Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Paris Couture’s Indian Summer: Model Lakshmi Menon Breaks Down Fashion’s Proverbial Color Barrier and the Industry Takes Note

Clockwise Center: Menon walked exclusively for Givenchy during the Haute Couture Fall 2008 season, it was her first appearance at a Paris couture show; Lakshmi in a look from Tisci’s Fall 2008 ready-to-wear collection for Givenchy. The designer, known for his dark gothic esthetic was inspired by religious iconography of South America; Images from Givenchy’s new Fall 2008-09 ad campaign shot by Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, featuring Menon, as well as models Kristen Owen, Lara Stone, Natasha Poly and Maria Carla Boscono. For the ad Tisci wanted to create a “family style” portrait of strong women.

On a hot July day last week on Paris’ Left Bank, at 15 Rue de L'ecole de Medecine, passers by were greeted with the unusual site of leggy models wrapped in heavy woolens; their heads topped by quasi-Peruvian wide brimmed hats woven with alpaca stripes in shades of stained tobacco, coffee bean, and cream. Such attire could hardly be considered weather appropriate for the current heat wave hitting Paris. But this being the Fall 2008 couture season, climate concerns were brushed aside for the sake of Ricardo Tisci’s latest vision for the House of Givenchy.

Photographers buzzed around, as the models were herded out of a makeshift tent into the back entrance of the Couvent des Cordeliers. Inside the 13th century convent, seated amongst a forest of carved wood columns and a floor strewn with fragrant cedar wood chips; editors, journalists and a smattering of rarified couture clients were treated to yet another unusual site, Color, and not the kind necessarily found on clothes.

Instead, the first model to emerge from the darkness was the Indian catwalk stunner Lakshmi Menon, followed soon after by models Jourdan Dunn and Sessilee Lopez. It was not lost on anyone present at the show that Tisci was making a statement about fashion’s current lack of diversity; especially with the later two models, who appeared in the recent “all black” July issue of Italian Vogue, shot by Steven Meisel. That particular Vogue issue is only the latest in a series of efforts by the fashion world to address the dearth of ethnicities in the modeling industry, as well as the way it chooses to define beauty. American Vogue similarly printed an article titled “Is Fashion Racist?” while a series of articles in the New York Times have tackled the “whitening of the runways.”

In Tisci’s case, this isn’t the first time the designer has used the catwalk to make such a statement. For Givenchy’s Fall 2006 ready-to-wear collection, he sent out a succession of black models that included Liya Kebede, Kinée Diouf, Thais Dos Santos and Naomi Campbell. But his choice of Indian model Lakshmi Menon to open his latest couture show is significant, because it soon followed news that she would be fronting the Fall 2008-09 ad campaign for the house as well. A rarity for a South East Asian model, the campaign, shot by Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, also features models Kristen Owen, Lara Stone, Natasha Poly and Maria Carla Boscono.

But as fresh faced as she may appear, Menon is hardly a newcomer to the fashion world; so much as a face the industry has finally begun to take serious notice of. For as dubious as the practice may be, there is a reason most models enter the industry in their teens, as it takes several years before they eventually hit their stride. Case in point is Kristen McMenamy, a favorite of the runways and fashion photographers for the better part of the 90’s, whose career didn’t explode until her mid-20’s.

Menon, who is 25, wasn’t exactly plucked from relative obscurity when she walked exclusively for the Givenchy show. Instead she has been building up a stellar career gradually over the last few years. Today she is undoubtedly experiencing her break through moment.
© THE POLYGLOT (all rights reserved) CHICAGO-PARIS

Lakshmi Menon: Part II

Although Menon has been working as a model since 2001, she didn’t make the leap to the Paris catwalks until 2005, when she walked for Jean Paul Gaultier and Hermès during the spring 2006 ready-to-wear collections. Gaultier, who has a long history of using models of different ethnicities, was an early supporter of Menon, making her the face Hermès’ Spring/Summer 2008 ad campaign. Despite this, other designers and casting agents have been slow in casting Menon in their shows, a story not uncommon amongst many non-white models in the industry. But gradually Menon’s presence on the international catwalks has begun to increase, and with her recent turn on the runway at Givenchy and a fall ad campaign for the house, we may be seeing more of her on the runways. Above is a short chronology of Menon’s runway appearances, starting left: Hermès Spring 2006; Jean Paul Gaultier Spring 2006; Hermès Spring 2008; Jean Paul Gaultier Spring 2008; Stella McCartney Fall 2008-09; Haider Ackermann Fall 2008-09; Issey Miyake Fall 2008-09; Maria Cornejo Fall 2008-09; Givenchy Resort 2009.

