Does Masaba Gupta ever sleep? In the past month, the 30-year-old designer reported a $1 million investment in her company, launched a line of lipsticks and nail polish with beauty retailer Nykaa Cosmetics, while Netflix announced a new series starring her and her mother, actor Neena Gupta. This was hot on the heels of collaborations for a capsule collection for the final season of Game of Thrones , a line of saris with Banaras brand Ekaya, and Africa-inspired tribal jewellery with Jaipur-headquartered jeweller, Amrapali — all of which debuted between February and May this year. Oh, and she also designs four collections a year.
“I won’t lie, I feel like we did too much in the first half of 2019,” Masaba admits with a laugh. “Some of it wasn’t fun because I was stretched in all directions.” She may be overworked, but it doesn’t show: a combination of youth and daily exercise has her looking fresh, with unblemished, luminous skin. She wears no make-up, except for a light pink lip called ‘Buzz Kill’ from her new Masaba By Nykaa make-up line. She is oblivious to heads turning as she walks into lunch at the Asian restaurant at the Four Seasons hotel. Although a purveyor of print, she’s wearing a below-the-knee black Moschino stretchy dress, with dangly white flower earrings from Zara. “I can think in print, but I can’t imagine it on me,” she says candidly. “I make and wear black and white for myself because it centres me.”
Masstige on her mind
For someone who started her label at the age of 19, creating a splash with her eye-catching prints and bursts of colour, this year is a turning point personally and professionally. Her brand marks a decade in the fashion business, and what better way to gain some cred than receiving a chunk of change from Flipkart co-founder Binny Bansal, Patni Group’s Apoorva Patni, Apurva Salarpuria (whose other investments include Epigamia yoghurt and Bira beer) and Abhishek Agarwal of Purple Style Labs? “I wanted to be picky about who invested because unfortunately people here don’t think of fashion as a serious business,” Masaba says, taking a bite of some Thai red curry. “These investors got it. They understand scale.” She notes that for a brand that has spent no money on marketing in the past 10 years, she’s had considerable growth. “It’s all Instagram and organic. I don’t even have a million followers yet.”
Patni says “we invested in Masaba because of Masaba herself — an excellent fashion entrepreneur, and big digital influencer. She’s playing in a very interesting bridge to the luxury segment which we believe possesses the potential for huge global scalability.” The influx of cash will go towards building an e-commerce team, strengthening the back-end supply chain, and expanding retail outlets, from 11 stores in eight cities currently to 50 stores across India.
Masaba’s vision? “To be the ultimate masstige brand in India. I don’t just want to stop at clothes, I want it to be a beauty destination, with jewellery, accessories. I want to be the Tory Burch of India — never once moving from my aesthetic, but offering a story and putting a print on whatever I can.”
Cashing in on cool
It’s hard to remember now but in 2009, when she started out, the idea of putting cameras, cows and Tamil script on saris and Indian wear seemed madly modern. Young women loved it, and embraced the sari as a contemporary item of clothing.
- Currently streaming: On Netflix, I’m watching Leila and What if
- Currently reading: Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
- Favourite food: Chinese. And anything fried!
- Fashion icons: Home and clothing designer Haseena Jethmalani, my mother Neena Gupta, and actor Tracee Ellis Ross
- Favourite go-to outfit: A white shirt with pearls
- Currently inspired by: “My anxiety. I’m irritable but it’s very inspiring. I’m making a cool, wild new collection based on that and my new beginnings.”
“Masaba is a whirlpool within the fashion industry,” says Nimish Shah, the designer and a friend. “Hers is a modern kitsch India which people want to wear with pride.” Stylist to the stars and Vogue India fashion director, Anaita Shroff Adajania, agrees. “She is so much more than the designer who started off popularising Indian iconography in her pop art style. The brand speaks to real women. It’s refreshing to see her celebration of curves, for example.”
Anil Chopra, the former head of Lakmé, has seen her work since her student days at SNDT University. “She has a very clear thought process and when she puts out a collection, it embodies her design philosophy. She has a signature that is unique to her. You can spot someone wearing a Masaba instantly.” It helped that the label was — and continues to be — affordable.
Entry price points start at ₹6,500 for a tunic or swimsuit, with an average price point of ₹15,000. Occasion wear only came about in 2015 and at its most expensive, retails at ₹70,000.
There’s a unanimous belief in the designer’s “cool,” “experimental” bent. Tarang Arora of Amrapali, who did a collaboration with Masaba for his line Tribe, says, “Who better than Masaba to plan something funky, with a handcrafted ethnic look, that’s accessible?”
On the outside
The child of Neena Gupta and former West Indies cricket captain Sir Vivian Richards, Masaba didn’t have it easy while growing up in Mumbai. Because of the way she looked, she encountered all types of slights. Attending Jamnabai Narsee school in Juhu, she says the size of her backside was pointed out to her; people made fun of her hair texture. Her Indian grandfather would try to scrub her tan away. “I feel like I viewed my entire life from the outside — like watching this child who had an afro in a largely Gujarati school trying to cope. I couldn’t understand her struggle because I never felt different. I ate the same food, I spoke the same language. I had the most loving home.”
Sports was an outlet for the rage she experienced. From the age of eight to 14, she played intense tennis, for up to six hours a day. She played state level for Maharashtra, but she saw her shortcomings. “I had all this strength and anger that I didn’t know how to channel, and I couldn’t keep the damn ball in the court,” she says. “It was tough. You don’t overcome these things. They become a part of who you are. But as you grow, you find different ways of coping. Today I have learned how to channel my rage through fashion.” She’s also a huge music and dance buff, having learned Kathak and modern Jazz, as well as Hindustani and western classical music.
An excellent time manager — she jokes that being single helps — she starts her day at 7 am, with an hour of exercise, alternating between yoga and strength training. In the office in Andheri by 10 am, the next eight hours are spent overseeing marketing, design, social media, hiring, production, and fabric sourcing. Design takes up most of her time, but she says marketing is her forte. Masaba has an active social life — a cursory look at her Instagram feed reveals photos with Sonam and Rhea Kapoor, Shah, and Pernia Qureshi. She is very close to both her parents, even though her father is sometimes hard to get a hold of, since he doesn’t own a mobile phone. She and her ex-husband, film producer Madhu Mantena, parted amicably and are great friends.
For a girl who grew up being bullied for the way she looked, launching a beauty line with Nykaa Cosmetics has been a type of therapy. “Today I’m the captain of my own ship,” she says with a grin. Two years in development, Masaba has been overseeing the colour palettes and packaging. “Masaba’s design sensibility has always been ahead of the curve,” says Reena Chhabra, CEO of Nykaa Cosmetics. “She has an ability to delve into a millennial consciousness, as well as create a completely new design story with vibrant colours and themes that connect with everyone.” Currently offering 12 nail varnishes and lip colours, with quirky names like ‘Nimbu Paani’, ‘Pataka’, and ‘Rawr’, a full line of make-up and skin care will be introduced going forward.
Through this project and others, Masaba thinks India’s ideal of beauty will evolve. She hopes her Netflix show — about which she can’t say much right now — will help. “Dark skinned girls write to me every day, from small towns and big cities, rich and poor, and they tell me how they feel,” she says. “Would you ever have imagined me to be the face of my own campaign? In India we have hundreds of skin tones and don’t we need to show that? I know kids who still haven’t come out their shell because they were made fun of for how they looked. I got lucky because I found fashion, and I found it early. Whatever I projects I do now, I want them to have longevity.”