give me a proud tour of your incredibly cosy little love nest. The foldable FabIndia furniture, the Chunilal Mulchand drapes and upholstery, the ornate lampshades from Chor Bazaar….” Its playwright and director Rahul daCunha says he wrote the line and then realised that FabIndia did not sell furniture in the 1980s. “But I left the reference in because FabIndia has a very specific cultural significance and its products refer to a certain kind of person.”

 

WHO IS BUYING

But what if you're not atypical? What if you’re a Bollywood-loving guy who prefers Shah Rukh Khan’s drama to Naseeruddin Shah’s intensity, and a foodie who likes the crunch of McDonald’s fries and the sugar rush of Coca-Cola? You take public transportation and know that standing out is not always a good thing. You shop at FabIndia because it’s reasonable and because it is the only company that realises you need full-sleeve, half-sleeve and sleeveless options, depending on who you’re dressing for. Or who’s dressing you.
Rajiv Malik, the Delhi-based South Asia correspondent for Hinduism Today (US), is a strong proponent of the Indian way of life and ‘Hindu attire’. A few years ago he was at loggerheads with his teenage daughter Palak over her dressing choices. She liked sleeveless shirts and skirts, but her father maintained, “Fashion is about dressing and not about undressing.” When the debates got hotter, Malik decided to be proactive. He took Palak to FabIndia. With nary a bustier or a pair of hot pants anywhere on the premises, it was the right place for the duo to reach an amicable compromise: Palak chose short kurtas—the half-sleeved option—to pair with jeans, and salwar sets for ‘special occasions’.
“At a time when youngsters experiment with styles that don’t match the thinking of people like me, FabIndia is a reassuring connection to our culture,” says Malik, who is happy that his now 20-year-old daughter has found a happy collaboration between style and culture. In a 2006 Hinduism Today article on youth fashion, Palak related her conversion tale and wrote, “Hindu youth are desperate to discover their culture and give meaning to their lives. The move toward fusion wear, drawing upon the vast Indian traditions, has much to do with this.”

Ethnic over Synthetic

Award-winning textile designer (she prefers the nomenclature ‘textile person’) Meera Mehta is a composite of various FabIndia-type customers. A bona fide national treasure, 57-year-old Mehta’s been credited with the revival of several traditional weaving techniques like Paithani. Many go as far as to say that a wedding trousseau is incomplete without a Meera Mehta sari. So, perhaps predictably, her wardrobe is a treasure chest of weaves from across the nation. But, even in a country that has produced more than 7 million tonnes of cotton since the early 1980s, she says it wasn’t always fashionable to be so culture-conscious. “I grew up in a household that valued different kinds of fabrics from around the country, but by the time I started working, Bombay had several mills, and handlooms were always looked down upon. Polyester was even considered a great textile,” she says.
In The Polyester Prince—The Rise of Dhirubhai Ambani, Hamish Mcdonald writes that in 1981, domestic output of 16,000 tonnes of polyester fell short of market demand, which was 50,000 tonnes. “Indians began to appreciate its [polyester’s], lustre, colour-fastness and ease of washing,” writes Mcdonald. Remember Garden and Vareli? If it wasn’t polyester, then it was the grand dame herself—silk. “At the derby, in the Bombay heat, women would be outfitted in chiffon saris and pearls. It was ridiculous,” says Mehta.

FROM DOWNTOWN TO TOWN

When FabIndia set up shop in Delhi in the early 1980s, Mehta says, the skies suddenly opened up. Its racks filled with examples of every conceivable Indian design tradition, FabIndia flooded the market with so much Indianness that “suddenly you could wear cotton and be fashionable”, she adds. But, with a major compromise: “Tailoring is a problem.”
However, for every critic there’s an army of Fab Faithfuls gathering force across the country and abroad. With sales figures upwards of
Rs 300 crore annually, the company is carpet-bombing small towns, enticing women to turn in their housecoats for kurtas.
Annie Raju joined the ranks last year. A stylish 40-ish housewife, who divides her time between prayer meetings, soaps, car pools and the weekly trip to the beauty salon, Raju considers herself a sophisticate. But Thiruvananthapuram, her hometown and capital city of Kerala—with its various ‘textiles’ shops, fancy stores, and lone Café Coffee Day—is a place where sophistication goes by other names. “You had to stitch clothes, but tailors here are stuck in a time warp. They won’t cut your blouse too low, and can’t do sleeveless tops. FabIndia is such a relief,” says Raju, who moved back to Kerala a few years ago for her children’s education. (Her husband, a doctor, still works in Muscat.)
FabIndia set down Kerala roots in what is the prettiest house in Jawahar Nagar, the swankiest neighbourhood in the southern capital. It’s a clay-tiled teak-pillared home in the classic Kerala style. The spot is so antithetical to the average Thiruvananthapuram shopping experience that customers like Raju don’t mind paying the slightly higher price for its wares. “It’s nice enough to just browse. But you end up buying,” she says.
FabIndia’s expansion plan reads like a playbook for retail blitzkrieg. In February 2008, it had 75 stores in India. By the end of the year that number rose to 97. That’s over two stores a month. It already has six outlets worldwide, including one a piece in China and Italy and several in the Middle East. It’s a march back to the basics for a company that was originally billed as an export house.
But John Bissell couldn’t have foreseen the Facebook group, or its fan base among the cosmopolitan hip set. Anuvab Pal, Mumbai-based co-writer of the comedy film Loins of Punjab Presents, recently moved back to India after several years in New York, and says FabIndia has become a signature of the globalised world. Or a Pravasi Bharatiya Shanghai Tang (the label that sells Chinese kitsch). “There’s a sort of snobbery that goes with it, like having a Che Guevara T-shirt or a friend from Suriname on your Facebook page,” says Pal. “It says you’ve been around, and it says you’re cool.”
Cool isn’t quite what the FabIndia Woman was going for. You know how she is. She loves the brand for its distinct architectural choices, its mojris for being subtler than the ones on Janpath, the colour schemes of FabIndia saris, and prefers its organic tulsi chai. But she still buys Women’s India Trust jams because it serves a better cause, and despite FabIndia Sana, she prefers her scrubs homemade. A little bit of retail therapy, a little bit of self-reliance: it’s the FabIndia life.