Face To Face With Bibi Russell, Founder, Bibi Productions

264631_236823282997909_6920312_nBiBi Russell is the founder of ‘Bibi Productions’-a world renowned fashion house working with crafts people in Bangladesh. Bibi was born in Chittagong, Bangladesh. She grew up in Dhaka studying in Kamrunnessa Govt. Girls’ High School and Home Economics College. Later she went to London and earned a graduate degree in fashion from London College of Fashion. In the next few years, Bibi worked as a fashion model with different prestigious organizations and talented people.

In 1994 BiBi returned to Bangladesh and opened Bibi Productions in the year of 1995, a fashion house, fusing indigenous Bengali cultural elements into her line. With BiBi Productions she first claimed the much cited slogan ‘Fashion for Development’. Then on Bibi has been working with crafts people with a vision to save crafts and revive their dream.

Bibi has received recognition from many prestigious organizations around the world- “Honorary Fellowship” by the London Art University, “Entrepreneur Woman of the Year” by the Foundation of Entrepreneur Women, “UNESCO Special Envoy: Designer for Development”, UNESCO Artist for Peace, UNAIDS Goodwill Ambassador, and YODONA Award for Humanity are few of many.

Q. This is really wonderful to have you. Please tell us about yourself and your passion.

I’m Bibi, I work with and for crafts people. My aim is to save and revive crafts and help crafts people to live better life. I believe in positive Bangladesh. Whatever I do I keep that in mind. I believe fashion can be used for social and economic development. Fashion, for me, is a cultural identity, a necessity. In todays world no one can go naked. You need a piece of cloth to cover your pride. This holds a very fundamental truth that fashion is a part and parcel of social and economic development which opens up many doors of opportunities for us.

As I said earlier, I work for and with crafts people and whatever I do I make sure that it’s a sustainable income for the people involved. I want to ensure better livelihood for crafts people and education and health for their children.

I was born in Chittagong, that time it was East Pakistan, and brought up in Dhaka. But my father was from Rangpur and my Mother from Dhaka. So we were brought up in a multi-cultural environment and I had a very wonderful childhood. Today I know many things about our art, culture, music, and everything because of my brilliant childhood and all the credit goes to my parents. They made us believe that there is a positive Bangladesh. They made us feel proud of Bangladesh.

I’m very lucky to see and come close to many great politicians, great artists, and great musicians during my childhood. Our house was open to all. So, we were not like stuck rich children, we had a very beautiful childhood and we did travel a lot.

Now, when I look back I understand, when a person grows her dream grows too. So this dream of mine, to serve, is not an accident rather something deep-seated into my heart. It was there from my childhood, despite the fact that it became clear when I was in abroad.

I want to preserve the heritage of my country, foster creativity, provide employment, empower women and contribute towards the eradication of poverty. That is what I’m committed to do. Save the crafts people and help revive their dreams.

I did my basic education in Bangladesh. I went to a Bangla medium school and then I went to Home Economics Collage to do my BSC. I was lucky enough to have Siddika Kabir, Hosna Banu Apa and many other great teachers. I received my education on fashion in London, from London College of fashion; I’m graduated as a fashion designer.

Today I’m back because I love this country. I believe there is a positive Bangladesh which was implanted within me by my parents. That’s why I think how you grow up; and how you spent your childhood is a very important issue. Nobody asked me to come back; neither did my parents give me an injection of DeshPrem [love for country]. They knew I would come back and do this. My two feet are in the ground. I lead a very normal life.

I want to preserve the heritage of my country, foster creativity, provide employment, empower women and contribute towards the eradication of poverty. That is what I’m committed to do. Save the crafts people and help revive their dreams.

Now, when I look back I understand, when a person grows her dream grows too. So this dream of mine, to serve, is not an accident rather something deep-seated into my heart. It was there from my childhood, despite the fact that it became clear when I was in abroad.

Q. Tell about one of your favorite memories?

Well, I have hundreds of sweet, favorite memories. I can’t tell you one because I don’t want to tag a single memory as favorite. Many memories make you. It’s equally true for me. So, I don’t have one favorite memory but many.

