Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Anita Lal: Bringing luxury home

The founder of Good Earth talks to Mint about reviving her beloved pottery line and transforming her knack for entertaining and aromatherapy into new sub-brands and experiences

During her research for Good Earth’s latest design collection Gandhara, inspired by the historical kingdom of Gandhara (in present-day Pakistan), Anita Lal discovered the extensive use of terracotta and pottery during the period. The realization led the 70-year-old and her team of designers and artisans to revive pottery in their collection. Pottery, the Good Earth team likes to say, is Lal’s first love. She was a studio potter before she launched Good Earth in 1996, and the early designs comprised crockery, scented candles, coloured glass and pottery made with the help of a small team of artisans. “They were village potters and only knew how to make matkas (pots). I used the same technique to create urns," Lal says, showing me the new line of Greek-inspired minimalist pots, jars and amphorae in high-fired terracotta. “A lot of people asked why we didn’t revive the pottery line. I also wanted to see if we could still do them, and yes we can."

Lal is giving me a tour of the Good Earth factory in Ballabhgarh, a sub-district in Faridabad about an hour outside Delhi. This is where most of the brand’s extensive line of products are crafted, from tableware and scented candles to soaps and aromatherapy products, and Lal goes from room to room chatting with the artisans, asking questions, sharing laughs. “I don’t take care of operations, and don’t come every day. But I visit sometimes to meet everyone. They are my old buddies," she says, introducing me to her staffers, many of whom have been with the brand since it started. Even the potters continued to work in the factory, even though the brand didn’t produce pottery for many years. She says, “I didn’t let them go and they usually work indoors."

Lal, a psychology graduate, founded Good Earth, more impulsively than strategically. “I used to travel a lot. I would visit shops abroad and found them so beautifully done. You’d never find such shops in India" she says. When a friend offered a store space in the Kemps Corner neighbourhood of south Mumbai, she jumped at the opportunity. Her husband—Vikram Lal, founder of Royal Enfield—initially planned to set up a bike showroom there but she convinced him to give it to her instead. “I started without knowing anything about retail or business and learnt everything backwards," she says. “I never thought of these things. It was just an impulse to create something special, unique and beautiful and to offer that to people in India."

What started as a boutique filled with décor pieces has transformed into a luxury and lifestyle brand with 10 stores across the country, offering ready-to-wear fashion and couture, home products and wellness collections. Since Lal’s daughter Simran joined the brand as its CEO in 2012 , the founder has taken a backseat from operations and assumed the role of creative head. Her role is immersive—from channelling her love for music to create every playlist in Good Earth stores and at its events to conceptualizing the new sub-brands and collections, from tableware and furnishings to handloom and couture.

“Clothing has surprisingly turned out to be a great segment," Lal says. In 2010, Good Earth introduced its in-house clothing label Sustain, making its first inroads in fashion. “I did it thinking that there was a lack. There was nothing nice for larger women, or anything simple—everything was jhik-jhik-jhik (blingy)," she says, making a case for her aesthetics in a black farshi and kurta and burgundy velvet jootis all from Sustain. In August, Sustain made its Lakmé Fashion Week debut with The Miniaturist, its first couture collection focusing on gota revival. Apart from its own designs, Good Earth also retails other Indian designers, having provided a launchpad for industry stalwarts like Sanjay Garg and Suket Dhir, designers whose sensibilities fit in with the brand’s identity.

But fashion wasn’t the only reason that made 2018 a special year for Good Earth—the past year saw the realization of a number of projects that Lal and her team have been working on for years. Apart from the launch of its annual design collection, Gandhara, and pottery revival, Good Earth is also launching focused sub-brands. One of them, Paro, a conceptual space and luxury personal care brand, opened at The Chanakya mall in Delhi in October.

Paro, one of Lal’s most ambitious projects so far, is what keeps her busy these days and warrants frequent trips to the Ballabhpur factory. After a round of the site, Lal leads us to the lab where a team of chemists are busy tinkering with essential oils and natural extracts. Lal likes calling Paro the “soul of Good Earth", a brand focused on personal well-being and luxury: the stand-alone store at The Chanakya is divided into separate sections dedicated to sleep, fashion, jewellery, décor and dining ware, and Lal’s personal passion—wellness products promoted under the label Botanicals.

