Meet the queen of au naturel

WELL-LOVED: Shahnaz Husain surrounded by a bevy of fans
WELL-LOVED: Shahnaz Husain surrounded by a bevy of fans

Shahnaz Husain on pioneering the herbal beauty business in India, before launching a global empire with her eponymous brand that is currently a case study at Harvard


Nivriti Butalia

Published: Thu 8 Nov 2018, 11:00 PM

Last updated: Fri 9 Nov 2018, 1:00 AM

At 3pm on a Saturday in August, I land up at the house of Shahnaz Husain in Delhi's Greater Kailash neighbourhood. It's been raining. I make an entry in the visitor's register at the gate that is manned by three men in a portacabin; a fourth ushers me in.
I pass more staff as I'm escorted into the palatial living room: rows of white sofas with gold coloured cushions, a large TV screen, a pair of blue floor to ceiling vases, two tall chairs upholstered in gold fabric.
A liveried man in white gloves wheels in a trolley and plies me with a sandwich and a sliced blueberry muffin that I decline. Shahnaz Husain is yet to make her entry. It'll be a little while. I wait on one of the white sofas and accept a cup of coffee.
I am curious and excited to meet this long-familiar character, a name that I have grown up with. An early childhood memory is the fragrance of a product from the Sha-range that my mother massaged into her face every night. All Shahnaz Husain products used to be prefixed with Sha, I remember: Shatone, Shalife, Shaeyes, Shaplus. With the new range of products, this has changed somewhat.
She arrives within half an hour of me waiting, in a long blue kurta emblazoned with gold swirls, apologises profusely, and settles into a white throne, surrounded by staff. I am as surprised by her gruff tone as I later will be by her full laugh.
Her hair has strands of gold coloured threads woven in. There is a man brandishing a comb, Mohammed Shakil, who has been on her rolls for 35 years. It's Shakil's job to ensure not a hair is ever out of place.
Standing up as she walks in, I address her as ma'am. She has to be in her 70s. She asks one of her employees if I have been brought up to speed on the latest on the Sha-empire front. "The other day", she says, in my direction, "we had someone come in who asked me if I knew about Ayurveda. I said, okay, can't do this, please do your homework and come back".
I feel confident that I'm not going to be shown the door.
I didn't think the interview would take longer than an hour - but after two-and-a-half hours, and despite myself, I am still in her house, listening to her.
Post introductions and a brief chat, we relocate from the all-white darbar to a cosier room with dimmer light and ornately-framed paintings on the walls. She slumps into what is obviously a preferred spot, a sofa with a call bell on the arm, a small square plastic switch.
I start with the questions, but soon get the impression that they are beside the point to her. She's done this numerous times. We switch between English and Urdu-Hindi. At times, anecdotes replace straight answers. I let her talk, taking my cues from her, and scribble disjointed quotes - "I'm a creation of the press"; "Burberry is a great morning brand".
Nargis and Tanuja, the Hindi film actors of yore would come to her for skin consultation. Did she charge them? "I never charge just for advice." At times, I have to turn off the voice recorder to get an anecdote off the record.
During the course of our interaction, I am struck by one aspect of her persona: a mix of earthiness and unabashed self-tooting. Her anecdotes are diverse and her self-promotion, transparent. She has an offhand way of taking inventory of her accomplishments for the benefit of me, the media person. "Put that in", she might say, or "Acha, maybe don't put that in". Most of all, though, I am taken in by her bell on the sofa.
There is an obvious dependence on the people who assist her. She tells me about the chartered accountant who's been with the Shahnaz brand "forever".
"Rao!" she calls out. The staffer rushes in. Ma'am dispenses orders, but she never has to finish her sentence. Remarkably, these guys seem to be able to intuit exactly what it is that madam wants. Fetch this, fetch that - a poetry book, a box of Sha products in the all-new packaging, a Burberry coat she picked up on sale that she wants me to see - it all materialises without her having to go into any great detail.
I ask her how long the staff have been around. She picks up her intercom - the second favourite device after the bell - and quizzes them. It looks good: Malik has been around for 47 years; Kohli - 38; Dharamveer, 31.
Rao is summoned to switch on a screen to show me a video of young fans flocking to her recently when she went for a walk to a mall in Saket. I ask her, don't you want to slap them when they don't let you walk in peace? Na, na, she says, unblinking at the out-of-line question. Look at them, I get so much love, she says, telling me that a selfie is over just like that. She snaps her fingers.
I ask her, why no nail polish, how come short nails for the "princess" of a beauty empire? She attributes it to testing and creating products. Long nails won't do.
I am struck by her love for Starbucks. Something about the ambience in the coffee shop "calms" her (the coffee I was served earlier was in a white mug with the Starbucks logo).
We talk about her brand, her painting (she still paints to destress), her poetry - she writes; has a "memory book" upstairs. Do I want to see, she asks, and presses that bell.
Excerpts from the interview:
Why did you get into the beauty business?
I never planned it this way. My life was on a very different course. I was married at the age of 15 and, by the time I was 16, I had become a mother. Life seemed perfect, but I was bored with the drudgery of endless routine. Then the mental upheaval began. During that time, I wrote: "Let my life not be/ A series of days and nights/ Breaths and sighs/ So that when I die/ I can say. It has been worthwhile."
I wanted to be someone who made a difference. I was always interested in beauty and making others beautiful, so I settled on it as a career. Determined to get the best training possible, I decided to work my way to the prized institutions of the West, to learn cosmetic therapy and cosmetology. My husband was posted in Tehran at the time, as head of foreign trade with the State Trading Corporation of India. I loved to write, so I started writing articles for the Iran Tribune. Somehow, I was convinced that if I was highly qualified in my field, I could have the world at my feet. So, gradually, I worked my way to leading institutions such as Helena Rubinstein, Christine Valmy, Schwarzkopf and Lancome, among others.
