The slate-grey Delhi skies, redolent with rain, have burst, and it’s pouring. I wind my way around a poster-red Ferrari parked in the porch of a newly built section of entrepreneur and industrialist scion Samir Kumaar Modi’s Chhatarpur farmhouse, through the glass doors of a two-storey ‘home office’ constructed out of black containers, up the stairs by a wall of books ("the top 100 books you will ever want to read"), in a fun, playful space filled with a jukebox that only plays 80s retro hits, a vintage coke machine, Marilyn Monroe coke crates, fencing and polo gear. Finally, I am sitting on a Union Jack-covered sofa, opposite the man himself, who’s taking me, between photo takes, through his life’s journey — his opportunities, myriad challenges, literally working his way up the proverbial ladder, finding his niche, creating a beauty brand from scratch, and his life’s greatest passions.
The space — which has a very masculine aesthetic — is literally strewn with memorabilia picked up over the years by the 52-year-old Managing Director of Modi Enterprises – the parent company of Modicare, Colorbar Cosmetics, and the 24SEVEN chain of grocery stores. “Pre-Covid, I was out of the house, travelling 240 days a year,” says Samir Modi. Now, the inveterate traveller is mostly on the road to promote Modicare and Colorbar within India, but his trips abroad have also picked up (he recently took a holiday in Ibiza, and more recently, in Thailand, with friends and family). And how did this container man-cave come about? “When my children were growing up (he has two daughters), I wanted to build them a tree house,” says Samir. “I never got around to it, but that’s when the idea of the container came about – it was easy to do, although the interiors and exteriors needed work.”
As you scan the room, it’s the abundance of Britannia nostalgia and Union Jacks that greets the eye. “I must have been an Englishman in my past life,” says Samir, “There’s something about the Union Jack I just can’t get enough of.” He was in London during the demise of the British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, and saw all the happenings, the corteges of cars, roads being blocked, and the swell of mourners. He tells me about the Andrew Martin and Timothy Oulton furnished spaces, where everything is imported — a wooden row-boat from Boston hangs on one of the walls, a clutch of vintage cameras like Lubitel 2 and Primoflex hang on a pillar, while wooden Wilson tennis rackets from the '60s hang from another side. “Everything here is handpicked by me, from flea markets in Georgia, Paris, and Portobello in London,” says Samir. Surrounded by Union Jack curtains, Royal Mail postboxes, toy trucks from eBay, and even a toy train from Taiwan that runs around the perimeter of the ceiling. He has just ordered a desk for his office,
made of a real Mini Cooper (one of his obsessions), with working lights and horn!
For Samir Modi, or Sammy as he’s known to his friends and colleagues, it’s been a multifarious and eventful life, with every tiny tribulation and opportunity moulding him into the astute businessman he is today, much like his father, the late KK Modi — whose 82nd birthday he recently celebrated en famille with the release of a government stamp in his honour (“Wherever he is, it’s a proud moment that the Government of India has recognised him,” says Samir.). From his father, he learnt that he would be a lifelong trainee: “My dad told me that the day you think you’re a guru, that’s the day you die,” says Samir, who counts Steve Jobs and Richard Branson among his gurus, along with his father and grandfather. “I just want to be the sum of all of them,” he says.
The Modi family patriarch, Gujarmal Modi — he founded the town of Modinagar (located between Delhi and Meerut) — was a former finance minister of the Maharaja of Patiala, before he set up factories making glucose biscuits, sugar, dehydrated fruit. “The government wanted him to make dehydrated meat during the war, but he refused, and just gave his patents away so they could make it themselves,” says Samir. “The British wanted to make him a Lord, but he refused, opting for the title of Rai Bahadur — an Indian title — instead.” Growing up in a multi-generational family, with uncles and cousins all living in one house, Samir began his education in Modinagar, and went to St Joseph’s in Nainital, a boarding school where the Christian brothers were not averse to caning — and on to Modern School in Delhi, and grades 7-12 at The Doon School. “Doon had equality — there was nothing like rich or poor there, and it taught me a lot,” he says.
He earned his first salary as a waiter in an Indian restaurant in Frankston, Victoria, Australia, as an exchange student. He worked for Philip Morris, a tobacco company, in Richmond, Virginia, after college in Delhi, where he was paid $1,700 a month, from 5am to 6pm, and then in Kentucky, “I worked on tobacco plantations, and qualified as a leaf grader,” says Samir, who, upon his return to India, worked as staff in his father’s factory in 45C heat, in Mumbai, in Ghaziabad. “I’ve spent my life training, and have been working for 33 years,” he says. Samir became an Amway consultant, working in Australia, Hong Kong, London, Tokyo, and toying with the idea of a JV with them in India. Instead, he started his own venture 27 years ago, Modicare, where he hired an R&D head from P&G. He even hired a French-American man from Clinique to set up the cosmetics business.