Lal hopes to keep Paro as a one-of-a-kind conceptual space, but has big plans for the Botanicals section. “Botanicals is going to be a big thing," she says, smearing an intensely fragrant mix of eucalyptus, peppermint, juniper and cedarwood oils on my palms. I take a whiff and voila, I can feel my sinuses clear up in an instant. “I use this mixture every morning and we’ve made this batch (for roll-ons) just yesterday." It is just one of the concoctions Lal is making for the collection. Other formulations include a Citrus Garden Triple Butter, containing cocoa, shea and avocado with an orange blossom fragrance; a hair oil containing a mixture of nil bhringadi, brahmi, amla, castor oil and arnica with cedar and rosemary fragrances; a face cream with ingredients like turmeric, calendula powder, oatmeal, apricot, lavender, tulsi, neem, honey and chironji; and a formulation christened “Clean Air", which Lal says is inspired by a 15th century formulation applied by thieves during the bubonic plague so that they wouldn’t be afflicted with the disease as they scavenged corpses for valuables—Lal’s take replicates the same recipe for a immunity-boosting fragrance.

Lal has the names of ingredients and their various benefits on rote—after all, like all of Good Earth’s other offerings, the Botanicals line too has emerged from her personal experiences and experiments. In her 30s, Lal broke out into terrible rashes. Skin specialists and store-bought products proved ineffective and she took matters into her own hands. “I read up about natural skincare, and I started experimenting at home," she says. “I found I really enjoyed it and learnt everything by reading and experimenting." The experiments didn’t always go as planned. Lal recalls once occasion when she bought books on aromatherapy at an airport and found an orange oil kit inside one of them. “I got so excited. I still remember going to the hotel and they put me up in a lovely room with a bath tub. I filled water in the tub, poured the orange oil and happily got in," she says. “I jumped out in a little while. I’d put too much oil and the water was burning. I didn’t realize essential oils had to be put in proportion." Years of research later, now Lal says she’s confident.

An ambitious project, the Botanicals line has also proven to be a major challenge as Lal’s team is on a slow journey of procuring the right licences for their oils. Lal is determined about procuring authentic non-diluted oils and fragrances. “With oils, anybody can cheat," she says. “Molecular intervention makes it possible to replicate fragrances. And there’s nothing wrong with it, but if you want the therapeutic benefits of the plant, you have to buy non-diluted oils." Lal’s calls purity her passion, and her quest has taken her to various places, from Kannauj and Coimbatore to Croatia and Italy. Her most memorable trip though was to a cubby hole in Ghaziabad. She says, “I’d read about an essential oils supplier in Ghaziabad and wrote to them. Our letters went unanswered, but I kept chasing till they finally got fed up and replied saying they don’t sell in India." Lal requested a meeting and made her way to Ghaziabad and found two men waiting for her. “I said we are willing to pay, but they refused. They had no idea what Good Earth was," she says. “Finally, I had a brainwave. I asked them if they knew Royal Enfield and that it was our company. They seemed a little convinced, and we cajoled them to finally give in."

Lal continues to work on refining the Paro experience, with new collections every season and plans for workshops. “We’ll have ready products, but we will also teach customers how to make them," she says. “Everything is transparent here." Meanwhile, she is also engaged with all of Good Earth’s other projects and brand diversification. Primary among that is Shamilar, another sub-brand that offers serve ware and bar tools and accessories. The sub-brand had a quiet start, along with Paro at the same mall. “Shalimar is the entertaining and gifting arm of Good Earth," Lal says. “Good Earth is wonderful but it has everything. Now we want focused areas—Shalimar is a focused area of growth. A lot of people want gifts without having to think about it, especially for men."

Another project that has her attention is Paro Himalaya, a retreat expected to be operational this year. “We have set up a lovely spa and 10 bedrooms and located in a special space up in the mountains in Manali," she says. “We are going to have resident scholars there and aromatherapy courses by our manager Colin (Hall)."

Lal has her hands full, but patient for each of her ventures to grow and develop gradually. It’s tied with her understanding of luxury as it emerges from a homegrown ethos. “I think luxury for people in the Indian subcontinent is more personal. Our families valued small things—silver foil on our food, delicate buttons on men’s garments, applying chandan (sandalwood) on the face, beautiful woven saris from Varanasi," she says. “We valued quieter things that gave us personal joy. This is the luxury we offer—well-made things you can use every day that enhance the quality of life."

When I ask Lal about plans for expansion and more stores, she laughs and answers in a way that’s quintessentially her—she tells me another story. “When we launched Paro, we had foreign buyers visit us. They told us how well these would do in New York and we must go there," she says. “I said, ‘let New York come to us.’"

*****

Your favourite songs?

I listen to a lot of Sufi songs and Coke Studio. My current favourite is ‘Anhad Naad’ by Sona Mohapatra.

One Indian fashion designer you like?

I love what Aratrik (Dev Varman) is doing with Tilla.

How do you like to spend weekends?

With ‘chai’ and my Kindle.

What’s next on your travel list?

I’d love to explore the architecture and culture of Shiraz and Isfahan (Iran).

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