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Why are there so many white models on Indian e-shopping sites?

Indian e-commerce has a dark side - a preference for foreigners. Is it racism or a lack of professionalism among local talent? The answer varies depending on who you talk to.

more lifestyle Updated: Oct 30, 2016 12:38 IST
Rachel Lopez
Rachel Lopez
Hindustan Times
Fair,Dark skin,Racist
Model coordinators say that foreign models are willing to work longer, more monotonous shifts, but photographers say that while that is true, they also spend a lot of their time lightening the skin tones of the local talent that is used. Three e-commerce portals and brands we contacted declined comment.

Try this social experiment the next time you’re idly browsing on your favourite e-shopping site. Scroll through the apparel – men’s, women’s, kurtas, saris, trousers, jumpsuits, it doesn’t matter – and see how long it is before you spot a dark-skinned model. You’ll be there a while.

As online marketplaces gain a stronger foothold in India, a kind of whitewashing is starting to characterise the catalogues of brands they retail. Labels like Benetton, whose iconic multiracial campaigns cover billboards around the world, have barely a smattering of dark models on Amazon, Myntra and Jabong. Indian brands like Pantaloons feature white men in kurtas. Even Ritu Kumar’s brand, Label, has only a minuscule proportion of women who are tan or darker. Many of those donning ikat dresses and kitschy prints look more European than Indian.

We contacted representatives for Myntra / Jabong, Ritu Kumar and Benetton but all three companies declined comment.

Gurpreet Singh, whose company Browntape Technologies helps individual brands get their products onto sites like Flipkart, Snapdeal, Myntra and Amazon, says the websites “subtly push towards Western or Western-looking models”. “While it might seem most evident on ecommerce pages, the fixation is something that many brands in the country have been following,” he says.

It’s not always the site’s fault, adds Vikram (last name withheld on request), a photographer who does garment shoots for some of India’s largeste-commerce websites, in addition to Fashion Week work for designers like Manish Malhotra, Anita Dongre and Nikhil Thampi. “Usually, the product images come from the brands,” he says.

So why do brands and websites alike seem to prefer to showcase their clothes on models that most Indians cannot identify with?

Read: Fairness and anti-ageing creams may not be good for your health

The whitewash

Those in the know will tell you that fashion shoots, especially for e-commerce websites, are gruelling, endless and largely devoid of glamour. You pose for the same four shots: front, back, diagonal and detail, but between hair, make-up and lighting, a single costume change can take hours of prep. Given the sheer number of products to be modelled, studios are typically booked round the clock, with models displaying anything from 70 to a 100 garments in a single 10-hour shift.

Indian wear takes longer to change into and style, says Singh “Saris take so long that the sometimes there’s only time for 30 per shift.”

So e-tail work is at the bottom of the pecking order for most models. While the pay can vary from Rs 8,000 to Rs 15,000 per day, it’s hectic, uncreative and offers little chance of leading to better campaigns.

Talent agencies say this puts off most local talent, since Indian models are usually looking for their big break rather than trying to earn a little on the side during a break or gap year.

Of the local talent, I would say eight out of 10 areproblematic, says Arpita Gulati, co-director of Delhi firm Auraa Models, which has primarily foreign models on its roster. “They’re the ones who’ve been told they look good and are tall and should try modelling, but have no idea that it is hard work. They will watch the clock, won’t cooperate.”

Read: Why Diana Penty will never endorse a fairness cream

Brands often find that they can squeeze in more shots with a foreign model, making them better value, Gulati adds. “They’re just easier to work with. They come on time, and will deliver until their last change. You don’t have to push them to work.”

Selina Dulz, a German model in India for a second six-month shooting stint, says hard work is part of the job. She’s booked nearly every day for commercials, catalogues and e-commerce jobs. “There are days I’ve changed 70 outfits and one rush job even had 150,” she says. “I go home, eat, sleep, shower, get coffee and go back to do it all over again the next day.” She’s 19.

Foreign but familiar

While Singh agrees that someIndian models’ less-than-professional conduct hampers shoots, he says that’s not always the reason a foreigner is hired. “It is believed that if you have product photos with foreign models, they will sell better,” he says. “We are a country where thousands of crores of fairness cream are sold. This is not a surprise at all.”

Authentically brown faces are often lightened too. “About 80% of my job is done at the computer, making women and men look fairer,” says the photographer.

For shoppers, it makes for a surreal experience. Heenal Shah, a 21-year-old intern at a glossy magazine who buys from online sites about twice a week, says she finds the fair, thin, tall models “kind of fake”. “We have to figure out what a colour or style might look like on our skin and our height. Will the purple clash on me? Will those boyfriend jeans suit my 4’11” frame? It’s time the sites become more realistic,” she says.

First Published: Oct 29, 2016 20:35 IST