Frenchman Christian Fabre wears saffron… and runs a hugely successful fashion business out of Chennai, says SHONALI MUTHALALY
I arrive just in time for cake. From my glass-enclosed waiting room, I watch stylishly blasé young things stroll past, in turned up jeans, scuffed sneakers and designer slouches, gathering to cut a birthday cake. I lean forward curiously, trying to spot the man behind it all, Christian Fabre, in the cheery crowd.
In an appropriately dramatic moment, it parts and I see the silhouette of a figure, all flowing saffron robes and theatrical hair. I sit bolt upright and frantically plumb my mind: unfortunately, I seem to have missed the ‘How to address a cool Swami’ chapter in my etiquette book.
It doesn’t help that Fabre first walks me into his design studio, where Mika’s ‘Big Girl You Are Beautiful’ is blaring from a sleek white Apple computer. The designers who occupy the space look up from their clothes samples and sketches to say hello. Meanwhile Mika’s crooning about “A watering hole/ Where the girls are round/ And curves in all the right places”.
It’s all a little surreal. Especially when we set up the photo shoot, and Fabre yells “Don’t tickle me. Don’t pull my hair,” prompting everyone to burst into picture perfect laughter. A notice board states the ‘11 Commandments’ for life at Fashions International, in Ekkaduthangal. They include, ‘Don’t forget to have fun at work,’ ‘Let other people share your success,’ and ‘Never miss Kala’s coffee.’
As if on cue, Kala turns up with a tray of coffee. “We grow it ourselves in our hermitage in Kolli Hills,” grins Fabre. The coffee commandment is not the only one he follows. Despite being CEO of Fashions International (a huge, successful Chennai-based enterprise that co-ordinates between Indian factories and European buyers, besides creating their own designs) Fabre insists on sharing his success, and all the money that comes with it.
Which could explain why he has such a content workforce, which includes people who joined him soon after college and then stayed for decades. “I don’t say it can be replicated,” he says, as we settle in his office, lit by skylights. “When we get money, I pay salaries and income tax. I then invest 15 per cent for future growth, and the other 85 per cent is distributed among everyone here… the gardener, driver, right up to the executives.”
Since, as a Swami, he can’t own anything, his business partner, Jayapalan, lets him stay on the top floor of his house. And for ten days every month, he heads to the company’s Kolli Hills hermitage, to be one with nature (in every sense of the term, since he reportedly sheds both his worldly worries and his clothes there).
Fabre is probably one of the most fascinating CEOs of our times. He moved to Chennai in 1971, representing a European company which folded. Then he got divorced. “I stayed because I couldn’t go back to France defeated,” he says, talking of how he struggled for more than a decade, trying one unsuccessful business venture after another. “I had no money for food. I’d eat Modern Bread, with a sprinkle of sugar for lunch and dinner.”
Then, in 1988 he met a guru in Ulundurpettai, read a lot of books on religion and finally became a swami. He says he learnt that “we have to have the awareness of what we are not. We are not this person who is always crying. We are so much more.”
So he began Fashions International the same year, with just a table, phone and typing machine set on a veranda in T. Nagar. “I didn’t see myself begging for food at temples,” he says, adding that fortunately his guru understood him. “He told me, ‘you have the gift of bringing people work, and employment, so use it.’”
So, Fabre began sourcing Indian materials, designs and workmen for French fashion houses. “We sold services. We were one of the first BPOs in India,” he grins. In the beginning, they made 50,000 pieces a year. Now they make 4 million. Fashions International, which grew by an astounding 28 per cent last year alone, now supplies France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Italy and Spain. Doing some mental arithmetic Fabre says, “If you calculate, that’s about 70,000 jobs in India.”
His designers, who he takes to Europe twice a year so they can imbibe a sense of international fashion, have now created a line of clothes for India, which will be unveiled at a fashion show tomorrow. Created for the 18 to 30 age group, they will retail under the “Christian Fabre” label in India.
“There’s no such thing as luck,” he says. “Luck does not exist. Chance does not exist. It depends on your actions.” So now, he’s just hoping his good karma kicks in.