Taking the family’s 160-year legacy forward, how this entrepreneur is bringing back the charm of Indian perfumery
Before spray perfumes and deodorants were introduced to India, attar or ittra – the concentrated natural fragrances made from essential oils, were considered a symbol of luxury and royalty.
In the 1850s, Chhunnmal Vijayvergiya moved to Lucknow – the city of Nawabs – to serve the royalty and Rasookhdars with the attars. To his luck, the Nawabs became fond of his attars, and he decided against moving back and started a small business in Lucknow itself.
He rented a small shop in Old Aminabad and set up the business.
A few years later, Chhunnmal’s grandson, Gaurishanker Vijayvergiya, joined the business and grew it by moving into the B2B segment. He started exporting attars to the European market. The exports were done in a more organised way when after the independence, fourth-generation entrepreneur Vasudev Vijayvergiya stepped into the business. He set up CMRD Agency, under which he used to sell attars to the foreign market and even to local businesses.
The legacy was then carried over by his three sons – Vinay Vijayvergiya, Vishal Vijayvergiya and Vinod Vijayvergiya.
However, in today’s age when molecular fragrances are dominating the market, with Europe and the US leading the space, the Indian perfumery industry has lost its shelf space in the market.
To revive the traditional fragrance of attars with the blend of molecule-based perfumes, the sixth-generation entrepreneur Vidushi Vijayvergiya founded ISAK Fragrances in 2017 in Lucknow.
In an interaction with SMBStory, Vidushi talks about Indian perfumery, its differentiation from foreign brands, and how ISAK Fragrances is seizing the domestic market.
Popularising the Indian perfumery
We have forgotten that when we buy perfume, we buy a feeling, says Vidushi, and instead dwell on ‘branded’ perfumes to match our lifestyle.
“Indian perfumes are 20 percent more concentrated than French perfumes, that are eight to 10 percent concentrated, and that’s why the attars are more long-lasting and strong. But people are not aware of that,” she adds.
Though it has become difficult to market attars to people today due to its strong and natural fragrance, which is not preferred by many, however, she says customers still want something long-lasting.
“I launched ISAK fragrance to meet this particular demand of the consumers. Indian perfumery is still not explored to its fullest. Either the Indian brands have moved completely to synthetic perfumes or have not shown interest in evolving the attar,” Vidushi explains.
ISAK Fragrances uses natural extractions and blends them to make perfume. Vidushi says it is difficult to make a complete extracted perfume, so they mix the natural extractions with 20-35 percent molecule-based fragrances.
“I never wanted to join the family business but when I moved to Switzerland after my marriage, I was free most of the time. As destiny had it for me, I utilised my time to understand the perfume market there, which dominates the world with classic perfumes. To my realisation, I felt that Indian perfumes, which have so much potential, are missing out on the rising demand,” Vidushi says.
Vidushi discussed the same with her uncle Vishal and he encouraged her to start a new entity herself, as he and Vijay were already running CMRD agency in retail in Lucknow.
“This sparked an enthusiasm in me and I came back to start the business,” Vidushi narrates.
ISAK Fragrances entered the market with nine fragrances, and the initial funding was made by Vidushi and her aunt Niti Vijayvergiya. Though Vidushi has not disclosed the amount, she says that Niti is the investor and her uncle Vishal is the ‘chief nose’ of the business, as the perfume creations are his.
Diffusing the fragrance
In 2008, Vijay and Vishal had set up a small manufacturing unit in Aliganj, Lucknow which is being utilised by Vidushi to make ISAK’s perfumes. They also have an R&D lab where new fragrances are made and tested. The perfumes are produced to pass IFRA standards and the raw materials are sourced locally.
Vidushi says that Uttar Pradesh is the dominant market for rose flower and it is sourced from the Hasayan and Kannuj districts of the state.
Sandalwood is sourced from Karanataka, Jasmine from Tamil Nadu, and Oodh (agarwood) from Assam. All other fragrances are also sourced domestically.
Lemon, tea tree, geranium, bergamot, and orange are some of the natural ingredients that are imported. Some of the molecules that are also imported are Galaxolid, ISO E Super, Hedione, Damascones, Eugenol, and Ambroxan.
To reach the homes of Indian consumers, ISAK Fragrances also launched reed diffusers in 2018 and discovery packs in 2020.
“2020 was a tough year because business happened for only a few months. During the COVID-19 imposed lockdown, the retail was shut and we didn’t know how to survive. This was when I hit upon the idea of launching discovery packs,” Vidushi says.
With the discovery pack, the brand lets the customers try the product and make an informed purchase.
“Many people think that Indian perfumes are not of good quality. But this is wrong. India has natural and quality perfumes, but it takes time, effort, and studying age-old recipes to develop the fragrance, which increases the cost of the perfume which the customer doesn’t want to pay,” Vidushi observes.
During the lockdown, Vidushi decided to introduce the discovery pack at a minimum price of Rs 650, so that the customers can try all the nine perfumes and purchase the perfumes they like.
“This launch also intended to raise awareness among consumers that Indian perfumes are of standard quality, and that they can meet their expectations,” Vidushi explains.
Perfumes by ISAK Fragrances cost between Rs 650- Rs 3,000.
Talking about the market presence, Vidushi says the brand is available in their old shop in Old Aminabad and is present on ecommerce portals like Silkayra and Story of India.
ISAK Fragrances also have stores in Jaipur, Ahmedabad, Goa, and Mumbai.
Vidushi did not comment on the turnover of the company but mentioned that in 2019, the company reached a breakeven point, which was two years after the inception. In 2020, even though the business only took place for a few months, the company’s revenue grew 20 percent from 2019.
Striving the cut-throat competition
The Indian fragrance industry was valued at Rs 66.58 billion in the year 2019, and is anticipated to reach Rs 139.44 billion by 2024, expanding at a CAGR of ~15.93 percent.
The market is dominated by foreign brands like Calvin Klein, Guess, Versace, and Burberry London. ISAK Fragrances also competes with Indian brands such as Naso Profumi and Olfactory NYC.
Talking about the competition, Vidushi says that ISAK’s endeavour to bring back the charm of Indian perfumery through extensive research and IP makes it unique.
“We educate our customers regularly about the treasures of India. We are proud to say that we are an Indian brand and all our perfumes are made in-house. Our strong control on the quality of the ingredients allows us to use the best raw materials, resulting in outstanding beautiful fragrances,” she adds.
Recalling one of the episodes, Vidushi tells that ISAK Fragrances participated in an exhibition at Mahalakshmi Ground in Mumbai.
“We were excited to showcase our perfumes but to our despair, not many people stopped by at our stall to enquire about our product. In the second half, I told my executives to just hand over the perfumed strip to people who pass by to give them an experience. To our surprise, when we did that, everyone made a u-turn; they loved the fragrance so much,” Vidushi narrates.
The plan ahead
The sense of smell is one of the first and the most important step that goes into creating an experience, and Vidushi says through ISAK’s bespoke fragrance solutions, the brand plans to be a part of weddings, events, and hotels, focusing on creating a holistic experience for the attendees.
The brand has also been working closely with a few clients, and now plans to be a part of the gifting market with curated and customised perfumery gifts.
ISAK Fragrances is also trying to take its fragrance line international.
Edited by Kanishk Singh