Old School Business with a New School Mentality
At age 13, Ali Shaikh, Fabric House owner, remembers his father bringing him to work and telling him to start learning the family business, where he would work on weekends and after school. “School doesn’t really get you ready for the real world. There’s nothing like hands-on experience and getting your hands dirty,” Ali explains.
The Shaikh family has been in the fabrics business for 34 years. His father, Siraj Shaikh, started out working in a fabric store when he came to the U.S. from India with a dream to open his own store.
Siraj opened his first store after working seven days a week for four years, while living in a one-room flat, which Ali describes as a space that he couldn’t believe actually existed in Manhattan. The family’s first store opened in a 600-square-foot space near Port Authority, which the family ran for eight years.
“If we had three customers walk in, it was full,” states Ali. They then moved to a 2,200-square-foot location for 22 years, which remains open while they build out their new space.
Your family has been in the fabric business for two generations. How has it changed?
“The economy itself has changed so much. It’s a domino effect. When the economy is doing well, business goes well. When the economy is down, the business suffers. It’s all tied together. During the heyday, everyone wanted to make their own clothes to be different. Fashion schools didn’t have enough teachers to handle the demand,” Ali explains.
“Now there’s so much technology and information. Social media designers are selling a simple hat or jacket and creating a business with 100 thousand followers; at the same time a number of major brands are closing stores and filing for bankruptcy. If you have 100 thousand people that are willing to pay $200-$300 dollars on your product, you have a business,” he says.
He thinks more small designers will do better than some department stores. And the Fabric House wants to be there to support these new designers.
You describe your business as “keeping it old school.” How do you accomplish this in a technologically changing industry?
Apparently, not having a website is one way Fabric House keeps it old school. Ali explains, “With a site in this business you open yourselves up to a lot of fraud. I would be hurt if we spent time putting together an order and it turned out to be fraudulent.”
Fabric House wants to stay a mom-and-pop business that’s hands-on and one-on-one. This way, they know what their customers want and get who they are. Ali adds, “With this approach, we don’t need thousands of customers, just our core customers that become like family.” This was shown when he called to check on their customers in Florida after Hurricane Irma. The interaction with his customers is where his foundation was built from working with his father.
You’re opening a new space in New York’s fashion district. How is it different from your original location?
Ali describes the new 7,500 square-foot location, which is right down the street from their old location, as having everything a new designer needs under one roof. They will do pattern making, sampling, small production, buttonholes, zipper insertions, and are even building out a showroom to meet with buyers. Normally, a designer would have to go to five different places.
Why do you have your own in-house designers and what do they do?
The new location has three in-house designers to handle bridal parties that often want to create something unique; new business models that are working with investors to start their own line; and also to have someone create sketches to create patterns and samples.
How does this new fabric business model help new designers?
“We plan to help young designers grow so they can pay it forward. We won’t charge designers to utilize the space to create designs, even if they don’t purchase fabric from us. We’ll just get a small commission,” explains Ali. They will also host fashion shows. This will give new and emerging designers a space to build. He compares it to a WeWork for fashion.
“It’s a great feeling to know you’re providing space to help people and create more jobs. There’s no competition in the field of helping people. You can turn around and no one will be chasing you,” he says with a smile.
What do you say to experts that tell new designers not to buy retail fabrics due to markups?
“I say, let’s not all be computers. You have to touch and feel fabric. It’s not like selling staples. If something goes wrong, you need to speak with someone to help fix the issue. No website in the world can compare to the walk-ins that come in the course of a day from all over the world,” he explains.
Their fabric has been purchased for Broadway plays, movies, a Queen from Jordan, ambassadors, senators, even a company that made a piece for the former First Lady Michelle Obama.
The Fabric House plans to duplicate this new model in stores in Chicago, Dallas, and Atlanta.
By: Theresa Majeed, Photography by Luis Chimbo