Kishore Biyani makes remarkable comeback after selling Pantaloons, but can he again be No. 1?

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Kishore Biyani

For a man who built his retail empire with brick and mortar, Kishore Biyani, rather uncharacteristically, has his online address — his email id — vertically inscribed on the doors to his massive cabin on the 10th floor of Future Retail in the Mumbai suburb of Vikhroli West. Three words — Simplicity, Happiness and Indianness — hang on the wall next to the chairman’s door. “KB (as he is called by colleagues) is the most accessible man,” says a member of his staff. “But he needs to be reminded about the mails,” he mischievously grins. Biyani’s cabin is spartan: bright colours are absent and the walls are as white as the sightscreen at the Indian Premier League (IPL), which has Fashion Big Bazaar (FBB), the group’s apparel chain, as the official style sponsor.

Biyani, in white shirt and blue trousers, is glued to his armoury of iPad and iPhone. “Why does Apple need ID verification so many times?” he asks, peeved, as he scrolls the tablet and hands over his phone to an employee to fix the glitch. Is this the same man who was supposed to be averse to technology (read ecommerce) a few years ago, and seemed anachronistic as he swore that brick and mortar would never go out of fashion? “It is never this versus that,” says Biyani. “It is always this and that, whatever you do in life. Consumption happens through every means.”

His personal style may be simple, even subdued, but when he says, “Humne to zindagi bhar fashion kiya hai (I have done fashion all my life)”, he is talking about the threads of the apparel retail tale in the country before it forked into online and offline. Some of those threads are stuck to him. Biyani opened the first Pantaloons store in Kolkata in 1997. After 15 years, he eventually sold Pantaloons apparel business to Aditya Birla Nuvo in 2012 — that was just before Flipkart forayed into online fashion with an advertisement that screamed “Fashion Has a New Address”. Now, Biyani is staging a comeback in brick-and-mortar fashion just as the parallel online universe is seeing convulsions and consolidations and the market-riling game of global players.

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