Q. You were a renowned international fashion model and worked with brilliant people & prestigious organizations and life as a top fashion model and life as an Entrepreneur is completely different. So, what’s the reason, what’s your underlying motivation behind becoming an entrepreneur and designer?

I think someone like me would not do something very suddenly. I’m a very focused person. I knew what I wanted to do but it had to be very clear to me whether I could do it or not before embarking on a journey. So I took time. I had a dream but it took me many years, 20 years, to make my dream come true. I wanted to come back but I wanted to have mental and physical strength to be able to put everything behind my dream and drop everything on earth to make it happen.

You can go forward in your life but you have to be focused. Being a girl from Bangladesh and to work in Europe and to make your first name known to the world is not an easy to do. It’s a very tough job but I did it.

Then and again, as I told you earlier I was brought up in a very cultured family. I saw and met great people in my childhood. And I always wanted to make a difference. I think family, how you grow up, is very important. My parents always make a list of stars in the sky for us. There were Tagore, Shakespeare, Nazrul, Jibonanondo Dash, and many more and they never made me feel like you are the star. So, I never felt myself like a star. Since my childhood I had stars to follow. It was built-in inside me. And my major source of motivation or inspiration is within.

Most importantly, I believe that whatever success I had in Europe or in the world it was because of Bangladesh. I owe this to my nation. If I had one bit of success it was because the world was curious about me, it was because I was from Bangladesh, so I wanted to give back. That’s what motivated me to come back and does what I’m doing now.

You can go forward in your life but you have to be focused. Being a girl from Bangladesh and to work in Europe and to make your first name known to the world is not an easy to do. It’s a very tough job but I did it. So, I thought if could do tough there I could do it in my own country.

I believe that whatever success I had in Europe or in the world it was because of Bangladesh. I owe this to my nation. If I had one bit of success it was because the world was curious about me, it was because I was from Bangladesh, so I wanted to give back. That’s what motivated me to come back and does what I’m doing now.

Bibi productions web

web

Q. Please briefly tell us about ‘Bibi Productions’, what’s the main idea?

I came back to Bangladesh on the first day of 1994. Prior of that I traveled around and used to come to Bangladesh often but not for living. My parents always lived in Bangladesh. So, I used to come for long weekend. It’s exigent to know Bangladesh very well. But when I came back I knew I came back to live in Bangladesh. I came back to make my dream happen. There is a big difference between coming on holidays and living because each area of Bangladesh has its own dialect, culture, food habit and way of life. I had to be used to that.

Bibi ProductsIn July 1995, after much ado, I opened ‘BiBi Productions’. Back then I knew many NGOs and people who were working in same arena but I wanted to do something very different. So, I did the things differently. In Bibi Productions I’m the founder but surrounding me none of is my relative here. I picked up people who I thought believe in what I believe, and believe in positive Bangladesh.

Diversity of people is an important ingredient of Bibi Productions. All members of my team are from lower middle class families-poor the world says. I wanted to give them the confidence that poverty is not an incurable disease. You can come out of poverty if you work harder. You have to plan, you have to be focused, and you have to work hard to make your plan happen.

ProductsI started Bibi Production with the vision to save and revive crafts and to a better living standard for crafts people. There might be one or two mistakes I’ve made, but that does not matter, everybody does.

Bibi Productions is a hundred percent self funded project and financed by me. I never had anyone paying me. I’ve been doing this for 18 years, tough life is gone. I never had a sponsor, I never had anything. But it’s not a complaint. Whatever I have in life I put it in Bibi Productions. When I came back I thought many people and Bank would come forward but no one. They give it to corporate and big NGOs, they don’t believe. I thought it’s may be because they can sell the poverty but I’m showing not the misery of the poverty but the beauty. I’m showing hands of crafts people have magic.

However, at Bibi Productions I’m just the founder; I’ll be leaving Bibi Production for the people of Bangladesh. There is no other way, if I show you my card; you can see I’m just the founder- I’m not the managing director, other people do the work and they own BIbi Productions.

I thought it’s may be because they can sell the poverty but I’m showing not the misery of the poverty but the beauty. I’m showing hands of crafts people have magic.