Samir decided to start his own makeup brand Colorbar (his very first batch was 16 lipsticks and 16 nail polishes that Samir had to sell, store to store), after leaving his father’s business, against all odds (his uncle already had the Revlon franchise in India). Today it celebrates 18 years.
In a market crowded with Unilevers, Maybellines, and Revlon as a competitor, he placed Colorbar between Elle 18 and Lakmé — selling nail polish at `35 and lipstick at `70. But his children would not use the product, as they were used to international brands like Bobbi Brown. “I went to Bologna to the cosmetics fair (Cosmoprof), and an Italian family gave me a sample kit, and helped us meet other players, and that’s how we reinvented ourselves, with 2,800 outlets in India,” says Samir. Today he’s down to 1,300 — where the company prides itself on being gender neutral — with equality of all sexes and genders, and nobody is an ‘employee’. “I dislike this word. What does it mean? We have people who work inhouse, in the business,” says Samir, who is beloved by all those who work at his companies — he was the first to create management changes and broke the barriers between staff and management at his factories, getting them to eat together, and getting everyone to sign their name in English — even if they could not read or write in English. He works on the principles of ‘Samirness’ (much like the ‘Tajness’ of the Taj Group, based on the principles of Meraki, where you put your love and creativity in whatever you do).
Today, Colorbar is at par with all the top international brands — Samir ensured that to make Colorbar, the European manufacturer had to have created luxury brands or develop a product for him that was the first of its kind in the world. “Our Sinful Matte lipstick, we are the first in the world to launch it,” says Samir. “Charlotte Tilbury and Pat McGrath launched the same product after us (it is the exact same product at one-fourth the price).” Colorbar eyeshadows and kohl eyeliners are the same as M.A.C, the Shimmer Bar is the same as Bobbi Brown’s, the lip pencil is the same as Fenty, the eyeshadow palette the same as Charlotte Tilbury. “We don’t compromise on quality but yes, we make less money,” says Samir. The nail polish is the world’s number one formula, which nobody is making yet, there are even vegan nail lacquers. The glass bottles come from India, while packaging is from China and France. It goes without saying that Colorbar beauty is cruelty-free, clean, with full disclosure of ingredients.
Colorbar’s new Earth Range — with Almond, Onion, and Argan oil lines — has 3-5 per cent of sales going to the protection of endangered species like elephants, bears, and rhinos. “I love life and the planet,” says Samir, who is known to test each lipstick, cream, nail polish and eye shadow personally. “Where is the doubt?” he says, when met with an incredulous look. “I need to be clear about what I am selling.” His newest innovations include skincare with hemp seed oil, Vita-Hemp, and a vegan nail lacquer with a 60 percent wooden cap (recyclable). He’s aiming for a men’s line in two years.
“My vision is to have world supremacy — to be the top three brands in the world,” says Samir. “We want to be selling abroad — we have just started with the UK, and sell in Mauritius, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Maldives, and Turkey.”
An avid art collector — he now has 800 pieces — his latest acquisitions being works by Valay Shende and Alwar Balasubramaniam, and installations (razor blade bras and safety pin bikinis) by Bangladeshi artist Tayeba Begum Lipi. He’s still waiting to buy the Subodh Gupta installation of the scooter with the milk cans that he’s coveted for years (“The day I can afford it, I will buy it,” he says). “But I don’t go for Husains or Razas. I prefer younger artists who have become masters over the years.” His most extravagant purchase has been a piece by A. Ramachandran, and a Sudarshan Shetty.
To de-stress, Samir listens to retro music — he loves Kishore Kumar and Ed Sheeran. Suddenly he picks up his phone and starts playing Baarishein by young singer Anuv Jain, from his playlist, and now he’s singing the lines “Teri Aankhon Ka Kajal, Na Faile Ab Kabhi Bhi, Tujhe Itna Pyaar Dun, Teri Khushion Ki Khatir, Ye Duniya Mai Meri, Ikk Pal Mai Waar Dun Mai, see these are my favourite lines…” A compulsive shopper — he even indulged in it while at a three-week wellness retreat at Chiva Som in Hua Hin, Thailand. “I need a place where I can’t get bored,” he says.
Samir is gung-ho about India. “I want India to become Bharat again, the golden Peacock, that’s my dream for India,” he says. “I am a hardcore Indian, but I don’t follow politics.” Has his surname helped him in life? “It has been both lucky and unlucky; it has closed and opened doors, but one’s family name is paramount, to protect. Even if you don’t do something, you still get maligned!”
