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How Forest Essentials is taking Ayurvedic luxury skincare global

Mira Kulkarni, the managing director of Forest Essentials, on opening a store in London and promoting the idea of India through luxury beauty and skincare

Mira Kulkarni
Mira Kulkarni (Illustration by Priya Kuriyan)

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It all started with a soap. Homemaker Mira Kulkarni was in New York, visiting her student son, when a friend suggested joining a handmade soap-making workshop as a way to enjoy the city and meet new people. Intrigued, she signed up. “They were using natural things like almonds to make a soap,” recalls Kulkarni. “I thought to myself, ‘It’s 2000. Why doesn’t India, despite all the Ayurveda history, the love for home remedies… have its own natural soap?’”

In Delhi, she posed this question to friends, family and Ayurveda experts. Their responses were similar: Who will spend 100 on a soap? This was a time when Khadi, the post-liberalisation baby that claimed to offer all things natural, hadn’t yet launched its colourful blocks of soap (they cost 240 a piece now) and the two-digit priced Lux soaps were perhaps the go-to in case you bought into the idea that it could give you the skin of Indian film stars. If you wanted a luxury experience, an imported soap was the only option.

Thus began Kulkarni’s “obsession” with creating an all-natural luxurious bath soap—for personal consumption.

Also read: A must-do Ayurveda skincare routine for all skin types

Poring over books, taking the help of friends and strangers, she started making soaps in her home garage, using ingredients like neem, almond oil and saffron. So positive was the feedback that a few months later, in late 2000, she was neatly placing them—with enough space between each soap (“I have always been a fan of minimalist display”)—on a shelf at a book store in Delhi’s Khan Market, under the brand name Forest Essentials (“forest” because “nature’s wealth lives there” and “essentials” for “how important natural resources are”), suggested by a friend. Word-of-mouth publicity helped. Within six months, she was making 100 soaps a month, up from 50, with the help of her household help. In 2003, they became part of the amenities offered at luxury hotels. In just five years, Forest Essentials had grown to occupy a sweet spot: of a premium luxury skincare brand. It offered a range of skincare products, from lotions to face creams and candles and, of course, soaps, all carrying the tradition of Ayurvedic formulations in an elegant glass jar and promoting the idea of clean beauty. Conversations on where to find luxury gifts or souvenir suggestions for NRI cousins started featuring the name Forest Essentials.

Over the years, disposable income and global exposure have helped Forest Essentials find consumers who believe a 5,000-something cream will brighten their skin or a 1,900-ish hair spray can help restore volume and shine. This, despite the emergence of another player with a similar offering, Kama Ayurveda, which started its journey in 2001.

In 2008, Kulkarni entered into a partnership with the Estee Lauder Group of Companies, a leader in skincare, make-up, fragrance and haircare products, through a strategic investment.

“Many were like, ‘What’s wrong with you?’, when I told them I wanted to make an all-natural handmade soap. It was a risk but it was my risk and I wanted to know if it was possible,” says Kulkarni, the chair and managing director of Mountain Valley Springs India Pvt. Ltd (Forest Essentials), with a smile. “Just like that.” Her son, Samrath Bedi, is now the executive director.

Kulkarni, 67, has taken another risk. On 2 November, Forest Essentials became the first India-born Ayurveda-infused luxury skincare brand to get an international physical address, in London’s posh Covent Garden. The 550 sq. ft space, which blends the design ethos of India and Europe, greets visitors with the sweet fragrance and promise of its 125 stores across India: formulations that celebrate the legacy of India, with fresh and natural ingredients.

In a world where some brands try to convince you that natural products are your best friend and others promise the power of chemicals to restore that face glow, it can get really noisy for the beauty customer. But there seems to be room enough for all. Last week, the 10-year-old Indian skincare brand Juicy Chemistry launched its certified organic make-up line. A few weeks earlier, actor Deepika Padukone, had launched a limited skincare line. Fellow actor Katrina Kaif, meanwhile, has added new blushes to her three-year-old beauty brand.

Not surprisingly, the $11 billion-plus (around 90,200 crore) Indian beauty and cosmetics industry is growing at a brisk pace. A far cry from the 1970s, when Shahnaz Husain was the only major domestic beauty player, or even the 1990s, when Biotique and Lotus began offering the goodness of botanicals.

Even international luxury brands have fallen for the Indian buyer. Charlotte Tilbury has found love in India, via Nykaa, so has Pat McGrath. The Korean luxury skincare brand for children, Puttisu, believes the subcontinent is the next big place to be. L’Oréal India is so convinced about the country’s increasing hunger for beauty products that earlier this year it brought Lancôme here after exiting the market close to a decade ago.

