This line of nail serums and lacquers acknowledges the diversity of Indian skin | Verve Magazine
India's premier luxury lifestyle women's magazine
July 23, 2021

This line of nail serums and lacquers acknowledges the diversity of Indian skin

Text by Avani Thakkar. Photography by Joshua Navalkar. Styling by Swati Sinha.

From Melbourne to Mumbai, dive into a young beauty enthusiast’s journey of forging Harkoi – a modern, pandemic-bred clean beauty brand that seeks to normalise catering to darker complexions

While I was growing up, daring to show up on school grounds with painted nails was seen as an episode of teen rebellion, warranting an intense telling-off for disrupting uniform code. Years later, with freedom from classroom rules, nail polish is akin to a second skin for most of my friends – they change the colours on their fingernails almost as often as they change their clothes.

Unlike painful hair-removal ordeals such as waxing and threading, which have seemingly lost all purpose in the last year, the therapeutic act of brushing on a smooth coat of nail polish bore the test of pandemic-time and transcended the gender divide. The appeal of this all-accessible, pain-free beauty ritual lies in its ability to provide an instant mood lift, allowing us to feel slightly “human” when dealing with the seemingly infinite delirium of cabin fever where company is limited to Netflix, Instagram and the contents of the fridge.

Ritu Bhagat had a similar realisation when ideating the foremost product launch of her Mumbai-based clean beauty brand, Harkoi: “In an ideal world, foundation would have been our first launch; however, we quickly noticed that it isn’t being used by most people at the moment. Everyone seems to be enjoying nail polish instead, especially with the salons being closed.”

As the lockdowns normalised doing home manicures even with nowhere to show them off, we’ve been rummaging through the varying shades in our collections, trying on a few and admiring their glossy sheen. For many, however, seeing the unflattering results of a trendy hue they were tempted to buy, brings the realisation that one colour definitely doesn’t fit all.

And so Bhagat got to work, mapping out every single brand and their directory of extensive shades on an Excel sheet. “This helped us visualise how most shades, created by both legacy and small beauty labels, follow certain criteria and come from specific colour families. The main reason for this is the lack of innovation for shade cards. Tie that up with MOQ’s (Minimum Order Quantity), and the result is limited shades, repeated over and over again. We wanted to take that and flip it on its head at Harkoi,” Bhagat says, fuelled by a desire to design a distinctive nail polish range that exclusively caters to Indian consumers across genders and complements darker skin tones.

Bhagat had first conceived the idea in Melbourne on account of countless disappointing shopping experiences in the beauty department for her particular skin tone, and she took it upon herself to tackle the huge disparity that exists between the demand and availability of products for people of colour, especially South Asians. In 2018, after a lengthy brainstorming session with her friends, the then university-student-turned-IT recruiter settled on building an impactful brand that could do better for “har koi” (everyone).

Shortly after, Bhagat shifted base to Mumbai she found herself in another cosmopolitan city, but this one had a completely different consumer base. “The name Harkoi was ‘exotic’ enough for our international audience, but we were unsure of whether it would strike a chord with Indians. Plus, even today, I know friends who are still forced to shop for their skin tones from foreign brands since home-grown ones offer even fewer choices. Things are changing for the better, but colourism continues to pose as a significant problem in India,” she says. Despite the initial inhibitions, she charged on with her plan of attaching activism to Harkoi’s brand philosophy because it was obvious that this industry is in desperate need of a revamp that isn’t rooted in unachievable beauty standards.

Bhagat eventually perceived the problem to be the mindset of people (which cut across socio-economic backgrounds) and the fact that colourism was rarely spoken about in the open. Instead, the subject popped up discreetly in other conversations or through seemingly trivial comments. “It’s [in those stories] when someone recalls how fair they used to be as a kid but then started swimming and turned dark, which made their mum refuse to let them do it again. Or when they were forced to slather copious amounts of sunscreen during their childhood or take the path under the shops and through the shade to avoid getting tanned,” she elaborates.

On the innovative formulations of Harkoi’s nail serums and lacquers
With options like Dusty Rose with Gold Sparkles, Muted Coral for the minimalists out there, an enigmatic Sage Green and a sunset-like Pink-Orange Shimmer, Harkoi makes it a point to pull the plug on run-of-the-mill colour combinations to devise playful shades for its sweeping range of nail serums and lacquers. Whilst the former are concocted with all things hydrating: cucumber water, resurrection plant extract and glycerin; Bhagat describes the latter as “nail art in a bottle”.

If, like me, you often scroll past fancy nail transformation tutorials with sheer envy, then Harkoi’s array of glistening toxin-free nail lacquers will alleviate any DIY-related fears and help you achieve equally Instagrammable hands.

“With micro launches coming up every few weeks, our shades are editorially inspired, consisting of re-imagined hues to match the Indian skin’s warm undertones that other brands are yet to explore. It’s the unexpected that takes you by surprise,” she reveals.

Bhagat recalls the exciting process of creating Liquid Gold, one of the brand’s most sumptuous lacquer shades, which was inspired by the imagery of molten gold bars. Much of their formulations share a similar genesis – visualising a concept first and then considering its compatibility with Indian skin tones, and in this case, it’s no secret that glittering gold goes best with brown skin.

On fostering an unbiased hiring process and inclusive work culture
“Skin colour is one element, but other variables like background, financial status and education continue to be evaluated during recruitment, be it consciously or not. I knew from the very beginning that that’s not a culture I want to foster at Harkoi,” asserts the brand’s founder.

At Harkoi, an employee’s position is defined purely on the basis of performance, as opposed to other superficial attributes. For a brand that advocates for ending systemic prejudices such as colourism, an unbiased hiring process may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s rare to see it established in a company’s DNA as staunchly as this.

“We’ve kept very transparent communication channels and our management structure is linear and collaborative – I know they sound like fancy words to use, but we believe in it,” she says, making it a point to ask for help when needed, along with hosting sessions with the team to discuss how to implement any suggested changes within the workplace.

On the complexity of addressing colourism
“The fight against colourism isn’t an easy one. At the start, we did think it would be as simple as increasing the shade card from 5 to 30 or 40 shades, but in reality that is the bare minimum. How do you change people’s perspective on dark skin, challenge unconscious and conscious biases, remove years of trauma and hurt associated with this aspect?” questions the 23-year-old entrepreneur. And while the recent call-out of the notorious brand Fair & Lovely stands as a sign of hopeful progress within the industry, it is only a superficial step, and the rebranding to Glow & Lovely arguably isn’t any better.

While there are also plans to launch a range of tinted mineral sunscreens that won’t leave the dreaded white cast, Bhagat is aware there’s still a long way to go to wipe out the stigma against dark skin. The answer lies in inviting healthy and open conversations that will help instil a sense of comfort or pride in individual skin tones, according to Bhagat. To that end, Harkoi believes in giving the younger generation – which is less afraid to stand up for a cause or engage in self-expression – a platform to challenge the socially embedded regressive standards that have been passed down for decades.

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