Fab fifty!

RUPA GOPAL | Updated on January 27, 2011

John Bissell's Fabindia celebrates 50 elegant years. His wife, Bim, recalls the special moments.

Last week, at a small and stylish setting in Chennai, a book commemorating 50 years of Fabindia was released by Gopalkrishna Gandhi, the former West Bengal Governor and grandson of Mahatma Gandhi. The retail chain set up and nurtured by an American, John Bissell, has become a byword for excellence in the manufacture and sale of handmade Indian textiles and crafts. First-time author Radhika Singh's years of association with the Fabindia brand, as well as her close relationship with Bissell and his wife Bim proved handy in writing the book.

Gandhi spoke with eloquent humour, about his wardrobe bulging at the seams with Fabindia kurtas, each treasured by him. He suggested having a prized corner in the store where valued old Fabindia clothes, darned and mended, could be sold as collectors' items! Radhika read out from sections of the book, bringing to life Bissell's labour of love.

Present on the occasion was Bim, [Bimla], now in her 70s, who is elegance personified, full of vim and vigour, and happy memories. She worked for 21 years with the World Bank, and later with the American Embassy. In a one-on-one conversation prior to the book launch, Bim shared several personal anecdotes from the Fabindia journey.

How did you meet your husband, John Bissell?

I was working with Cottage Industries Emporium in Delhi, just having returned from America. One day my boss told me that a young American was coming, and that he had no office room for him — “he won't last long, will you please give your room for the time being”, he said. That's how John and I met; I vividly remember how he came running up the rickety stairs. I tried to introduce him to many eligible girls, both Indians and foreign nationals. But he had no interest in them all, and only pursued me. After two years he popped the question, and we got married five years after we met.

How much was he influenced by you, in his love for India?

His father, and his family, had associations with India. They even had a home in Connecticut which had belonged to Mark Twain — it was called the Mark Twain House. Thus, John was very much influenced by all this, India was always important to him.

From the beginning, I felt he was chasing the Indian dream. We had a very good life together. The respect he gave me was so great. He always believed that the women in India were the country's strength.

Which were the places you travelled to in your search for ethnic Indian textiles? Which region appealed the most to John, and what kind of Indian weaves?

We travelled all the time. He had picked up a book on Delhi, and was keen to explore the city thoroughly. Each Sunday we would explore some corner, some monument, and share the joy and knowledge with our children.

South India appealed to him the most. Hyderabad, Andhra, Kerala — we had the first southern launch of this book in Kerala, respecting his love for that State. He loved the fabrics from Cannanore (Kannur), and the coir from Alleppey (Alappuzha). And the Andhra ikats he admired greatly.

Did John wear only Indian textiles? Do you wear clothes only from Fabindia?

I source from anywhere, my size is a bit difficult to find. I often have fabrics tailored to my choice. John only wore Fabindia. He had one formal suit with him, from America, which he wore for our wedding, which I still have, carefully preserved. He was like home-grown — only Fabindia shirts and kurtas, teamed with pants for work, and with pyjamas for the evenings. He loved kurtas and shirts made from Indian fabrics, he loved loose cotton weaves, which were so cool on the skin.

How is his legacy or policy preserved today in Fabindia?

Fabindia has undergone changes under my son, William. My daughter too is on the board of Fabindia. John would not have expanded so much, for this needs delegation, which he never wished to do. My son feels that we have to move on, to move with the times, to survive. He has been right… this is an emerging India that is surging forward. We are following John's wish of the employees being a part of the company — they are all shareholders.

Tell us a little about this book…

This book is a sentimental journey. I get very emotional about it — a simple man's simple ideas, simply executed with sincerity. The book brings it out well, and Radhika has done a great job.

Published on January 27, 2011

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