Q. Please tell us few more bits and pieces of the story.

Well, till now I’m picking up and at the first phase of the ladder. Of course, it is much better now. Back then it was even difficult to make people understand that this was possible, something that can be done. Now fashion for development is picked up by almost all the countries because it’s important for social and economic development. May be I don’t make tons of money, or I’m still at the first step of the ladder, or Bangladesh does not give me any sponsorship or anything, that does not stop me working. I make sure our village people, our crafts people have what they need to make magic happen and to revive crafts.

I disagree with the majority of the people who think everything comes from the privileged class. There are no fools. I’m leaving Bibi Productions, if you have talent, if you know how to do it, there is a chance.

Q. How many people work at ‘Bibi Productions’ now? And how do they work?

In office and around we work around 30 people. They all are permanent. We work like a family.
At Bibi Productions three things are very important for me- one: whatever little money I earn I make sure that crafts people get their share straight away. All the people work in my office are from ordinary family and I make sure that they get paid for their contribution. No one gets paid second day of the month. That is my first priority that employees and crafts people get paid on time.

The whole world wants to know about Bibi Productions, and how Bibi Productions works. I always tell my team that, the most excellent team anybody can ever have, don’t think you have achieved everything, there are much better job to be done. We are always on run to make things better.

Research is an imperative for us. Whatever little money I make in Bibi Productions, I put it in research. If today I die, Bangladesh will go 30 years ahead with what I’m doing with my own money. It’s not like that if I die tomorrow Bibi Productions will be closed down, no; there are people who will take it forward.

Research is an imperative for us. Whatever little money I make in Bibi Productions, I put it in research. If today I die, Bangladesh will go 30 years ahead with what I’m doing with my own money.

Q. You mean someone will take your legacy ahead.

It’s not about legacy; it’s about crafts and crafts people. If there is no one to take it forward then what will happen to crafts, to crafts people?

Q. Please tell us few of the problems you have faced to date and the way you out performed them?

I started Bibi Productions back in 1995. I know the struggle. Only thing which surprises me is, if I knew, it took me many years to make my name, Bibi, familiar to the world. I thought with that I would get lot of support in Bangladesh, especially, from Banks, Cooperates, but I did not.

I do exhibitions in Paris and other countries. Do you think I do that with my own money? No, never. I have sponsors and patrons. But I never did an exhibition in Bangladesh. Because why do I spend my own money to show my work to my own people. I have better things to do with my money. There are sponsors who want to sponsor my work in India, Srilanka, Cambodia and so on. That surprises me how come the rich society, Banks and educated society don’t support me here in my own country. They are giving crorer loan; of course they would not give me because I work with poor people and banks don’t bank on poor.

I’m a person with full of energy, and I never get depressed. My mental satisfaction is there, in top. I never had to take a sleeping tablet to go to sleep. I sleep whenever I need to go to sleep. I wake up to go forward. And I work hard.

Q. 18 years-it’s really a long journey. And in case of Bangladesh it’s of course not a very common phenomenon.

I enjoy my journey. I love working. And I have the freedom.

Q. Tell us about team, team problem, and problem with people. 

I used to come to Bangladesh often but I never understood the politics inside until I start living permanently. My problem with Bangladesh, with the society, is my name. People think I’m too famous. But I’m not. Thus, people used to come here to work because of Bibi not because of crafts people. They don’t handle crafts people properly, or their job properly. They think I’m may be the Bill Gates, tons of money. This caused me problem for time being. But when I understood I cut down those people and selected people who believe in this work, who have passion for crafts and crafts people. Who believes as much as it’s my baby, it’s their baby too. Now it’s okay. One of the distinctive characteristics of my team is: most of my team is from village.
You have problems in everywhere but problems help us to grow.

 My problem with Bangladesh, with the society, is my name. People think I’m too famous. But I’m not. Thus, people used to come here to work because of Bibi not because of crafts people. They don’t handle crafts people properly, or their job properly.

Q. Woman entrepreneurship

First of all I believe in women empowerment. My office, here in Dhaka, is all boys and I’m the only woman. I don’t believe woman empowerment means you put a red carpet on my way. I can compete with the man. Rather give me the chance I deserve to compete and give me a level playing field.