Hailing from Bangalore, the heart India’s current tech boom, Menon was considered an unlikely candidate for modeling in her native country, where the fair skinned curvaceous Bollywood esthetic has long dominated much of the Indian beauty industry. But ironically it was her dusky South Indian complexion, aquiline features and a lanky 5’-10” frame that proved to be a winning combination; making her, along with fellow model Ujjwala Raut, one of India’s greatest exports to land in Paris.

Despite such success, Lakshmi Menon comes off as unassuming in person; her face often scrubbed free of make-up and wearing her signature tank top and jeans. It was never part of her grand plan to become a model, admitting that she mostly fell into the profession simply for the "great money." She’s also skeptical of all the attention she receives and questions why anyone would want to interview her in the first place. “My only concern was that people make a big deal of it, and about the glamour. But it’s a terribly lonely profession. It’s not really glamorous in the sense that you need a lot of patience, waiting for things to happen…for the hair to be done and the make up to be put on. The preparation can be tiresome,” she says.

Being born into a military family not only instilled in Lakshmi the kind discipline and professionalism needed to deal with the ups of downs of the modeling industry, but also gave her a certain candor and steel determination when it came to addressing its pitfalls. "I was never cut out to be a model," she says. "I wasn't even aware that something like modeling existed. I just saw models' pictures in magazines and never gave it a second thought." But as is the case with most successful models, fate intervened one day in the form Anila Anand, a modeling scout and agent, who spotted the young economics student on the street and helped launch her career in 2001. Working with mostly Indian publications in the beginning, as well as walking for several local designers during India Fashion Week, Menon quickly built up a portfolio of work that caught the attention of international modeling scouts.

When she eventually made her entry onto the Paris runways, walking for both Gaultier and Hermès during the Spring 2006 season, her debut was so “quiet” that Style.com was unable to identify her. According to Menon, “When I started off in Paris, no one knew me. In fact no one would have heard of Hermès in India four years ago.” It is no surprise then that she was first picked up by Gaultier, who has had a long history of casting ethnic models in his shows, a well as being a frequent visitor to India for both inspiration and work (the designer produces most of the embroideries for his couture collections there).

She is also just as candid when it comes to questions regarding diversity in the fashion business. “I look at myself as any other model. But yes, sometimes I’m looked upon as an exotic thing that’s landed on their shores,” she says. Fashion designers and editors in the West have long been fascinated by the East and the Indian subcontinent in particular. From Paul Poiret’s paisley embroidered hobble skirts, to Diana Vreeland’s Vogue in the 1960’s with its fantastical photo shoots of models Veruschka and Marisa Berenson lounging in the splendor of Moghul palaces; India has been a constant source of inspiration for those in the industry. Yet it is precisely this romanticized and often exotic image, that the fashion world insists on perpetuating, which Menon finds somewhat disquieting; as it seems to ignore the realities of an India barreling ahead into the 21st century.

In fact Lakshmi sees this trend as somewhat regrettable and a lost opportunity on the part of the industry to tap into India’s vibrant contemporary fashion and cultural scene. “They want to keep the myth of India being the land of elephants, and colorful women with pots on their heads intact. They are not comfortable with the emerging new India…multicultural and global,” she says. “They’ve not come to terms with it yet…there’s still wonder in their eyes.”

But that wonderment has been gradually easing as Menon has found herself being cast in runway shows for a variety of designers, debunking the assumption that it’s more difficult for ethnic models to adapt their looks to different labels. In the last few seasons, she has appeared on the catwalk for Maria Cornejo, Issey Miyake, Stella McCartney and Haider Ackermann to name a few. But unlike the blank stares common amongst many of the Eastern European girls who dominate the runways, it is Menon’s penetrating gaze that sets her apart at the shows.

This has also contributed to her exposure in print work and advertisements, which have increased considerably in the last few seasons. When Condé Nast launched Vogue India in October of 2007, its inaugural fold-out cover featured the somewhat odd choice of a very blond and blue eyed Jemma Ward, flanked by five of India’s reining supermodels. On the inside flap, barely cropped in, was Menon and her piercing eyes gazing out of the page. It’s interesting to note that her four compatriots included on the cover bear a striking resemblance to the Bollywood stars of the day. Yet out of the five, it is Menon’s striking looks that have been able to translate across waters and appeal to Western designers and editors.

