Are Indian fashion models a blurry background in their own industry, while Bollywood stars take the spotlight? Pulkit Srivastava discusses with industry insiders.
As much as we drool over Emma Stone’s screen presence, I’m utterly sure we cannot even fathom the thought of her closing a Versace Fashion Show, while Naomi Campbell smiles and claps behind her blurring into the background. (In my head Naomi’s dagger eyes have already pierced through me for merely articulating this statement). However, in a majority of Indian Fashion Shows, this has been a perennial reality.
While runway collections in the west celebrate impeccable art curated by talented designers, runway goddesses, and enchanting gentlemen striding the runway in all their strut-laden glory — the scenario is not entirely identical closer home.
Visualizing the International fashion weeks, supermodels like Bella Hadid, Yasmin Wijnaldum, and Adriana Lima dominate our minds with their heavenly galore. But their Indian counterparts are hegemonized with Bollywood actors and actresses — usually with their unflattering walks — while talented models remain at the fringes. These actors enjoy a nomenclature exclusive to them — the showstoppers — and are garnered with the most enticing ensemble out of the entire collection.
Lately, however, as Indian models like Bhoomika Arora, Madhulika Sharma, and Tuhir Brahmbhatt dominate international runways and campaigns, there erupts an optimistic discourse. From being seeped within the inside pages — now these supermodels are gracing the covers of the most sought-after fashion magazines. From Avanti Nagrath, Ashley Radjarame, and Amrit being the cover girls for Vogue India to Pooja Mor cementing the cover of the Indian rendition of Elle, the narrative seems refreshed.
But is it enough?
Fashion: An Incomplete Tale
A 2008 Bollywood movie, Director Madhur Bhandarkar’s Fashion — which was based on the Indian Modelling Industry — although marketed as being inspired by reality — did not paint a complete picture.
There’s a scene in the movie where Shonali Gujral (Kangana Ranaut) can be heard chiming, “I am the showstopper, I don’t care about the theme of the show. Change my earrings, or else I’ll stop the show.” Although condescending — this powerful sequence cements a model’s strength connoted with fame.
In actuality however, a show-stopper’s role is perpetually played by a Bollywood actor — but the irony lies in the fact that they don’t play the part competently and take away the opportunity from the ones who could.
“There are opportunities, and owing to the Indian models gaining popularity globally, the modeling industry has definitely become a little more open, but we still have a long way to go. Even though they are choosing more models than ever, the show stoppers are still Bollywood celebs, sports stars, or even fashion influencers for that matter, but never models”, says a twenty-three-year-old model while speaking with Shilpa Ahuja Media on the condition of anonymity.
Watching actors giving substandard delivery on the ramp feels like listening to a recurring echo of a song stealing all the attention — the audience clapping for that hum — while the entire melody stands there, unheard, under-appreciated.
What’s Up with Bollywood’s Runway Dominance?
Do Bollywood stars guarantee sales? As per industry insiders, it kinda does.
While speaking to us, Khyati, a fashion design student who recently interned at Anju Modi says, “Take any top-rated Indian fashion designer. Even emerging ones want to incorporate actors and actresses into their collections. From what I’ve learned and witnessed, Bollywood brings in unparalleled revenue.”
“That’s the reason Bollywood sensations who are ex-models grace the runway more when they are actors than when they were models,” she adds.
To a point, it’s understandable. Designers need to market their clothes, and actors guarantee sales — or at least the bumble about the collection. But this approach of the industry gatekeeps models from their own industry and limits the definition of who is included in the definition of the major celebrity celestial.
“I’d say it’s not just actors, but anyone who brings in more visibility. Last year at the Lakme Fashion week, Sania Mirza was the showstopper for Anushree Reddy. Models still do not have that celebrity status in India that they have in the west. These days the definition of celeb has broadened and content creators have become mainstream, but models still aren’t,” says Arman, a model based in Delhi while speaking with us.
It’s Not All in the Designers’ Hands
Fashion Designer Rohit Bal in an interview said that often it’s not the designers that need a Bollywood celebrity, but the sponsors. He added that “maybe a showstopper is used by a lot of people as a disguise, for the lack of their talent.”
Bal believes that a showstopper takes away from the entire hard work and effort of the designer because when you have a showstopper, everyone — be it the media or any social platform — the only pictures you see of their collection is the one worn by the celebrity. And sadly, it is the only outfit people tend to remember.
“Unlike the west, India’s fashion industry is driven by Bollywood and not the designers, so actors carry higher brand equity than a designer at times, so designers, as well as the sponsors, don’t have a lot of choices here. After all, they have to take ROI into consideration,” adds Khyati.
Designer Rina Dhaka, who has been in the industry for almost three decades now shares that she always ends up using a showstopper. She says, “What Malaika had worn for me in earlier shows still sells. Today, there is a lot of commerce that has entered the industry. And showstoppers in India are a big thing. I cannot denounce their [celebs] right, it is their wish and they are getting paid”
The solution to this treatment is definitely models commanding the same celebrity status as actors, sportspersons,s and now, influencers do in India. It’s not expected to happen in seconds, but it has to start, and now seems to be a good time to begin.
Roadmap Creation by Indian Models
After all, if Donatella Versace can give an opportunity to Indian supermodel Avanti Nagrath to open the Versace fashion show in presence of iconic models like Bella Hadid, Gigi Hadid, and Mona Tougard — one wonders if that opportunity can be given closer home.
Nagrath is not the only one creating a roadmap for Indian models globally. Radhika Nair became the first-ever Indian model to walk for Balenciaga. Dipti Sharma closed the Spring/ Summer 2018 show for them at the Paris Fashion Week and Bhumika Arora closed the show for Marc Jacobs at the New York Fashion Week.
