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Meet the Indian models setting international fashion runways on fire

Ten years ago, few Indian models made it to international ramps.Today, our girls are ruling fashion runways in Paris, Milan and New York. How did this happen?

brunch Updated: Sep 20, 2016 18:59 IST

In the 1970s, Dehradun-based Kirat Young, née Kirat Bhinder, met designer Yves Saint Laurent and the next thing she knew, she was on an international ramp, walking for YSL, Chanel, Armani, Versace and Valentino.

Now a jewellery designer with Oscar de la Renta, Young, together with the late Anjali Mendes, who was Pierre Cardin’s muse, was perhaps the only Indian walking on international catwalks, placed there by chance and circumstance.

That’s how Indian models made it abroad in the previous century and even in the first decade of the 2000s, when Ujjwala Raut, Padma Lakshmi and Laxmi Menon moved out of the Mumbai/Delhi circuit and hit Paris/Milan/New York. Because Indian models were considered too ‘exotic’ for the white-dominated ramps of the US and Europe. Their features were too different, too unfamiliar to do the primary job of a model: sell clothes. And their bodies were shaped differently. Beauty may be truth, according to the poet John Keats, but the truth is that in a consumer-driven market, only the homogenous sells.

Cut to today, and suddenly an Indian model on an international catwalk is not such an unusual presence anymore.

Women of Indian origin such as Neelam Gill, Kelly Gale, Sabrina Behl, and home-grown girls like Pooja Mor, Bhumika Arora, Natasha Ramachandran, Smita Lasrado and Rasika Navare are taking the international fashion world by storm. So, when and how did this happen?

According to Nonita Kalra, editor of Harper’s Bazaar India, global standards of beauty are now more inclusive. “You no longer need to be a blue-eyed blonde or androgynous. You can be from any part of the world and succeed,” she says. “Today, thanks to the Internet, we all access the same information and dress a certain way which lends a sort of uniformity.”

However, this doesn’t mean that the Indian look has become mainstream, Kalra adds. While couture designers are bypassing ethnicity for beauty, brands are not, even when India is part of their target market. “You won’t see Zara or H&M using Indian models,” says Kalra. “It is still more confined to the ramp.”

But, according to fashion stylist and choreographer, Prasad Bidapa, more and more international brands are in fact recruiting Indian models, a trend that began with L’Oréal signing Aishwarya Rai.

“She was the first Indian face to find global recognition. Although she was a film star, she had a global connect and proved that the Indian look can work worldwide,” says Bidapa.

Bidapa believes international brands signed Indian girls first, and the ramps followed more slowly and with greater caution. “Although Paris had a lot of Indian sardarni models at one point, they were all NRI girls,” he says. “No one really went from India and became a huge success there, except Ujjwala Raut, who had bagged some very good international campaigns, and of course Lakshmi Menon, who had a very international look and was the first Indian to become a Pirelli calendar girl.”

This was partly because of the different-ness of the Indian look. It was also because, to truly succeed internationally, models have to move to Europe or the US, lock, stock and barrel and work their way up the career ladder.

“Girls like Shyamoli Verma, Mehr Jesia and Carol Gracias, had stints abroad, but without much success,” says Bidapa. “Because you have to give up your entire life and shift to a foreign country, where you just join the queue. And these girls were already superstars in India. I don’t think they enjoyed being relegated to that almost newcomer status there and go for auditions. If I had taken 20 girls to Milan and sat there, I could have got work for all of them. But, back then, none of the girls were really that interested.”

This is the big fish in a small pond syndrome, though to be fair, the Indian fashion scene has not been a small pond at all since the 1990s. “Everybody was getting more than enough work. Girls who were successful here were minting money, so much so that they could buy a house in Bombay within five years. They were sorted. So they were not really missing out on anything,” says Bidapa.

Indian models still need not look for success abroad. India’s fashion scene is massive and can accommodate almost as many models as there are women with aspirations.

But for many models, Paris, Milan and New York are big attractions, and for them Bidapa has a word of advice: Go there before you make it in India. Go before you’re already a star. Because however big you may be here, you’ll still start as a beginner there.