What did you apply on your skin before you came up with your own creams?
We followed my mother's home remedies, using ingredients like rose water, turmeric, cream of milk, gram flour (besan), coconut oil, henna, eggs, etc., for our skin and hair. In fact, I have used many of those home remedies to formulate products. My Sharose rose-based skin tonic is one example.
Several of our readers will want to know about your hair. What is the secret? How does it always look so grand? And how have you not seemed to age at all over the years?
I use my own products as well as home remedies. I have mentioned before that a dozen eggs are mixed in my henna paste, along with other ingredients, like lemon juice, catechu (kattha), amla, etc. I also have a bowl of sprouts daily. They are rich in amino acids, which are so important for the hair.
You built an empire in a market that was so nascent back then. How did you spot the opportunity?
When I opened my first herbal salon, herbal beauty care, as we know it today, was non-existent. I started customised beauty care in a small way, based on individual needs and client feedback. We followed a clinical system, with proper analysis of skin and hair, and actually wrote prescriptions. At a time when there were only superficial beauty treatments, I knew that my herbal products and 'care and cure' principle would be successful. The results were there for all to see. I would say that I created the market for herbal beauty care. Since then, it is herbal beauty care that has driven the growth of the beauty business in India.
You've often talked about how your father supported you.
My father inspired me to follow my dreams. When I started my business, he taught me to have faith in my own abilities. When I opened my first herbal clinic in my own home, it was my father from whom I borrowed Rs35,000. It is his encouragement, support and understanding that have made me what I am today.
Can you tell us about the photograph of you looking up into the camera that is on a lot of your products. Where and when was it shot? And how has it has stayed all these years?
Among several photographs that were taken around the time that I entered the international market during the Festival of India in 1980, I selected that one for the logo. Since my name became the brand, I did not want it to be a faceless brand name or corporate. I wanted to project the reality of the person behind the name, who is herself trained in cosmetology. However, we recently decided to change the logo. I feel that changes and innovations make the business dynamic.
Do you think you had the first mover advantage in the market when you started in the late '70s? What are youngsters today seeking from beauty products and how do you cater to that?
We are well positioned in the premium market, with our new product ranges, including the latest Flower Botanic Range. We have also introduced organic products for the middle segment, which are doing very well on the strength of brand identity. Our products are free from parabens, sulphates, mineral oil and synthetic colours. Our new products - like our new range of deodorants, dry shampoo, anti-hair fall serum and anti-pigmentation serum - have positioned us very well in the market... We are known for our therapeutic products and treatments for specific skin and hair problems. We have introduced products like anti-acne face wash, anti-acne gel and anti-dandruff hair rinse, specifically for the younger generation.
Do you still travel a lot?
I travel a lot for business and showcase our products in beauty expos regularly, especially at the India International Trade Fair, the Olympia Beauty Show, Cosmoprof etc.
You've often spoken of innovation and the need to not rest on your laurels. In what specific ways do you keep abreast of new trends in the market?
Learning never stops. I keep myself informed of the new developments in the manufacturing of cosmetic products. I have always incorporated advanced scientific techniques in product innovation, combining them with our ancient Ayurvedic knowledge. Innovation is extremely important. It has made our business dynamic.
There is a lot of talk in the market today about clean beauty and sustainable products. But you got there decades ahead of the others, starting off in your kitchen in Lucknow... What do you feel when the media makes so much of these buzzwords today that you helped create some 40 years ago?
When the worldwide 'Back to Nature' movement began, I was already there and established. When the world was looking for a natural alternative, I was already offering it. In fact, I always believed that India has a great deal to offer the world in terms of Ayurveda, our ancient system of herbal healing. I feel a sense of achievement that I am recognised as the pioneer of herbal beauty care. In fact, I became a case study in Harvard Business School and now I am a Harvard subject in business history for 'Emerging Markets'.
In all your interactions with students and academics at MIT, Harvard, Oxford and London School of Economics on Brand India and Ayurveda, what are some of the questions that you're always asked? Are you tired of providing tips?
I am not asked for beauty tips when I interact with international and Indian universities and educational institutions. In fact, they ask me questions about business: how I established an international brand without commercial advertising, my franchise system, Ayurveda, etc.
I must ask, give us three beauty tips for an air-conditioned environment like Dubai?
The first aspect is hydration, because exposure to air-conditioning depletes moisture. Use rehydrant cleansing gels, instead of soap to cleanse the skin. Apply moisturisers after cleansing and whenever the skin feels dry. Apply ingredients like honey or aloe vera gel at least once daily to improve the skin's ability to retain moisture. Nourish the skin at night, before bedtime, if the skin is normal to dry. Remove make-up with moist cotton wool and cleansing gel.

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