Standing at the coffee counter outside the ballroom, the two girls sized up the competition as they stirred ‘Sugar Free’ into their coffee. They hadn’t quite expected so many people to show up. Neither had the organisers, furiously cutting out number tags for 160 people who poured in on a rainy Friday, to audition as models for Lakme Fashion Week (LFW) at a hotel in central Mumbai.
Model audition rules had been tweaked. There were no age, sex or height barriers. The only barrier was size—a minimum 34” inch waist for women, and a 40” inch waist for men. Usual Barbie-esque statistics had been edited to accommodate plus-sized aspirants.
This is the first time the fashion week will hold a plus size show as part of the Winter/Festive 2016 edition to be held from 24 to 28 August in Mumbai. While plus-sized models seem like an obvious choice for the show, featuring ALL, a plus-sized apparel brand, it marked a huge step for the body positive movement in India.
Aspirants came from all parts of India. The 74-year-old man with long flowy hair, a young mum with kids in tow, a rapper-filmmaker in a black Pathani suit, to the 19-year-old who towered over everyone with her six-foot frame and dizzying heels. Only 10 aspirants were chosen by mid-afternoon. Their prize was an opportunity to walk the ramp at the LFW and get a makeover.
“The criteria wasn’t in terms of inches and feet... The only thing we’re really looking for is confidence and attitude. That, and some sort of proportion,” said Lubna Adams, former model and fashion choreographer. She judged the auditions with actor Divya Khosla Kumar, designer Shilpa Chavan, Manish Aziz, business head, ALL, part of Future Lifestyle Fashions Pvt. Ltd and Jaspreet Chandok, vice president and head—fashion, IMG Reliance Ltd.
“It’s not that designers don’t cater to all body types, but (plus-sized) people who want to engage with the industry find it slightly intimidating to reach out. It has a lot to do with the imagery coming out of the industry, and we hope that this show will be successful in starting that conversation (between models and designers),” said Chandok. Globally, IMG’s modelling agency has divisions such as “Curve” and “Brawn” to cater to the changing demands of the fashion industry seeking diverse looks with fuller-bodied models.
“You also see this trend internationally where brands such as Victoria’s Secret, which have been built around sexy, young, shapely models losing market share to competitors who used fuller-bodied models, that a larger number of consumers could relate to,” said Arvind Singhal, chairman of Technopak Advisors Pvt. Ltd, a retail consultancy. “So, using more realistic looking models also makes good business sense,” he reasoned.
For 33-year-old Amber Qureshi, one of the winners that day, the auditions were all about reinforcing her confidence. Dressed in a mustard top and black stockings, Qureshi said she had always been on the heavier side as far as she could remember, and it was never an issue—she would dance, kick-box, salsa, socialise. “I’m always the first on the dance floor,” she said as she waited for her turn. She’d even done one ad campaign for Talwalkars, a chain of health clubs. The ad was about a girl who loved shopping, and Talwalkars was offering a stellar deal on their membership. “Something, that even a big goofy girl, couldn’t resist. Unfortunately, most assignments for plus-sized models perpetuate that tone —that we are clumsy, unfit, caricatures. So, I avoid such offers... I don’t want to give the impression that I am someone you can laugh at,” said Qureshi who is working on her own clothes label for plus-sized women. “I am not here to be TunTun or Bharti, no disrespect to them.”
Plus-size clothing has many takers in India which has one of the largest populations of obese people in the world, according a 2014 Global Burden of Disease study published in medical journal Lancet. Pegged at approximately $50 million in an $1.8 billion apparel market in India, the segment for plus-sized clothing is expected to grow at 25% per annum over the next three years, said Aziz.
The fact that ALL conducted the audition is telling of an industry which has been boxed in with models that are typically tall, thin and long-limbed with few willing to engage with fuller-bodied models. For Anjali Anand, the stunning brand ambassador for ALL, finding meaningful work has been challenging. There are several offers seeking “fatty girl for ad film” but she wants to steer clear of those. “The other day, someone called and told me I had been picked for an ad I hadn’t auditioned for. It turned out to be an ad where Sania Mirza would give me a pill to lose weight. And they were stunned that I refused; I mean why would I do that? I am six feet tall, I have broader shoulders than anyone I know, and love the way I look,” she said. She has done some work in digital campaigns and content for brands such as Jabong.com, Ponds and Dove among others.
On his part, Chandok is hoping this fashion show will change things. “Eventually, we hope it (the show) will take a life of its own, where plus-sized models walk the ramp as part of the common model pool.”