Shahnaz Husain's day typically begins with 20 minutes of yoga and stretching exercises. “It's good to keep the body supple,” she says. Next comes a 20-minute soak in bath water sprinkled with rose petals and drops of sandalwood oil. Ghazal music is usually playing softly. Husain washes her face with milk and graham flour. After the bath, she uses her Shaflower lotion, which counts wild turmeric and conessi bark among its active ingredients. A pedicure, manicure and facial massage with aloe vera follow.
Twice a week, Husain treats her hair with 16 egg whites mixed with lemon juice and olive oil. To keep her enormous mane a deep burgundy, she regularly applies a blend of henna powder, ground coffee beans, lemon juice, tea and as many as 20 eggs.
Business as usual: Husain in a custom-made lab coat in one of her factories near New Delhi. Michael Rubenstein / Redux Pictures
Nearly 40 years ago, Husain began creating simple beauty treatments in her home based on Ayurveda as well as beauty routines learnt from her mother. Today, Husain, who calls herself “princess” (a title handed down through her mother, who Husain says was a descendant of a royal Mughal family) has adroitly blended earthy tradition with aggressive modern marketing to create an ambitious little beauty empire.
The finances of the family-run company are private, but officials say it encompasses some 300 salon franchises, 53 beauty schools, 3,000 employees and nearly two dozen product lines. “If you ask anyone on the street if they know her, they'd say ‘yes',” says Yvonne Kok, a Euromonitor International research analyst based in South Asia.
Her potions are sold through an estimated 150,000 stores in India. Internationally, the brand is available from Seoul to Dubai to London.
By drawing on ancient herbal therapies to develop beauty treatments that Husain claims will improve vision, treat decaying teeth, heal dry skin and enhance eyelash growth, among other things—and then marking them up to luxury prices—she is ringing up sales to women drawn to the natural.
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Husain declines to specify her age beyond saying she's in her 60s. “You never give your age in the beauty business,” she says in her deep, gravelly voice. Last year she began a direct-selling division in India, enlisting as many as 50,000 representatives, the company says.
Now, Husain says she's ready for the US. Currently, Shahnaz Husain products have been sold in the US online through Amazon and Indian import shops, salons and grocery stores. Over the next few months, Shahnaz Husain Group of Companies predicts it will introduce its herbal remedies and luxury skin-care lines— made with diamond dust, crushed pearls and flecks of 24-karat gold—through national chains.
“Americans desperately need me. They've gone on too long without me,” Husain says. She has firm ideas about what women in the US are lacking. “The American woman is the woman in a hurry,” Husain says. They “need more facials, more skin care, more manicures, more pedicures. Their femininity is very neglected”. The hurdles are huge. Following Macy's acquisition of May department stores, negotiating beauty-counter space is harder than ever in the US. And although other speciality retailers, home-shopping networks and drug and grocery stores have expanded their beauty product offerings, plenty of niche brands have joined the market. Haya Morgenstern, the US distributor for Husain charged with finding a national retailer for the brand, says she plans to approach home-shopping network QVC, speciality beauty retailer Sephora and the Whole Foods grocery chain. Natural beauty products are, “no question, one of the hottest stories in the beauty business”, says Allen Burke, director of beauty merchandising for QVC, which sells a variety of cosmetics and toiletries that emphasize natural ingredients, including Bare Escentuals and Ojon. At Sephora stores, demand for natural and organic beauty products “has continued to grow significantly”, says a company spokeswoman. And at Whole Foods, a representative says that while the company hasn't seen many ayurvedic beauty products in the market, “we'd love to see more”.
