When one becomes a household name, one is, by default, elevated to a certain level of exclusivity. But with some people, turning into a brand name only brings them closer to the people. Shahnaz Husain is one such personality. In an interview, After Hrs gets up, close and personal with this pioneer to know more about her journey, struggles and achievements
You have been invited by MIT to give a lecture in November. Not many Indians have enjoyed this honour. How do you feel about it?
It is recognition of my efforts to promote Ayurveda and our international achievements. In fact, I was also invited by Harvard Business School to speak on how I established an international brand without commercial advertising. Recently, I also spoke at University of Oxford on Women Entrepreneurs in India and London School of Economics on India’s rising global economic influence.
Your daughter has written your biography, Flame. What is your opinion of the book?
Flame is an emotional experience and signifies a very proud moment for me, because my daughter has written it from her heart and that too with so much sensitivity and insight. The book took me on a beautiful journey into the past, with glimpses of my childhood, my early married life and my struggle to emerge from a sheltered life into the world of entrepreneurship. I see it as a labour of love.
You got into this industry at a time when it was considered a taboo by some and luxury by others...
I had to overcome various social and economic hurdles. It was a time when women were just stepping out of their homes and pursuing careers. It was my family’s support and understanding that helped me to overcome barriers and realise my dreams. But I never planned it this way. My life was on a very different course. I was married at 15 and at 16, I was a mother. Life seemed perfect, but I was bored with the drudgery of endless routine. I was always interested in beauty and in making others beautiful, so I decided on beauty as a career. I was determined to get the best training possible and decided to work my way to the prized institutions of the West, to learn cosmetic chemistry and cosmetology. My husband was posted in Tehran at the time and because I loved to write, I started contributing articles to 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 like Helena Rubinstein, Christine Valmy, Swarzkopf, Lancome and Lean of Copenhagen.
While training in London, I came across instances of damage caused by chemical treatments. In a way, this changed the course of my life and career. I wanted to find a natural alternative that was safe. My study of Ayurveda convinced me that it could offer the ideal answers to modern cosmetic-care. I came back to India and started my first herbal salon in the verandah of my home in New Delhi, in 1971. I established customised beauty care, with a personalised style, based on individual needs and problems. I adopted the concept of herbal care and cure. I devised my own salon treatments and formulated my own products.
Now that innumerable international brands have flooded the Indian market, where does your brand stand?
Herbal beauty care throughout India is fashioned after the Shahnaz Husain products and innovations. The brand has already established identity and loyalty. We are the leaders in the premium segment in Ayurvedic beauty care. We have also entered the middle segment with our Shahnaz Husain range, which is doing really well, on the strength of brand identity. In India, there is enduring faith in Ayurveda and Ayurvedic beauty care.
It has been noticed that people in the West are more excited about using herbal cosmetics, unlike in India. Do you agree?
This is not true at all. India is a country where traditions have existed side by side with modern technological advances. In fact, the character of modern India is firmly rooted in a rich cultural past. Ayurveda is the oldest and most organised system of herbal healing in the world and has maintained its position due to our faith in herbal and natural healing. It is this very aspect of herbal and natural healing that has drawn the people from the west towards Ayurveda.
How has the definition of fashion and beauty changed over time?
Four decades ago, when I started my career, I rejected the existing concept of beauty and adopted my own. I always say that at that time beauty treatments were mainly ‘colour and cover.’ Superficial beauty treatments and hairstyling was what women went for, without realising that beauty is actually the outcome of long term care. No heed was paid to the health of the skin and hair and the potential dangers of chemical treatments. In fact, there was hardly any awareness of other detrimental effects on beauty, like exposure to UV rays, environmental pollutants, artificial heating and cooling. Beauty treatments from the perspective of cure, was unknown. The back-to-nature trend had not yet begun. I adopted the principle of ‘care and cure’ and established herbal beauty care. Today, it is that care, which has driven the growth of the beauty industry in India. There is much greater interest in good health and fitness. The back to nature trend has influenced beauty treatments. The concept of total well being is steadily gaining ground.
Looking back, what have you learnt that has always been your guiding mantra?
Obstacles and hurdles come up in life, but I have tried to meet them as challenges, with my desire to excel, my relentless determination to succeed, an iron will and sheer hard work. I believe that one should never stop trying because that way, you can cannot fail. I believe that nothing is impossible. You can be what you will yourself to be. You can make your own destiny.