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Why Masaba Gupta likes to own it all

The designer talks about starting a beauty brand in a crowded market, how privilege can only take you so far, and her great fear of being mediocre

Designer-actor Masaba Gupta  (Illustration by Priya Kuriyan)

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"Why Love Child?” I ask Masaba Gupta the reason for the name of her latest offering, a beauty brand. “It’s just beautiful,” she replies. “In school, there were kids who used to call me bastard child. There are articles on the internet where I am introduced as the love child of (West Indies cricketer) Viv Richards and (actor) Neena Gupta. Me…being a designer, an entrepreneur, an actor, all of that comes later. There’s always a tag that’s waiting for you in the curtains; it’s up to you what you do with it.”

Gupta, 33, has done many things. At 19, after a diploma in apparel design and manufacturing from Mumbai’s SNDT University, she started a womenswear label, House of Masaba, now famous for its quirky prints on kaftans, dresses, shirts and saris. In 2009, she debuted with her collection, Katran, at the Lakmé Fashion Week. Two years later, she launched her first store, in Juhu in Mumbai. In 2020, she became the first Indian designer to have a Netflix Original based on her life; season 2 launched in July. Earlier this year, Aditya Birla Fashion and Retail Ltd acquired a 51% shareholding in her bridge-to-luxury brand for a cash consideration of 90 crore.

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This helped Gupta branch into the world of beauty and expand her retail footprint. She has opened eight stores in cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata, offering jewellery and other accessories too, and is also available at multi-brand outlets in the UK, US, Maldives, Dubai and Thailand. She has also collaborated with labels like Amrapali, Louis Vuitton and Bvlgari. This month, she launched Love Child, a “hybrid between beauty, skincare and wellness”, distinct from her limited-edition make-up collection in collaboration with Nykaa.

It’s a big gamble. For, after five years of ideation and tests, Love Child is entering a crowded Indian beauty market worth $25 billion (around 1.98 trillion), according to the ResearchAndMarkets platform. Almost every month, there’s news of a launch, a home-grown name or the entry of an international brand.

Love Child is making an entry with over 50 products, in the 100-900 price range, in five categories: lipstick, nail enamel, face mists, anti-anxiety oil and intimate wipes. While a celebrity face like Masaba is a big crowd-puller for any brand, success doesn’t come easy. Perhaps the biggest hit story at the moment is actor Katrina Kaif’s 2019-born Kay Beauty, a cosmetics line that has managed to catch attention with quality products and affordable prices. In May, Kay Beauty announced it would be opening 100-plus offline stores in the country. So what can Masaba Gupta offer?

It’s a question she asked herself before taking the plunge into something she believed was a “natural extension for the brand”. One observation that helped her decide was the openness of millennials and post-millennials to India-born brands. “It’s no longer a gimmick,” Gupta insists. “The young generation wants a brand that has come from the brainchild of somebody who has lived and is breathing everything India. We have long been intimidated by global brands. I remember when Zara, Burberry, etc., came to Mumbai. I was like, ‘What will happen to my brand?’ Now, we appreciate global brands but we don’t necessarily feel intimidated by them. We are on a par with them.”

The second observation was the diversity in tastes. “If you are truthful about your product, there’s space for everyone,” she says. “I am passionate about make-up. I have had an extensive skincare journey (she has always been open about problems like acne). You don’t have to always believe in clean beauty, a term that has been abused to a great extent globally.”

Gupta, in effect, hopes to reach women “who are not in a position to afford or reach the House of Masaba, the mother brand”. By offering a creamy matte bullet-sized lipstick for 600 or a long-lasting nail polish for 200, she wants to attract those in the “low mass segment” to widen the customer base and offer the experience of the Masaba Gupta bridge-to-luxury world. One day, she hopes, they will grow into customers of her fashion label

At the end of the day, though, product is king. “No amount of Insta content, celebrity endorsements can save a bad product,” agrees Gupta. “My strategy is distinctive packaging (think Masaba prints in bright colours), competitive pricing (“after all, I am competing with Lakmé, Maybelline, Sugar, Colorbar”; other brands also sell in the 100-800 bracket) and what’s on the back of the cover (“consumers are very invested in ingredients”; her products claim to be vegan, free of cruelty, paraben and sulfate).”