Around 26 servants are on 24-hour call... The household staff of 60 operates by a system of small buzzers placed on Husain's favourite chairs
Recognizing perhaps how different the US market is, Morgenstern has asked product developers to tone down some of the Indian products. Natural cosmetics aficionados Stateside tend to be more sensitive to fragrances, she says, so she's asked for lighter scents on some items along with emphasizing the essential oils. Colours in certain hair and skin-care products will also be lightened. “Shamla is dark brown; that would be hard to adjust to (in the US),” says Morgenstern, referring to a shampoo enriched with dates and Indian gooseberry. Husain's push abroad comes as giant multinationals are aggressively moving on to her turf. In July, Estée Lauder Cos. said it bought a stake in an Indian ayurvedic beauty brand, Forest Essentials. And Procter and Gamble says it is “closely examining the opportunities associated with ayurvedics.” Last year, L'Oréal chief Jean-Paul Agon said the company was hunting for an Indian ayurvedic line to acquire. And in 2002, Unilever's Indian subsidiary, Hindustan Unilever, created Ayush, a line of ayurvedic beauty and health products. Hindustan Unilever is also a partner in a chain of 47 Ayush Therapy Centres that offer ayurvedic treatments. “We believe consumers are more and more interested in natural products,” says Daniel Rachmanis, Estée Lauder's senior vice-president of international business. “It's a trend that's going to continue not only in India but around the world.” Beauty sales in India totalled $6.3 billion (Rs28,350 crore) last year, up 13% over the previous year—more than four times the growth rate of the $52 billion US beauty market, and twice that of the $270 billion global market, according to estimates by consulting and market research firm Kline and Co.
Strolling by a gleaming Forest Essentials shop in Select Citywalk, a new, upscale mall in New Delhi, Husain shrugs off her deeper-pocketed competitors. “They sell their brand; I sell myself,” she says, pointing out several other giant beauty brands that have opened shops in the bustling shopping centre, including Clinique, MAC, The Body Shop and Lancôme. “Besides, those are cosmetics. I'm selling ayurveda—civilization in a jar.” Assessing India's enormous beauty market presents challenges because it is highly fragmented and difficult to audit. According to Kline estimates, Husain's company is India's market leader for skin-care products sold in salons and through other professional channels, yet it accounts for only 2% of the $630 million natural products market here. People close to the company say the firm draws from $100 million to $200 million in annual revenue. To chronicle her days and ensure that she always has fresh footage on hand for local media, Husain has one of her staff photographers follow her almost everywhere, often accompanied by a staff cameraman. She prefers to have the right side of her face photographed to better show off a pea-size diamond stud in her nose. Calling herself a “workaholic”, Husain says she often works until 4am or 5am, concluding her day with a foot massage given by one of her live-in beauticians. Around 26 servants are on 24-hour call in Husain's main New Delhi residence (according to Husain, she keeps 19 homes in New Delhi, a 35-acre farm, and houses in Mumbai and London). Her round-the-clock assistants include a florist, plumber, carpenter, electrician, phone operator, make-up artist, photographer and hairstylist, in addition to live-in cooks, drivers, housekeepers, tailors and errand runners. The daytime household staff of 60 operates by a system of small buzzers placed on Husain's favourite chairs in each room. Senior advisers at her company keep in regular contact with Husain via the two cellphones that she frequently speaks into at the same time, even while multiple callers stand by on her landline. When Husain needs to call after-hours meetings with company executives, she asks her managers to bring along their families, whom she keeps entertained on a separate floor with games, food and movies. “The wives don't feel their husbands' absence when they get to come along,” she says. “That way everyone stays happy.” In her primary residence, she set up the public sitting room—“the white house”, she calls it—with several white couches covered in faux white fur and dotted with gold-sequined throw pillows. Statues of horses, Buddhas, swans and cherubs, in crystal, porcelain and gold, fill tables and shelves scattered throughout the room, lit by multiple crystal chandeliers. Husain likes to keep her reflection nearby. Most rooms have mirrors on the walls, and jewelled hand mirrors remain within arm's reach. A mirror is also attached to the back of the driver's headrest in her cars, so she can see herself while in transit.
Husain's fashion taste is also elaborate. She designs all her clothes, which are sewn by four staff tailors and two embroiderers, she says. Before heading to a nearby mall to relax in her favourite New Delhi coffee shop, Husain donned a full-length brown suede jacket with a coordinating top and skirt. The ensemble featured trim and giant pockets made in Louis Vuitton's brown leather monogram print. “I've probably had 11 Louis Vuitton bags cut up to decorate my clothes,” she says, pulling out what looks like a diamond-encrusted Louis Vuitton cellphone. “I'd make a great ambassador for Louis Vuitton, too.” Reclining in the coffee shop's lounge chair, Husain was interrupted by one of her omnipresent security guards. Her back was too close to the shop's busy entrance, inviting an attack, the guard said. Husain says she has received death threats and now takes extra precautions: She travels in one of two cars, employs extra security and frequently changes her daily routine.
