In 1958, John Bissell was sent to India on a Ford Foundation Fellowship to help the government’s early efforts to develop an export trade for its local fabrics. Since Bissell had spent two years at New York City’s Macy’s Department Stores, he was considered an “expert” worthy of educating the Indian government. Indeed, for two years this is what Bissell did, scouring the length and breadth of the country to line up skilled artisans to produce ethnic fabrics for export. As his Fellowship ended, Bissell saw a business opportunity, and so he stayed behind and founded Fabindia. Radhika Singh uses the fifty-year anniversary of the company to provide a vivid portrait of the company and its key players.
Fabindia is unlike many other companies in that its social mission of helping artisans was embedded in its business mission right from inception. Bissell, an American, loved and admired India so much that he married a local woman and settled down in that country. Upon his death in the 1990s, his son, William took over the company.
Radhika Singh does not tell the Fabindia story in a dry “this came first and that came next” chronology. What she does is inform her narrative with the personalities of the key players—John Bissell and his wife, Bim, in particular—and let their passion for ethnic Indian fabrics (and later on, other products) drive this intriguing story forward. We see the indefatigable spirit of John and his Fabindia team as they surmount one obstacle after another, not a few of which are caused by India’s byzantine bureaucracy, and legitimize the company in the brutally competitive export market.
The The Fabric of Our Lives is not a business book, although it does offer a good description of the company’s business model and practices. Instead, it is the portrait of a pioneering man who saw possibilities where others saw obstacles and who saw, in his dream, a way to make a social change.