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For Fabindia’s Dipali Patwa, business is all about the craft

The group head of Fabindia on how to make a six-decade-old legacy brand more relevant to a younger generation, and the delicate art of staying positive

Dipali Patwa, Group Head, FabIndia
Dipali Patwa, Group Head, FabIndia

“The last time we spoke, I had more hair,” laughs Dipali Patwa, group head of brand, media and community at Fabindia, a name known globally for its ethnic Indian wear, over a Zoom call. This is my second interview with her in three months. Much has changed since we first met in December at a Fabindia café in Delhi. The six-decade-old brand has expanded from clothing and home furnishing into the skincare space, it has filed a prospectus with the market regulator for an IPO (initial public offering), and Patwa has started chemotherapy for breast cancer.

Two things have not changed, though: Patwa’s infectious smile and envy-inducing clarity. “I love a good challenge,” says Patwa, dressed in beige linen. “Figuring out how to approach a problem, looking at it from various angles, finding a way out. Having clarity of where you are and where you want to be is always helpful, right?”

This clarity came in handy when Patwa joined Fabindia’s Delhi office in 2020, just about a month before the pandemic shut the world down. She had flown in from her home in New York, excited about her second stint with the brand—she was a creative designer with it from 1998-2000.

“To be honest, covid turned out to be a blessing,” she says, echoing what other retail brand leaders have said. “I mean, we were all in shock, of course. Physical stores were closed, people weren’t shopping. It would have seemed stupid to advertise about clothes, bedcovers, when a virus was wreaking havoc. But my plan from the beginning was to move the brand towards the digital space, and covid helped in achieving it in six-eight months. Otherwise, it would have taken us years...”

Change in a legacy brand can take years of retraining, rethinking and refocusing to figure out a formula that can keep up with changing consumer demand while keeping the brand DNA intact. Yet there she was, with her “laundry list” of things to do—building e-commerce, understanding consumer data, a more interactive social media strategy, new products.

Fabindia, backed by former Wipro chairperson Azim Premji’s firm PremjiInvest, seems to have cracked it. After suffering a loss of around 100 crore in 2020-21, compared to a profit of 41.7 crore in the same period the year before, the company is expected to return to profit in the coming quarter, according to a recent Bloomberg report. Patwa doesn’t part with revenue numbers but confirms the company is on track to reach 2019 levels soon.

The company—which started in 1960 with the aim of offering an alternative to the mass-produced while creating sustainable livelihoods in the rural sector—is in expansion mode. It filed a prospectus for the IPO in January. According to the draft red herring prospectus, “The offer comprises a fresh issue of up to 500 crore and an offer for sale of 25,050,543 equity shares by existing investors/ shareholders.” Reports suggest Fabindia could seek a valuation of about $2 billion ( 15,200 crore). It also plans to give nearly 800,000 shares to artisans and farmers who work closely with it.  

Physical growth seems to be on track as well. Besides 11 stores internationally, Fabindia has over 300 outlets across India, with more being added in tiers 2 and 3 cities, offering traditional forms like tie-and-dye, chikankari and zardozi work in apparel and home furnishings. Keeping a close watch on the impact of the pandemic on consumer demand, it has added more leisure-wear clothes with Western silhouettes and ventured into skincare products. There’s an increased focus on home décor, so much so that posh Khan Market in central Delhi has an entire Fabindia building dedicated to everything to do with the home. “The home concept store is extra special,” she says. “It’s like completing a full circle after 60 years.”

The starting point

Fabindia started as a company exporting home furnishings that showcased India’s craft tradition. The man behind it was American businessman John L. Bissell, who grew up listening to his father’s stories of living in India during World War II. So enamoured was Bissell that in the late 1950s he decided to stay on in India after his two-year grant from the Ford Foundation to help Indian villagers make goods for export ended.

Over the decades, Fabindia became a force to reckon with, especially after its retail store opened in Delhi’s Greater Kailash market in 1975. By the early 1980s, Fabindia was known for garments made from handwoven and handprinted fabrics. Whether it was the NRI relatives or foreign tourists, a trip to Fabindia stores became part of the travel itinerary. Part of the charm was the company’s commitment to support 40,000-odd artisans across the country.