Although these women are carving their path to success, their success doesn’t seem home-grown. The only way to change that — designers must cement their iconography and fashion connoisseurs along with fashion media must scream in their support as ardently as they do when the likes of Bella strut down the runway.
Brands Standing Dipole Apart
Globally — Supermodel Adriana Lima has been synonymous with Maybelline for more than a decade. Gigi Hadid, a present-generation supermodel is a customary face for them now. Blinking towards their Indian counterparts and taking a look at Maybelline’s campaign — two popular Bollywood faces — Sara Ali Khan and Alia Bhatt can be seen adding their face value to this crusade.
“The brands using actors and not models is merely a doppler’s effect of the runways,” says Arman. He further adds “Once designers use them on the ramps, Indian media houses write features on them as vehemently as they do about Kareena Kapoor and Kendall Jenner, and brands will reciprocate.”
“It’s all about the ROI,” says Sakshi, who works with an influencer management agency. “Brands aren’t necessarily perpetuating that models cannot sell, but the fact that actors increase the brand recall value cannot be negated. It’s all about how many people you can influence. Brands invest a lot in influencer marketing these days not because they are necessarily better in any way than models — but because they have an audience.”
Brutal Treatment Indian Models Go Through
If The Devil Wears Prada was any emblem, one understands that fashion, as an industry, is brutal, and at times, models and their sufferings are inevitable.
Nayanika Chatterjee, a popular Indian model once said in an interview with Deccan Herald that for her, “It is very irritating to have Bollywood showstoppers and celebrity faces everywhere.” While it may seem obvious that fashion designers can give the coveted spot to talented models, the job of a fashion show is to sell the new collection. For sales, clout certainly matters. Even the lesser known Bollywood stars undoubtedly have more popularity than fashion models here.
India’s Next Top Model, an Indian version of Tyra Banks-created 2003 American reality television series America’s Next Top Model cements her statement. The show was judged by Malaika Arora Khan (a Bollywood Celebrity), while supermodel Ujjwala Raut — who has walked the runway for Gucci, Valentino, and Victoria’s Secret, alongside the legendary Alessandra Ambrosio, Gisele Bündchen, and Tyra Banks — merely hosted the show.
So what can be done to have our own Bella Hadid or Kendall Jenner? Let’s not forget, both of these western supermodels have had family backing and lots of PR behind their popularity. However, Indian models can still do plenty on their own.
Role of Social Media in Launching a Model’s Career
“I booked Lakme Fashion week due to my Instagram,” says Utkarsh* who’s just begun modeling professionally. I posted videos of myself walking in gardens and streets, and I got viral. An agency reached out to me and I booked it, and since then I am getting regular work. These days, it’s imperative to have a good social media following in case you want to break in, he adds.
Satakshi, an aspiring model who recently auditioned for the first time for Benetton’s castings said, “The catalog read that it’s a size-inclusive audition, but it’s all just for the internet. In reality, they hardly choose plus-sized or short heightened models, and even if they do, they are the ones with impeccable social media following.”
“What initially was propelled by the likes of Bollywood and sports moguls, has been broadened by influencers and social media creators who play a pioneering role in bridging the gap between the brands and their consumers,” says Sakshi.
A good way for models to establish their authority would be to have an active social media account. There’s something about a model’s finesse that is unparalleled. If they combine it with their digital portfolios, it can do wonders for them, she adds.
Reduced Gatekeeping for a Privileged Few
“In fact, for models runway shows usually have stringent criteria. They have to be of a certain height, they shouldn’t weigh above certain kilos, but for someone who’s an actor, a sportsperson, or even a creator with clout, these standards are dropped, ” chimes Arman, a model who spoke with us.
This phenomenon also brings in the nepo-baby discourse going globally. Case in point — Lily-Rose Depp is a regular runway occurrence despite being 1.65 m tall as per IMDB. Closer home, Bollywood names like Malaika Arora, Alia Bhatt, and Kareena Kapoor Khan who regularly grace the runway promenade do not fulfill the typical height criteria, but for them, these conditions are dropped anyway.
“It looks like the only way one can expect short-heightened models walking the runway is if they have enormous numbers on social media and if they don’t come from an influential family and it sucks. I have many friends who I know are crazy talented, but they don’t even get agencies to represent because of their short height, ”Arman adds.
Putting Power Back in the Hands of Models
Although at this time, conventional Indian models replacing Bollywood on runaways seem far-fetched, it certainly can be a possibility owing to the shift in celebrity status.
“I’d advise aspiring and contemporary models to work on their social media, as its popularity is immaculate. Apart from their glam side, they can choose to showcase their personal side as well. That helps them connect with their followers,” says Sakshi.
She further adds, Take a look at these new age models — Hussna, Sagar Chaudhary, Khushi Chawla, Parth Dutta, Ujjwal Dhir, and others. These models have graced runways and major brand campaigns, but they all maintain their social media pretty well. If runways don’t give them that opportunity, they’ll just have to create it themselves.
It’s also time fashion content consumers turn active supporters and champions for our models, and speak about inclusion being merely an attempt to please the internet. After all, if Alia Bhatt, Masoom Minawala, and Prajakta Koli can rock the runway, booking models with that height shouldn’t cause any complications.
Models in India usually have a limited shelf life. To move up the ladder, they’ve always moved to pursue acting, common examples — Anushka Sharma, Deepika Padukone, John Abraham, and Arjun Rampal. But as the way, we consume content changes — and fashion takes a democratic route, one might anticipate Indian models swarming around the mogul celebrity status pretty soon — and not turning clandestine in their own industry.
*Some names have been changed on request.*