Pooja Mor : How the BTech from Bareilly made it big in the big apple

Pooja Mor made her international debut when she walked for Louis Vuitton in 2015 (Photo: Jonas Bresnan; courtesy: Anima Creative Management )

Has walked the ramp for: Stella McCartney, Roberto Cavalli, Louis Vuitton, Givenchy, Alexander McQueen... and half a dozen top international (and very discerning) designers.

Magazine covers: Italian Vogue, Numero China and The Edit magazine.

Brand campaigns:H&M, Tory Burch, Gap, Redken, Net-a-Porter and Nordstrom

Pooja Mor is today undisputedly the biggest Indian name in international fashion modelling. No wonder London-based youth, fashion and culture magazine Dazed & Confused named her among top 10 fresh faces to know for 2016.

Interestingly, modelling was never part of the plan for this 5-foot 9-inch tall girl from UP, who grew up far from the glitzy world of showbiz, playing satoliya (toppling pebbles over with a ball) and riding bicycles. Good at studies, Pooja was doing her BTech (Engineering) in Ahmedabad when she entered the Clean & Clear Fresh Face contest and won one of the regional finals.

“It is only when I saw myself in the newspaper that I thought modelling might be an interesting career option,” she admits. “But it was only after I graduated that I decided to give it a go.”

She signed up with Anima Creative Management, who spotted her in an online catalogue and moved to Mumbai, where Elite NYC saw her. And Mor got her ticket to New York!

It wasn’t as easy as it sounds. “The chances of you getting a job are the same as thousands of girls like you, who’ve arrived from all over the world with the same dreams,” says Pooja. Obviously, despite not having put in years of planning to be a supermodel, she made it big.

Ask this 24-year-old why more Indian girls are on international ramps today than ever before, and she says matter-of-factly, “It’s because modelling is no longer a stepping stone to Bollywood. It is being treated like a proper profession on its own.”

Pooja emphasises that she has never faced discrimination because of her Indian looks. “My ethnicity has actually worked in my favour as India is the next big market on peoples’ minds. Having a face people connect to always helps.”

Natasha Ramachandran: The Pune’ite who conquered every fashion capital

Natasha Ramachandran’s journey as a model began when she moved to Mumbai to audition for the Lakmé Fashion Week (Photos: Markus Lambert; Courtesy : Anima Creative Management)

Has walked the ramp for: Zimmermann, Temperley, Palmer Harding, Emilio de la Morena, Misha Nonoo

Editorials:Harper’s Bazaar China, Teen Vogue, Grazia UK,Glamour ( Dutch) , Lucky Magazine , Wonderland magazine, Kult Blut magazine, Garage magazine, Lofficiel Singapore

Natasha Ramachandran first got a taste of the ramp in 2007 when she won Secunderabad’s prestigious RSI May Queen crown. “I was 17 and modelling was the last thing on my mind. Many girls from my school were participating and I thought it would be fun.” Once that was done, she concentrated on her graduation. “It was only much later, when I came to Mumbai to audition for the Lakme Fashion Week that my real journey began.”

On a trip to the UK, Natasha was offered representation by NEXT Models London and decided to take the opportunity and relocate. “It is this move that landed me my first international gig.”

“Modelling in the West was another eye-opener,” she says. “It is a very professional environment. Everyone works on a fixed schedule and punctuality is a must.”

In return, you must be professional as well. “But, being open to new experiences is equally important. Whether it’s trying cuisines, listening to local artists or experiencing all kinds of weather, especially the limb-numbing winter, so far, it’s been a roller coaster of a ride,” she says. “This has also made me stronger and extremely independent.”

The 26-year-old model claims to love every assignment she has ever done, but names editorials such as Harper’s Bazaar, Grazia, and Glamour, as well as hair and beauty campaigns for Aveda and L’Oréal, as her personal best.

Given the variety of assignments Natasha has had, it’s clear that today the international fashion industry is embracing models of colour. “I experienced the transformation firsthand,” she says. “Years ago, work options would be few for us as we are strikingly different. Now, new avenues are opening for models of colour. This is just the beginning...”