It helped that there was little competition. Unlike today, when the market is crowded with brands that showcase Indian crafts and traditions, the decades from the 1970s to early 2000s saw very few platforms celebrating traditional textiles and art forms in the retail space, barring the 1970-born label Anokhi, government-backed places like Khadi stores and state emporia.

By the late 2000s, Fabindia was catering to the global citizen, offering organic foods, handcrafted jewellery and personal care products. Today, with over four million customers spread across 130 countries, it has become one of the largest private platforms for products derived from traditional crafts and knowledge.

When Ahmedabad-born Patwa joined Fabindia in 2019, one of the main asks was to make the company more millennial-friendly and relevant in a digital-first world. She seemed like a good fit: Besides her earlier association with the brand, Patwa had experience in building and successfully running an apparel company, both online and offline, for close to 10 years.

“The beauty of being a creative person is you find different, creative ways to solve any problem,” says Patwa, who studied fashion design and merchandising at Mumbai’s SNDT Women’s University and worked with brands like Martha Stewart and Ralph Lauren in the US and Sewa (Self Employed Women’s Association) in India over two decades. “It makes you crave new challenges, which allows you to learn new things.”

The Fabindia offer came when Patwa was considering whether to continue with Masala Baby, an apparel brand for children and mothers that she started in 2012 as a “side thingy”. It became so successful that she decided to quit her full-time job at home textiles company Town and Country Living, as vice-president of brands and licensing. By 2019, the eight-year-old brand had seen its highest financial growth. She had to make a choice: either raise Series A funding or look for a new challenge. “I got bored. I come from fashion but I also loved learning about online consumer data and building things in the online space. And the Fabindia challenge seemed perfect.”

Patwa, born into a family of doctors, was inclined towards craft. “It’s all because of my parents. They were doctors but they had this other side, which was all about celebrating and appreciating the traditional arts and crafts of India,” she says. “I grew up in an environment where everyday conversations were about where kalamkari comes from or what tie-and-dye is.”

Her mother is also a collector of textiles and father, a painter. “Somehow I knew I would work in an area that deals with traditional arts and crafts.” Patwa’s first job, as a design consultant with Sewa to help women artisans in Gujarat’s north-west Banaskantha district, made her realise how much of India’s talent remained unexplored. “And that’s why returning to Fabindia made a lot of sense.”

Patwa uses her work to try and raise awareness. Whether it’s her thoughts on the need to make artisans so confident of their craft that future generations continue the family legacy or her Instagram posts on breast cancer, she wants the world to learn with her. “I want to demystify this fear of breast cancer. Work helps me stay positive. Meditation helps. Music helps. But I think talking about it openly helps the most. The idea is to build a community.”

That’s what she’s trying to do at Fabindia as well: build a community of people, including consumers, who believe in traditional arts and craft to ensure real sustainable change at the grass-roots level. Through social media, Fabindia is trying to educate people on the nuances, be it what makes chikankari special or why block-printing is better than machine-made embroidery.

“Being sustainable is not just about being green and organic,” she explains. “It’s about working with the community of artisans and ensuring they have regular orders. If I am going to support sustainability, then it’s not just about eating organic or wearing organic clothes because it’s a trendy thing to do. It’s about making sure that you are supporting that same craft over and over again, so that not just the present generation, (but) the following generation, and the one after, continues to practise the same art and make good money. If the artisans are vocal enough to demand their share of pay for the efforts they put in and they get it, why would anyone leave the craft?”

Perhaps the biggest reason Fabindia has managed to keep its identity intact, despite the growing competition in Made-in-India labels, is its simple vision of supporting the artisan. “We have been often told to become global and shift to mill. But we won’t. My DNA starts with (the premise) that I have 1,000 artisans and I will support them for 60 years and more. We will never walk away from it. It’s a very simple vision that John had put up in his office, and it’s still there. And it’s always about protecting the livelihoods you work with. So every time we get lost in the noise, we come back to this vision board. There’s a reason grandparents, parents, their children and grandchildren shop at Fabindia. There’s something about us—and it’s India.”

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