Can Forest Essentials really stand out in the rush of brands, both at home and in the international market?

“Those are not easy questions,” Kulkarni says, sipping black tea. “The product is always the king and queen. We have stayed true to offering everything natural in India and it has worked for 20 years, even when social media wasn’t really a thing. So I am hopeful….” She quickly adds: “I can be very obsessive, you know. If you tell me ‘yeh nahi ho sakta (something isn’t possible)’, I will not stop, like many people do. I will ask ‘yeh kyun nahi ho sakta (why not)’ and do everything possible to ensure it happens.”

Taking an Indian luxury skincare brand to an upmarket shopping hub in London which has a fair share of luxury brands—from L’Occitane en Provence to Nars—is a well-calculated move, especially when you learn it’s a one of a kind Ayurveda-based skincare brand in a locality that attracts enough tourists and residents looking to indulge.

Kulkarni might be shy when it comes to talking about her personal life but mention work and she doesn’t hold back. It reflects in her business journey. A graduate in fine arts from Chennai’s Stella Maris College, Kulkarni got married at 19 and was happy being a homemaker.

But a chance “soap obsession”, as she keeps referring to it, led to a company that started as self-funded. The deal with the Estee Lauder group was a first of its kind deal at the time, with a multinational cosmetic group acquiring a minority stake (reports indicated 10-15%, though this was never confirmed) in a boutique, luxury skincare brand.

Forest Essentials now has two factories (in Haridwar, and Lodsi in Tehri Garhwal), 1,000 employees (her journey started with two, who are still part of the company) and reported net revenue of over 253 crore in 2020, an increase of over 25% compared to the previous year, according to an EY report. During the pandemic, Forest Essentials’ online business remained steady enough to help the brand launch 17 stores. An October 2021 Mint report noted: “In the last 18 months of the pandemic, the company saw almost 74% of its sales coming from online. The figure was 18% pre-covid.”

Clearly, people were ready to shell out anywhere from 595 for a Dasapushpadi Nourishing Milk Soap to 1,550 for Tejal Balancing Water and 7,600 for the Transformative Soundarya Night Cream with 24k gold.

Kulkarni holds the present revenue and growth numbers as close to her chest as the product formulations but she insists that at the heart of Forest Essentials is “fresh, natural ingredients” that are “grown organically in our own farms and sourced from across India and then checked for quality at our factories”. “You have to be particular about the ingredients if you want to sell a premium product. So we check and make everything in-house,” claims Kulkarni.

Perhaps that explains why the brand has dedicated online buyers in 120 countries.

Why choose the UK as the first international outing and not, say, the US or Dubai, which seem to be the preferred choices of Indian designers and luxury brands?

“It was a natural choice since UK consumers are high up on our buyers’ list,” she says, without offering numbers. “Traditionally also, it was always first London, and then maybe New York.” Does that mean the next stop is the US? “Let’s see how it goes here first. I want to be really, really sure of the results,” she says.

It’s Kulkarni’s attention to detail and forward-looking attitude that shine throughout our hour-plus meeting at her south Delhi home. Whether it’s ensuring that all her stores have products displayed in a minimalist fashion, so that each bottle “shines”, or bringing out an artisanal beauty collection that boasts of natural ingredients during a pandemic. Think a kajal that has the traditional rose petal formulation, a tinted lip serum that combines extracts of fruits, flowers and hand-pressed virgin oils, a skin tint that gives “buildable coverage”. “I wanted to change the way women use make-up by creating a collection that blurs the line between skincare and make-up with simple multitaskers,” she had told me during the collection launch in March 2021.

Her journey is a good example of where self-belief can take you. When she was creating her soap in 2000, she couldn’t find unadulterated almond oil. “Every vendor in old Delhi told me that 100% pure is not available. But I kept looking,” she recalls. Finally, she succeeded.

How did a person with no prior business experience build a billion-dollar empire? “Self-belief and a lot of luck,” Kulkarni says. “Self-belief guides your every move, reinstates conviction and gives you confidence when things don’t pan out your way. And luck because things just kept happening on their way. I have met strangers who have gone out of their way to help me. It still baffles me when I think about it. It has to be sheer luck.” And, she adds, “a pure desire to achieve what you want. Even if it’s a soap.”

Also read: Why so many women are hooked to Asian skincare


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