Tuesday, July 8, 2008

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.

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1 comment:

-h of candid cool said...

i really like what she's wearing at Haider Ackermann