Indian Models: Fashion's Next Love Affair?

Lakshmi Menon, Padma Lakshmi and others are ushering in a new era.

November 24, 2008, 6:30 PM

Nov. 25, 2008 — -- They've been around since shortly after the beginning of time. But only now is the modeling world finally taking notice of Indian women, realizing their potential and versatility in selling high fashion.

The buzz in the industry claims India is the next Brazil, the country to comb to find a budding Gisele Bundchen or Adriana Lima. Lakshmi Menon, a Ford model, recently scored campaigns with Givenchy and Hermes. Kangana Dutta, newly signed with IMG, posed for the September issue of Harper's Bazaar.

That Indian women embody style and beauty is not news. But according to Padma Lakshmi, the current "Top Chef" host whose past modeling work turned the industry's eye to the subcontinent, the so-called trend is a long time coming.

"We're clearly having a moment," she said in a recent interview with "You're seeing more diversity in advertising, not just in the magazines, but also editorially.

"When I started modeling, a lot of people didn't really know where I was from," she continued. "They were so unfamiliar with Indian faces that they didn't know if I was mixed, or Brazilian or Indonesian or maybe Hawaiian."

"A lot of times, when I would be booked on jobs for editorial, it would be a lot of ethnic clothing," Lakshmi added. "Or a photo shoot on an island or Morocco, or something ... many times, they would book me when they were looking for someone quote-unquote exotic. Now, we just have a broader definition of beauty."

It may not have the cache of France or Italy, but India has provided inspiration for fashion types for decades. Before emerging as a player in Indian politics in the 1960s and 70s, the princess Maharani Gayatri Devi, Rajmata of Jaipur, was named in Vogue's "Ten Most Beautiful Women" list.

So, to Barney's creative director and "Eccentric Glamour" author Simon Doonan, it seems insulting that the industry is only now embracing Indian models in a big way.

India: New Definition of Beauty

"We're talking about a country where women wear pink saris and jewels just to do ordinary tasks," Doonan said. "It seems like a no-brainer to me. I can't believe people are touting it as a new thing. Style and India are inseparable. Go to an Indian wedding, hello."

And frankly, times are tough. Mainstream designers and brands have to reach out to regions like Asia and the Middle East, whether they like it or not. The rising popularity of Indian models parallels the rising status of India as a global powerhouse, with a growing middle class of consumers who want to see themselves reflected in advertising and marketing.

"I think as corporations look at their bottom lines, particularly now as our economy is failing, they're going to look to other countries for models," said Marvet Britto, founder of The Britto Agency, a New York-based PR and marketing firm. "Maybe Americans don't have money, but they sure have money in the United Arab Emirates, in China, in Korea."

Britto also believes the fact that President-elect Obama is of mixed race will force designers and brands to diversify, fast.

"You're going to see more and more faces of color in advertising than we've ever seen, particularly now that we have a man of color in one of the most important offices in the world," she said. "Everyone's going to want to say, 'Hi, look at me, I'm diversifying.' Any company that doesn't diversify won't be seen as a forward thinking, progressive company."

Pop Culture and Diversity

As with any models of color, there's the danger of Indian models being typecast, posing in "exotic" clothing, as Lakshmi did, or landing campaigns only to have their beauty bashed in the name of mainstream appeal. (When Loreal first signed Bollywood actress Aishwarya Rai to its roster of spokeswomen, the company dubbed her voice with a less-accented lilt for select American versions of her TV ads.) But Britto sees an end to all that.

"I don't believe that exotic people and exotic models should only model exotic clothes. That's like saying Americans can't eat exotic food. It would be shallow and ignorant for anyone to think that someone of exotic origin should be relegated to modeling only things that speak to their ethnicity," she said.

The time is ripe and the time is now. If a pop culture accustomed to all-American models like Cindy Crawford and Nikki Taylor was able to make household names out of Brazil's Bundchen and Russia's Natalia Vodianova, the Duttas and Menons of the world can catch on, too, if they put in the work.

Asked if she had any advice to offer up-and-coming Indian models, Lakshmi said, "Don't consider yourself an Indian model. Just consider yourself a model. And if it's harder for a brown face to get a cover, that just means you need to work harder to get it."

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