“Clients are usually a bit surprised when they stumble upon an Indian model at the casting,” says Natasha. “It is very important to find the right people to guide you and give you the right push.”

Rasika Navare:The girl from Ghaziabad who impressed Givenchy!

Rasika Navare burst into the international modelling scene with the Smashbox Worldwide Cosmetics campaign (Photo: Matthew Priestly; Courtesy : Anima Creative Management)

Campaigns she has done:Smashbox Cosmetics, Sephora Canada, Givenchy, Maybelline

Editorials: Harper’s Bazaar Kazahstan, Cake magazine, Look magazine , Cosmopolitan UK

For medical technology graduate Rasika Navare, participating in a local beauty pageant on a whim while in college was the game changer. Today, this 26-year-old Pune girl is one of the most promising models from India working internationally.

“My first break was the Smashbox Cosmetics campaign. There was so much excitement. Everyone on set was super charged to work with an Indian girl and I was happy to see how different, yet similar, the ways of working between India and the West are,” says the sultry-eyed girl who admits that the industry abroad is much more organised than it is back home. “But at the end of the day, India is much more fun!” she laughs.

Sure, Indian models are making their presence felt on international ramps, “but we are still considered somewhat exotic,” says Rasika. “I get all kinds of reactions – from people professing their love for India, to comments about how Indian girls are the prettiest in the world!”

Rasika feels the international fashion industry is now truly getting racially diverse. “It’s a revolution taking place and I’m fortunate to be part of it, because there are still very few Indian faces on the international market right now. But, it’s also very challenging and can test your patience. The industry is still in transition, so while we know there are changes happening, we have to keep reminding ourselves that we are part of the change and have to constantly work hard towards it.”

The only way to get regular work on the international ramp is to be patient, says Rasika. “You have to keep looking forward to the positives of the next day, keep a high mental stride and let that help you survive and slowly conquer.”

But there is more to modelling than stilettoes and spotlights. It’s also about travel. “The fact that you have to live out of a suitcase, usually alone, has moulded me as a person and made me what I am.”

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Why didn’t Ash, Priyanka, Lara rule international fashion runways?

By Prasad Bidapa

Sushmita Sen, Miss Universe 1994; Priyanka Chopra, Miss World, 2000; and Aishwarya Rai, Miss World 1994 were all internationally recognisable beauty queens, but never made it big on international fashion runways (Getty Images)

A new battalion of Indian supermodels like Bhumika Arora, Pooja Mor and Smita Lasrado have hit the runways of Europe and quickly taken their place among the supermodels du jour. Indians are agog at these beauties who dared to believe they could be the desi Naomi Campbells! So what happened to the last battalion of models who stormed those shores?

Think girls like Priyanka Chopra, Sushmita Sen, Aishwarya Rai and Lara Datta. Technically speaking, these were pageant girls who were groomed into becoming film stars right from the beginning. The international titles that each brought home were merely a footnote on their way to Bollywood, not an entry to the world of high-fashion modelling in Europe and elsewhere. These are the paradoxes of the Indian glamour industry. Girls who make it on the international circuit, are usually a stereotype of tall, skinny and dusky, which enables them to step into the fashion world of shows, editorials and advertising that can earn them the big bucks. Whereas their sisters from the world of pageants and beauty contests are usually fair, voluptuous and possessed of that indefinable quality that makes them candidates for films with Salman Khan and Shah Rukh Khan, who can launch them to superstardom. None of our female actors are anywhere near the international model look.

One of the most celebrated models from India is Lakshmi Menon. From the runways of Paris and Milan to the fashion studios of New York, Lakshmi still casts her southern spell over the most influential of designers and publications.

Bhumika Arora is cast very much in the dusky mould. But in India, we prefer the fair and lovely as defined by Aishwarya Rai. She is an international sensation whose face became recognisable world over because of her exquisitely photographed campaign for L’Oréal. This established her as a definitive beauty who could sell hair colour and lipstick to any woman in the world.

The writer is a senior fashion industry expert, who has discovered some of the most glamorous faces in Indian film and fashion.

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From HT Brunch, September 18, 2016

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