Does he want Colorbar to be known as the biggest Indian brand? “I just want to be the biggest brand, period,” says Samir. And if anyone were to ask about the Indianness of Colorbar, he replies, you’re talking to him – "there’s nothing more Indian than me".
THE BON VIVANT WITH A FLAIR FOR FOOD, CARS, AND MOTORCYCLES
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s last private concert took place at his daughter’s mundan, 25 years ago. A lover of music, food, cars, and dogs, Samir Modi is a man of many moods
I made a journal of my travels. I was in a meeting and I started doodling. The result is 17 years in the making — a journal with a recommendation of each shop and restaurant I have been to, with the name of the city, website, and a three-line writeup. From a Vietnamese restaurant in Richmond, Virginia, to my fave Thai resto in Hong Kong, Chili Club, to Chinese eatery Kai in London, there are parts and pieces of places that I have liked. I was in Pattaya two days ago. I loved the Sky Gallery — so I would write, say, 'On a hilltop overlooking the ocean, amazing vibe, the Green Curry and dessert are to die for'. I began cooking when I was 12. My mother said if you want to eat something different, make it yourself! I taught myself reading Tarla Dalal cookbooks, and today, I cook Thai, Lebanese. I even bought a large mortar for the papaya salad, and a 3D food printer!
My idea of a perfect date is where nothing is perfect — you can be yourself, and before you know it, the time has gone from dusk to dawn.
My Ferrari — with the chassis number 23, my number — is symbolic. It helped me grow in my life to where I am today. I have BMWs, Mercedes-Benz. I have just bought a Maybach. And I love my Mini Cooper Electric and my Harley-Davidson Fat Boy. I like the Easy Rider type — I just restored it, and know how to take it apart and put it together.
How I transformed myself. Initially I got bariatric surgery as I had diabetes, which I don’t any longer. I had tried every diet on the planet. I lost 26kg, then I gained eight, and lost 12kg since last September. I eat everything. I like Häagen-Dasz Cookies & Cream ice cream, chocolate cake, lava pudding, jalebis, gulab jamun. I like tutti frutti, banana milk shakes, and Oreo shakes.
I love my dogs. In my past life, I was a dog. I have two Labrador Retriever, Mocha and Magic, and am getting two more family members — Miniature Schnauzers soon.
COVER STORY NOTES
After rescheduling our cover shoot several times over the month of September due to other time commitments, our man of the moment, Samir Modi finally devoted an entire day with our crew — on a slushy, wet Delhi day, with raindrops pouring incessantly out of a late monsoon sky.
Just like a perfect cup of tea during a rainy day, it was the perfect afternoon to be savoured — with Mr Modi patiently giving us as many shots as needed to get the right capture. Jovial, amicable, humble, and always smiling, he made each one of us feel right at home inside the container-turned-home office adjacent to his farmhouse in Chhatarpur.
His fondness for collecting some of the most eye-catching vintage finds is so obvious in this special work space — whether it was a working Coke machine (he loves his Coca-Cola), Piccadilly Circus signboards, Union Jack furnishings, a mannequin dressed in the King’s Guards’ uniforms, cigar humidors, or wall-to-wall bookshelves. It is reflective of a man of great taste, humour, passion, and attention to detail. His home office, just like him, is larger than life, colourful, widely travelled, and tells an abundance of stories.
As Ashish Chawla photographed Modi dressed in a navy blazer, a nautical tee, white jeans, and loafers, the subject reflected a person of uncertain goüt, his eyes betraying years of experience, his easy banter over a generous lunch of dal makhni, butter chicken, and biryani from Moti Mahal, proof of someone blessed with humility and a good upbringing.
Speaking softly, but quickly, with makeup products by his company Colorbar Cosmetics stacked on his desk, Modi made everyone feel at ease, from the makeup artist, to the stylist, from the editor to the interviewer. He even regaled us with an impromptu song — Baarishein by Anuv Jain – his current favourite!
It’s little wonder that this captain of industry, who comes from a renowned business family, never let success go to his head, and has nothing but love for
those who work for him (he’s known for singing and dancing with abandon at his company Modicare’s India events, much to the enjoyment of his work colleagues — he hates the term ‘employees’). A collector of the finer things in life, he lives life in technicolour, but keeps himself grounded.
“My dad told me that the day you think you’re a guru, that’s the day you die. I count Steve Jobs and Richard Branson among my gurus, along with my father and grandfather. I just want to be the sum of all of them.”
This is Samir Modi like you’ve never seen before.