Q. Had you faced any problem because you were a woman? How did you outperform those?

Well, at the beginning of my journey I spent 99.9% of my time in village. So, I did not face any problem because of my gender identity. For first one year I tried to be close to them. It took me one year to make crafts people understand that I’m there for them, to give people the confidence. So, it was a lot easier in-terms of gender issue.

Yes, if I were in the Dhaka and going to banks, I never go to bank because I have bad experience, and going around with these people then might be I would have lots of problems.

But I choose who I want to work, who I want to recruit, and lead. It gives me the opportunity to work with best people. You rarely see me in any program because I don’t see our people know how to show respect to people. There is no point respecting me when I’m dead. I don’t think one should respect me because I’m a woman, but because I’m a human being.

Q. We really have very small number of woman entrepreneurs. What do you think about it?

That’s not true. In village level women are working in almost every sector. Whatever the number the situation is no means barren. If you go to ethnic places like, Cox’s bazaar, Rangamati, Monipur, everywhere women are attending economic activities and contributing. Well, the number may be not that much encouraging but I don’t think it’s frustrating too.

Q. Tell us something about your design.

I do many kinds of design but whatever I do, and why the whole world want me is because, I use local ingredients, local materials in my design. I work in nearly all the countries, everywhere I use local materials. It is a very important feature of my design.

I do a lot of research; I spend a big chunk of my money in research. This is the situation where no one comes forward to take part. I can tell you, if I die today, Bangladesh can go forward. This is very important for me.

Q. What it takes to become a successful designer?

No creative person can tell you that I’m very successful. If you think you are successful you will go down. You do day to day. I went to a very good collage and I learned and I worked very hard. I don’t go and download film, yeah I do listen music when I feel like that. But I go through lot of researches. I use local materials to produce world class design, for instance take Khadi- Khadi does not mean you have to make something that look like a politician’s cloth. You can make young things out of Khadi. I make diversified products out of local fabric and materials.

No creative person can tell you that I’m very successful. If you think you are successful you will go down. You do day to day.

Q. You are the first person to ask ‘fashion for development’; when and how the idea first came to your mind? And why that?

I always believe, because I’m a Bangladeshi, we made history for the first time with a piece of cloth-the Muslin. If we could make it in thirteen century then we can do that in twenty first century too. I think today we can do that. I don’t believe in charity, absolutely no charity. I always say that, I can compete with the world. If you know how to write you don’t need best pen you can do with any pen.

Q. Tell something for our young startup entrepreneurs and wanna be designers. 

For any one, it’s important to know what you are up to before embarking on a journey. I know Bangladesh very well. Before I went to Europe I knew about our culture, our heritage-credit goes to my parents, and every other thing. And later on I learned a lot from people. It has made my working a lot easier.

If you want to work in Bangladesh, you have to know Bangladesh politically, geographically, and you have to know religious binding and all other things. I can’t do a show in Bangladesh with bikini because I’m a Bengali Girl and I know what my culture is. So, you have to know your country, culture, people; you have to look into the eyes of people and see what’s in inside.

For any one, it’s important to know what you are up to before embarking on a journey. 

Do your own creation. Go out of convention. It’s unnecessary to make something because everybody does the same.
Respect human dignity. You have to respect people.

Today young people have so many chances, opportunities. You can know almost anything just by a finger tip. Recently, I was in Africa, there was a young girl asked me about my project in Senegal, she asked how do you do this in Senegal? I was amazed; I asked how do you know? I know everything about you-she replied. A 15 years old girl knows everything about me! This was sheer impossible in our time. Do make good use of your opportunities.

Stay focused. Money is not everything. There are many ways to make money. Choose one that also does some good for society. You also have to learn how to revolve money. I worked and learned how to make a 10 taka to 12. So, you have to know how to make it revolving.

Q. What are you reading now?

I’m a voracious reader, I read a lot. Now I’m reading autobiography of Salman Rushdie. Before that I finished reading a book on Surja Sen and Pritilota.

I always believe, because I’m a Bangladeshi, we made history for the first time with a piece of cloth-the Muslin. If we could make it in thirteen century then we can do that in twenty first century too.

Credits: Interview by Ruhul Kader // Interviewed on July 10, 2013

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