© THE POLYGLOT (all rights reserved) CHICAGO-PARIS

Lakshmi Menon: Part III

Although Menon appeared on the inaugural cover of Vogue India in October of 2007 with a group of five other models, the April 2008 issue marked the first time that one Indian model was given the honor. The striking cover of Menon looking directly into the camera was photographed by Prabuddha Dasgupta on Thailand’s Koh Kood Island. Kitted out in luscious faux ponytails and neon bright colors, the issue was also revolutionary for the way it highlighted Menon’s dark complexion in a society that has traditionally prized fair skin.

In 2007 the fashion world stood up and took notice of this model from Bangalore, when she was cast as the face of Hermès’ Spring/Summer 2008 campaign. It was a watershed moment in that it also made the Indian fashion industry realize what an extraordinary face and ambassador they had in Menon. Soon after she was given her own cover on India Vogue’s April issue, shot by top Indian fashion photographer Prabuddha Dasgupta on Thailand’s Koh Kood Island. Prior to that, most of the magazine’s covers had been given over to Bollywood stars, but this marked the first time an Indian model had been given that singular honor. The stunning cover, which featured Menon confidently looking straight into camera, in iridescent bikini and piles of florescent bangles, was also significant in that it made a brazen statement about beauty in a culture where fairness is prized amongst women. Thus by highlighting Menon’s beautiful dark complexion devoid of make up, the influential publication marked a turning point in the way one culture addresses the seldom spoken of skin politics found within its midst.

In a culture as conservative and tradition bound as India’s, where modeling is often frowned upon as a profession for young women being groomed for marriage, Menon is lucky in that her family has supported her choice of work since the beginning. "My parents have always given me the freedom to choose my life. There was no pressure from them when I wanted to join this field." This independent streak has also driven many of her career decisions; allowing her to approach the fashion world on her own terms. Instead of moving to Mumbai or Delhi, the traditional centers of Indian fashion, she chose to remain in Bangalore; only recently relocating to the southern state of Goa. “I shifted base over a year ago and have been on the road for the last two months. It was becoming difficult to live in a crowded city and do grocery shopping without being stuck in a traffic jam,” she says.

Despite this, she enjoys traveling between Paris and New York on International assignments. She was recently signed up by the Ford modeling agency in New York, while in Paris she’s represented by Agence Nathalie, which counts amongst its roster of models some of the biggest names in the industry. For the moment Lakshmi is quiet happy doing what she does, as work seems to be coming in at an even pace, but she has no qualms about the day things begin to slow down. In her typical matter-a-fact manner Menon confides that, "When work stops coming in, I'll take the message and see what I should do next."

But as the discussion on diversity ensues within fashion’s lofty ranks, Lakshmi Menon’s career seems poised for the fast track, as she continues to produce the kind of work that is redefining what beauty means in a multi-cultural world.

© THE POLYGLOT (all rights reserved) CHICAGO-PARIS

Lakshmi Menon: Part IV

Menon has often been noted for her level of professionalism and discipline in the business, a trait that has allowed her to weather many of the profession’s ups and downs. One of the most important professional relationships a model can develop within the industry is by collaborating with a great fashion photographer, who can nurture their careers and help them gain more exposure. Christy Turlington’s career was launched by photographer Arthur Elgort, while both Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista became famous through Steven Meisel’s photographs. In Lakshmi Menon’s case it is the top Indian fashion photographer Prabuddha Dasgupta. They have developed a rapport over the years, which has produced some of Menon’s most striking images.

Clockwise Center: Menon, in a glamorous pose, is known for her strong gaze and chameleon like looks; Lakshmi stands out at most industry events in India for her lack of makeup and loose tops, usually paired with jeans; With photographer Prabuddha Dasgupta; Backstage preparations at the Fall 2008 Issey Miyake show; In Prada for French fashion publication Biba; A Polaroid shot of Menon; Menon in action at the beach on Thailand’s Koh Kood Island, being photographed by Prabuddha Dasgupta for the April 2008 issue of Vogue India.

© THE POLYGLOT (all rights reserved) CHICAGO-PARIS