What’s striking about Gupta, who’s sitting for the online interview with no make-up, in a black and grey top, is her honesty and clarity. She confesses that the striking black nail polish she is wearing is not from her collection. She’s as real when she talks about the breakdown of her marriage. “I was 26 when I got married. I remember thinking that nearly every other friend is married or with somebody, and I am going to be left behind. So I did it. You know how every woman goes through that moment in her life. The lucky ones just get a nose piercing and get away with it. But some just can’t live with that. I was making money but I looked at marriage like a constant roof over my head. Then one day it all just fell apart. I had to get up, be fitter, mentally stronger, and become my own power couple.”

Her journey of self-discovery, as she likes to call it, got a lot of attention on social media, more so when she started opening up about it on her Instagram account. Did it come easy? “Hell, no. I wasted a lot of time in self-doubt. By the time I truly understood how empowering it can be to be pitied as an underdog, I was bang in the middle of my design career. And that’s when I decided, it’s best if I just own it. Life happens, you know, circumstances change, relationships break, they come together again, all of that happens.”

It’s this self-assurance that she brings to her entrepreneurial journey, one she embarked on after ending her two-year stint as creative head of Satya Paul in 2014. During those days in Delhi, while running House of Masaba as a small shop on the side while working for Satya Paul, Gupta saw how powerful a brand can become if the right people come together. “I could very well have been somebody who is a boutique brand. But I thought I would be robbing the brand of its potential just because I didn’t want to change my mindset,” she recalls. The shift took time. Gupta had to let go of her creative ego, collaborate with people who “did not necessarily understand creative or design deeply. You have to crack yourself open.”

She had her share of challenges. For starters, the people who advised her not to go big. “I got something like, ‘There’s no opportunity for that in the market,’ or something as bizarre as just saying, ‘No, just keep saying no,’” she laughs.

Then there were conversations on nepotism. For five-six years, Gupta presented two collections on the ramp annually. She pulled in all the favours she could till her clothes really started talking. Actors began wearing her on screen. Fake Masaba prints found space in places like Delhi’s Chandni Chowk—a compliment more than a concern. “I think people realised she’s not just here to have fun with her celebrity status....You have to keep proving people wrong, especially when you have privilege, you have to keep doing it.”

At a time when fast fashion brands as well as designer brands are trying, or at least pretending, to move away from polyester use, Gupta admits to using the much dissed fabric. “There was a time when there were only pure silks. Most of our stuff is pure silk and cotton but we do have polyester for the client who wants it,” she explains. “What’s wrong with that?”

Gupta is not afraid to speak her mind. Becoming an actor was not just a way to keep pushing herself out of her comfort zone, it also helped her control the narrative of her life. “That moment or opportunity was not going to come back,” she says. “People again thought I got it because I was someone’s daughter but privilege always comes at a very high cost.”

One reason for Gupta’s self-awareness is her biggest cheerleader and critic, her mother. “I get more worried about what she will say about my acting or my design idea than anybody else,” Gupta laughs. Another reason is the world she grew up in. “When you see a lot of lives crumble in the pressure of fame or success, you realise how important it is to course-correct yourself. Humility is the highest form of intelligence. That’s what I have learnt.”

The designer-actor has learnt to not take advice from people “who do not have the same appetite for survival. Don’t ever take advice from a person who has not worked a day in their life and has been handed everything on a platter. I can’t tell you how many times I have been told to do bridal for couture.” The second big learning has been to be “agile. You have to be very quick to take feedback, adapt it and move with it.” That’s not all. She has learnt a dishonest brand cannot survive—and that she should be prepared for the bad days. “…by which I mean both from a monetary point of view as well as from a creative point of view.”

For the next five years, Gupta, who looks up to Priyanka Chopra Jonas (“she’s just unstoppable, I don’t think she rests”), has her to-do list ready: opening four-five retail stores in India, offering more ethnic wear (“while designers are fighting over who’s going to wear the bridal lehnga, we are looking at the bride’s and groom’s families”), jewellery, athleisure, loungewear, and expanding Love Child offerings to include fragrances, foundations, eye make-up and skincare.

“I know that’s a lot and I am dying,” she laughs. “But I am somebody who thrives when I am busy.... I want to create this legacy brand that survives even after the founder is gone. I am scared to be mediocre. I want to do more, because I can do more.”

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