Husain was born in Hyderabad to a politically powerful, liberal-minded father and a wealthy, conservative mother. She led a sheltered childhood, which included attending boarding school and riding in chauffeured cars with curtained windows, in keeping with her mother's view of propriety. But from an early age, Husain had a hunger for publicity. “When there was lightning, I would run outdoors,” she says. “I'd tell everyone, ‘God is taking my picture!'”
She excelled in school, making her father proud. “I lived to please him,” Husain says. But her outgoing personality troubled her mother. “‘This girl is going to get out of control; let's get her married,' my mother said.” By age 14, Husain was engaged; she met her fiancé only once in a supervised gathering. “I was told there was a boy here I was to marry,” she says. “I walked into the room, said hello, and then walked out. That's all I saw of him.” Married at 15, she became a mother within a year. Then restlessness set in. “I cried every day; I was so bored,” she recalls. To pass time, she started attending beauty classes in New Delhi. Eventually, Husain's father arranged for her husband, who worked for the Indian government, to land a post abroad. In London, Husain enrolled in a course at Helena Rubinstein. She also took classes offered by L'Oréal, Schwarzkopf and other beauty companies in Tehran, where her husband was eventually based. “I didn't want to learn hair and make-up; I wanted only to do beauty treatments like massage,” she says. “I'm not a beautician; I'm a therapist.” Husain and her husband returned to India and settled in New Delhi. Borrowing Rs35,000 from her father in the early 1970s, Husain set up shop at home. She offered free consultations and then charged for natural remedies, a novel concept for a salon at that time in New Delhi, she says. Clients flocked. “The only thing I didn't have time to do was count all my money,” Husain jokes. Concocting facial scrubs in her store, she named her shop Shahnaz Husain Salon. “I never thought of calling it anything else.”
When clients began asking for lotions to take home, Husain started selling her products in small bottles bought at a local market that she labelled herself. One of her first creations, Shagrain, was inspired by her mother's recipe of rice and rose petals, herbs and sandalwood oil for a nightly exfoliation. After Husain's salon had been open five years, a Kolkata client asked her if she could open a franchise salon there. “I didn't know what a franchise was,” Husain says. “But I agreed anyway.” The young entrepreneur gave birth to a second child, a son. Today she speaks lovingly of the relationship that gradually blossomed with her husband. In 1987, he resigned from his government post to work with Husain on her business. When her husband suffered a fatal cardiac arrest in 1997, she says, she nearly died of a broken heart. “I didn't know life without him.” She also mourns their son, Samir, who died earlier this year after a plunge from his in-laws' balcony. Husain was told the accident was a suicide. Awaiting the results of an investigation, she said she suspects otherwise. Today, Husain is married to Raj Kumar Puri, who calls himself an investor and says he isn't involved in running Husain's business. She devotes herself to developing products and diversifying her company. Her men's line, called Man Power, includes a hair-care product called Shalocks, which claims to prevent balding. “Men are the same all over,” she says. “They connect the hair on their head with their virility.” Puri credits his wife's products for his full head of hair. Most Shahnaz Husain products are sold at luxury prices, though one of the company's biggest sellers is its eye kohl—a wide black eyeliner resembling a huge lipstick and crafted, according to vice-president Suresh Kumar, from carbon ash scraped from burned mustard oil mixed with almond oil (“to increase eyelash growth,” Kumar says) and trifala (“to improve vision”). In India, her Diamond range of skin-care products sells for about Rs760. In recent years, Husain has expanded into more mass-market offerings through her line of skin-whitening cream called Fair One. Such creams are sold throughout Asia. The line had $280 million in sales last year, according to Euromonitor estimates. Serving as president of the company is Husain's daughter, Nelofar Currimbhoy, who closely resembles her mother. Currimbhoy is expected to succeed Husain. “She's an aura; it's so hard to describe her,” Currimbhoy says of her mother. “I will have very big shoes to fill.” A third generation has joined the executive ranks: Currimbhoy's son is a vice-president. Mother and daughter develop new formulations, collaborating with a team of chemists and ayurvedic doctors on staff. Sometimes, they consult ayurveda experts. Often, Husain weighs in. During a recent meeting with her staff, Husain rejected new packaging prototypes for a skin-care line called Shahnaz Ayurveda. The problem: The bottles didn't bear her photo. “We've tried to launch products here without my face on them, and they always fail,” she says. “People need to see me.