CHAT Makeup artiste Ambika Pillai speaks about running away from Kerala to Delhi, the road to her many salons, and having fun with fashion
It’s a mad, mad day in Delhi’s wedding season. At Ambika Pillai’s South Extension salon, brides and entourage have descended in full force. Hair shining with static wound up in rollers, some are getting their saris draped. Some sit in front of light bulb-lined mirrors, forehead making question marks into the mirror seeking approval from the friend/ relative standing behind. The queen of all she surveys, meanwhile, is pinning feathers and butterflies (plastic ones) onto a dummy’s yielding pate. Designer Payal Jain is happy. “Shoot,” smiles Ambika. “Yeah, or you’ll never catch hold of her,” Payal eggs you on. It’s the day before the busiest day of the year; 120 bridal appointments are booked for the next day. “From one salon, sweetheart,” Ambika points. So I shoot. Delhi-NCR now has seven Ambika Pillai salons (Chhatarpur, Malviya Nagar, South Extension, Punjabi Bagh, Gurgaon, Rajouri Garden and Model Town). Her makeup line’s already out. Ambika has been working on hair and makeup on the biggest shows of the industry. While the brush with Bollywood came in the form of Aishwarya Rai’s makeup in Taal , her own salons assume top priority now.
“I came from Kerala to Delhi when I was 24 with a two-year-old in my arms, divorced. I came because I wanted to get away as far as I could from home, a very orthodox family. I wanted to get away, so I just ran away,” Ambika recalls. “I got married when I was 17. I didn’t go to college, so there was no degree behind me… nothing. When you come into that situation the only thing you can do is probably join a beauty school. I mean, that’s what I thought… I thought I’d come here, do my beauty course and hair course and go back to Kerala and open a salon… That didn’t happen.”
Delhi happened. “Delhi has this amazing magic about it. It just caught me in this web. In the beginning it was a culture shock for me — the Punjabi way of life, the customs, everything over the top, everything that they live by. And that is what, I think, attracted me most about Delhi — its people. I know people say, ‘Oooh, it’s terrible, the people are terrible.’ I love Delhi’s people. They’re the ones who made me what I am, and I stand by that. I love the fact that they’re so over-the-top.”
Ambika came here to do the courses. Her first job earned her Rs. 2,000, the next one twice the amount. She then partnered with Sylvie and, together, they opened their first salon. That ended after seven years, and a new business partnership followed, the breakup of which (“disastrous”) led to Ambika being left with only one of the three salons they opened together.
“The youngest, most hardworking years of my life passed out then,” she ponders. “The only plus part was that Visions by Ambika was converted into Ambika Pillai. That way we managed to fit the brand with a name.”
The one salon has now gone up to seven. As a way of acknowledging people who’ve been with her over the years, every new Ambika Pillai salon goes out to one staff member in the form of part ownership. Efforts are now on to complete the makeup line; the line now comprises lipsticks, lip gloss, nail enamels, eye makeup and makeup brushes. “It was a natural progression for me, from a makeup artiste to starting my own line. Eventually in a year or so we’re going to bring out our full line. And then I want to go pan-India. These are all dreams and visions, which I hope work out. People ask me ‘Ambika, where did you learn makeup?’ I was never taught makeup; I’m a self-taught makeup artiste, though a taught hairdresser. Bollywood is not my scene, but fashion is. And when you do models and everything else, people want to sit on your chair, yeah, ‘You’ve done Aishwarya Rai’s face, please do mine also.’ People love it. Go through my rate list, we’re very affordable. I’m a very affordable person, basically,” she laughs.
The premise while developing the products, Ambika says, was Indian colour tones and textures.
“These are for everyone from the North to the South of India. I experimented for five years on textures and colours before we actually got down to doing it. It’s been my dream for years to bring out the line… The girls really don’t know what to do with their skin. I want to bring my whole line and probably do a road show, take this whole thing to every city in India. Take it everywhere, do classes, do makeovers… Just educate people on how to use makeup.” Foundation, here, she believes, holds potential. “The right colour tone for girls — that’s the biggest problem. People don’t know what to buy to cover up little scars. If they finally get products with which they can get beautiful skin without looking ‘too much’, without looking grey or yellow or blue…”
In terms of salons, Punjab is a potential destination, while Kerala, which “has been calling out for the longest time” will have to wait a little longer.
Daughter Kavita is now showing interest in the business. “She’s going to be the next Ambika Pillai,” the mom beams.
For now, work beckons. “Tomorrow, I’m here. At this spot. Standing for 10 hours. I keep telling people I’m old and I need to retire, and nobody listens to me!”
On fashion before the Week
The funny thing was, earlier all designers showed individually. There was no fashion week. Every designer worth his salt showed in a single show. It was all couture. It was never ready-to-wear clothes. Makeup and hair was always stunning, always dramatic. I’m talking about Manish Arora, Rohit Bal… From there came FDCI and fashion week. And with fashion weeks happening, prêt came on big time. It’s all very straight, very clean, very minimalistic. Makeup and hair also came down to that. From over-the-top it came to nothing at all. But we have now started bringing the edge into not-at-all makeup — graphic eyes, very strong mouth, stuff like that, which work really beautifully.”
On trend forecasts
“I believe in any kind of trend forecast because there are people who actually know their job. Do I follow it? …that’s a different story. For brides, it’s very traditional with a twist of modern application of makeup. But where fashion is concerned you have to keep you finger on the pulse of international makeup trends.”
On favourite collaborators
“Manish Arora, any day. He’s mad. All my mad work is with him. He’s the one who actually kick-started my creative energy. For his show once, he was like, ‘Amu, use anything on the hair, even toilet paper’. And we did. It was a massive hit. Mnaish and I cried after the show... so superb. Till today he hasn’t let me down. He’s always doing wacky stuff, whether it is in Paris or here. It’s beyond brilliant.
Then for Rajesh Pratap Singh’s show (Spring/ Summer 2013), we fashioned hair accessories to resemble the spine; he had a very bad spinal injury before that. The makeup was graphic eyes. It wasn’t too frilly. Straight, edgy and very nice.”
The girls really don’t know what to do with their skin.