It’s a question that would make most Prime Ministers blush. Not Jawaharlal Nehru. The challenge confronting India’s first Prime Minister was: how can you get Indian women to buy quality beauty products that were made in India?
It was the early 1950s and Nehru was leading a newly independent India into her future. Surely, nation-building was uppermost on his mind? So why did Nehru care so much about how the Indian woman looked?
Nehru realised that women from the rapidly growing middle class and the elite were spending good money on imported beauty products as quality Indian-made cosmetics were unavailable.
Worried about foreign exchange outflows hurting the nascent economy, he was trying to balance the personal care needs of Indian women against a vulnerable economy.
He didn’t have to look far to find a solution.
Nehru called on his close friend, JRD Tata, chairperson of the Tata Group, and convinced him to set up a company to manufacture make-up at par with the best in the world. Why, it could do even better as its products would suit Indian skin and the Indian climate.
Lakmé: Wealth & Beauty
Post-Independent India’s first beauty brand had rather unglamorous beginnings. Launched in 1953, it was a subsidiary of the coir-crushing and coconut-oil producing Tata Oil Mills Company, or TOMCO. It set the bar really high by collaborating with French luxury brands Renoir and Robert Piguet, and the American Kolmar.
When the Tatas asked their French partners to suggest a name for the new venture, one that would capture both French and Indian nuances, they came up with ‘Lakmé’, which is French for ‘Lakshmi’, the Indian Goddess of Wealth and Beauty.
That’s exactly the combination Nehru had in mind. Lakmé would save precious forex and therefore ‘bring ‘wealth’ to India. Also, it had a certain je ne sais quois, which would play into the ‘beauty’ needs of the modern Indian woman.
The name ‘Lakmé’ wasn’t just a lucky strike. It was inspired by a French opera that was popular in Paris at the time. Titled Lakmé (for Goddess Lakshmi), the opera was set in British-India and was imbued with Indian mystique. It featured Hindu priests, temples, a fortune teller and British officers.
It was très exotic but still very Indian.
Lakmé started operations from modest, rented premises on Pedder Road in Mumbai and rolled out mascara, eye liner, foundation cream, lipstick and nail polish, the likes of which had never been made in India before.
Its beauty products were affordable yet not ‘too affordable’; the quality was at par with premium global brands but they were still ‘Indian’; and they were slickly packaged and hugely aspirational for women in a country where make-up had until then been largely frowned upon.
The Tatas had found a sweet spot – a beauty spot.
In 1961, Simone Tata, the Swiss wife of Naval Tata and stepmother of Ratan Tata, took over as Managing Director of Lakmé and as Chairperson in 1982. She turned the cosmetics company into the iconic brand that it became. One might even say she had the ‘Lakshmi touch’, bringing wealth and beauty to the Tatas and to the Indian woman.
In 1996, Lakmé ceased to be a Tata brand. It was sold to Hindustan Unilever and continues to be one of the top names in Indian cosmetics.
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