She is a synonym for sophistication and panache, and given her glowing track record of life-changing stories (from morphing the lives of college-going ingénues to grooming countless jet-setting investment bankers), she is one of the most celebrated individuals in Mumbai society. A metaphor for etiquette and grooming, the spirited lady speaks her mind without mincing words. Tall, athletic and having cultivated one of the most enviable closets in chic corridors, she turns heads wherever she goes.
Meet the dynamic Chhaya Momaya, who joins us this week to celebrate International Women’s Day. With her expertise in brand building, she’s infused a new lease of life to the likes of JW Marriot, Hyatt Regency, Varuna D Jani, Kingfisher Airlines, BMW, Hastens, La Prairie and Judith Leiber. A power-packed personality who proves her mettle with every endeavour she undertakes, Chhaya has transformed thousands of lives, and she’s done so with élan.
Ultimate go-to advisor, celebrated party hostess, well-respected life coach – she never skips a beat. Whatever tags we give her can’t justify the change she has brought to the organisations and individuals who’ve benefitted from her Midas touch. You & I caught up with this lady of substance to find out more about her career, her specialty, and her views on the social issues pertaining to women.
What’s the golden rule of etiquette and grooming?
I think there’s nothing like a law when it comes to grooming and etiquette. It’s just about being sensitive to another human being. Go with your warmth and senses, and you’ll usually be correct. When I see people stressed out about grooming, I wonder why. Every part of etiquette has logic behind it. For example, it is but natural that Indian food is eaten with hands since we enjoy the spices, while Western delicacies are typically eaten with a fork because there’s a lot of meat – that’s not for appearances but down to logic. When it’s said that one should eat with one’s mouth closed, that’s because no one wants to see chewed food as you dine. It’s not about rules, but about being sensitive to other people.
If you had to give someone a makeover in three simple steps – what would they be?
First, I look at the body language; spoken language comes next, followed by clothing. I’d proceed in the same order.
How long was your quickest makeover?
I work with image more than I do makeovers. I’m an image consultant first and foremost, so the most important thing for me is to develop the way people perceive someone. I usually work backwards, looking at the person’s background, where they belong and who they are. I then work on making them what they can be. For me, everything has to be in sync – culture, style, body language and personality. You can have the best outfit on, but if you can’t carry it off, it’ll be a flop.
How important is speech?
Oh, very! Don’t you think speech makes all the difference? I look into diction, writing and speech. I think it’s one of the most important things that stay with you forever. The right language can floor a person and take you places, so it’s extremely important. Another thing that’s equally important is one’s culture – one must never forget it. Your pedigree will show through and through. It doesn’t matter what culture you belong to; as long as you hold it by your side, it’ll stay with you forever.
Of all the brands you’ve worked with, which was your favourite?
To be honest, they were all excellent; that’s why I worked with them. Each one brought a conversation, and whether it was Hastens of Sweden or Varuna D. Jani from India, they’ve all been special to me or I would have never got on board. I only work with passion; I’m not in this for the money. I didn’t choose this field; it chose me, and that’s because of my understanding of brands.
Is there one your relate to in particular?
I relate to them all. Luxury is something everyone enjoys, and if it connects with your everyday lifestyle, you automatically connect to it. Whatever I work with, it’s because I relate to it, and that’s why I don’t take on similar brands. I need to believe in the product to be able to convince everyone else to do the same.
What’s your specialty?
I’m only attracted to what I connect with. I work with my heart and have never done anything for commercial purposes. I put my soul into it. When I launched La Prairie, they gave me a particular format and I refused. I didn’t want to do it in a nightclub, but wanted a place overlooking the sea since that’s what the brand makes you feel – younger and fresher. I decided to do a sit-down lunch with food that enhances your skin, food that makes it glow. That really worked.
Moving onto the theme of Women’s Day, what’s the biggest issue women face?
I think in India, it would be rape. Yes, it’s also a global issue, but I’d rather talk about what’s happening in my own country. As well as illiteracy, there’s a lack of sexual education. Women in rural areas are often unsafe and vulnerable, and it hurts to see them that way. From dowry to rape to human trafficking, the things women can be subjected to are very sad. Some are even treated like commodities.
If you were organising a parade for Women’s Day, who would be your grand marshal?
There are so many women who are doing great work that it’s hard to single one out. If I had to choose, Dipali Goenka from Welspun has been helping women in Kutch who earn a living from handicrafts. She’s done much to empower and employ those women. Another choice would be Renu Kocchar of Viraj Profiles, who’s now establishing schools to educate women and children in Tarapur, Maharashtra. Also on the list is Varsha Patel, who’s working with Gondia’s female artisans in the weaves industry. She even exhibits their work, selling them in the cities and ensuring that all profits go back to them. Making women independent is the top priority, in my opinion. I salute anyone who takes up the cause.
How crucial is it to adapt from other cultures while staying true to your own self?
If you want to empower yourself personally, your culture gives you everything – the upbringing, the pedigree. I very strongly believe that you shouldn’t forget who you are. Also, choose the best from other cultures. For instance, Americans are great at marketing, whereas the French are legendary for their sense of pride in their own language and lifestyle. One should try and imbibe the best from every culture.
What does Women’s Day mean to you?
Honestly speaking, it’s just another day. You have to work yourself higher every day, setting and achieving your goals. Go for the kill. A day should not matter.
How important is women’s empowerment, especially in a country like India?
Though I’m not a feminist, I strongly believe that a human being is a human being, whether you are a man or a woman. What upset me most are the sordid cases of women who are sexually abused, and the mental and physical torture they have to go through. Another major issue close to my heart is the quality of life we give to our aged parents. They raise us and make us who we are, so it’s our job to take good care of them when they need it.
You’ve been around the world. Where do women have it worst?
I agree that India is improving in many ways, but we’re nowhere near the ideal target. Women here have so much to bring to the table, and they really need to be given the opportunity to do so. In several countries ranging from Germany (which has a female head of state) to nations in Eastern Europe, women are often at par with men.
You come across as very warm and approachable. Despite juggling so many assignments how do you manage to stay so warm and down-to-earth?
I think you have to be sensitive to other human beings. As I said earlier, everyone’s nature is different, but the feelings are the same. If I’ve felt warmth coming from someone, I will surely return it. Humans are born with a number of senses, and we should make use of them all. If you feel that someone has hurt you, there’s no better way than to turn it around than with warmth.
Do you have a message for our readers?
I think if each of us abides by the culture and traditions our ancestors have left us, we can create a new world together. Any culture is strong enough to survive the test of time, and when we grow up, we tend to quote the lessons our parents and grandparents taught us. Quoting a book isn’t something that comes easily to people, so lineage is very important. Parents will rarely do wrong by you, and if you take the best out of that, the best of what life has to offer lies ahead.
..... as told to Anahita