In international fashion, the biggest story right now is not the clothes or the game of musical chairs being played by designers of leading houses. It’s the new models in town: girls of all shades, hair types and personalities, from every corner of the world. And for the first time, there’s more than one model from ours.
India is no newbie to having models in the big league. In the early ’70s, Anjali Mendes became muse to Pierre Cardin and later in the same decade, Kirat Young started to work with Yves Saint Laurent. There was Ujjwala Raut in 2003 burning up the runways for Gucci, Roberto Cavalli and Michael Kors, and appearing in campaigns for YSL Beauty and Dolce & Gabbana. Half-a-dozen years later, Lakshmi Menon put India on the map as the face of Hermès and Givenchy, with editorials in every major fashion magazine and appearances on the catwalks of all four fashion capitals. But three models, all super at the same time? Plus, more waiting in the wings? Not until now.
Bhumika Arora was the model who set this ball rolling. In 2014, she burst on to the Paris catwalks with a debut show at Dries Van Noten, and then walked for Viktor & Rolf and Maxime Simoëns. In three short years, she’s racked up appearances at Chanel, Balmain, Fendi, Armani Prive, Bottega Veneta, Marc Jacobs and Alexander Wang, appeared in almost every international fashion magazine that matters—including on the cover of ELLE UK—and is fresh off a campaign for Bobbi Brown.
Bhumika Arora walks the ramp for Balmain
When I speak with Arora, she is just back in New York after a week in Paris. She was there for fashion week, where she walked for Balmain’s army and then stayed on to meet friends. Her hair is pulled back, and she’s got a pair of cat-eyed spectacles perched on her nose and that slept-in-but-jetlagged look about her. We’re FaceTiming, which she seems unused to.
At 29, Arora is older than the traditional model. Breaking convention further, she also doesn’t wear anything sheer on the runway, because, you know, Indian. But Arora doesn’t seem exceptionally aware of just how much on her own terms she is scripting her success and how she has carved a path for others. She does recall, however, that her fellow models had no memory of seeing an Indian on international ramps when she first started modelling. “People were very surprised, even some of the people from casting and designer teams. It made me stand out. Now things have changed. It’s been three years since I started modelling, and many people are coming.”
In 2015, another Indian model, Pooja Mor, walked for Louis Vuitton, Givenchy, Alexander McQueen and Dolce & Gabbana, and has since shot campaigns for Tory Burch and H&M. ELLE’s February cover star Radhika Nair is this year’s girl rising. She has become the first Indian to walk for Balenciaga, besides doing Etro, Pucci and Mulberry. Natasha Ramachandran walked for Moncler and Nicole Miller this season, and has done campaigns for Aveda and British high-street brand, Toast. Rasika Navare is making her name as a beauty face—with campaigns for Smashbox, Sephora (Canada) and Givenchy Cosmetics (Gulf). Monica Tomas, whose first cover was with ELLE (June 2015), made her New York Fashion Week debut at Zac Posen. Add in the girls of Indian origin—Neelam Gill from Britain, who debuted as the face of Burberry, and is now signed to L’Oréal UK, and Kelly Gale, the Swedish and half-Indian Victoria’s Secret angel—and the numbers are nothing to sneeze at.
This may not be the tsunami of Eastern European models that dominated international fashion in decades past, but it’s certainly a wave. And it has nowhere near crested. “Fashion is looking for diversity now,” says Anthony Bourgois, senior executive agent at The Society Management, New York, the model agency that manages Arora as well as Kendall Jenner, Adriana Lima and Liu Wen. “Bhumika appeared at a key moment. There had been no new Indian models till then.”
Arora was born in Karnal, Haryana, and only gave in to her desire to become a model after finishing her Bachelor’s in Business Administration from Chandigarh. She moved to Delhi knowing nobody and with nothing save her determination to make it. Three years later, she had walked at both Indian fashion weeks. That’s when Arora decided to try internationally. “I had nobody to guide me. I didn’t know where to go. It took me a year just to explore the possibilities, from looking up agencies to sending out my pictures.”
Ujjwala Raut led the way for the Indian supers to follow
She was 26 when she made it to Paris with no help and no connections. “When I came [abroad] nobody knew how to come here or even if you could come here. It was just an experiment. The only two girls who had done this, Lakshmi and Ujjwala, were not in India. Because I was really into it, and didn’t mind trying it out on my own, I did it. But there was no proper dream. I just wanted to reach here,” she says.
When Ujjwala and Lakshmi hit the big time, India was opening its doors to the world of international luxury. “Luxury brands were looking to engage models in campaigns,” says Gunita Stobe, co-founder of Anima Creatives, the talent agency responsible for the majority of Indian models abroad. A decade later, luxury brands knew that India was not going to be the next China. Then Gap arrived, H&M arrived, and the excitement moved to the high street. “International brands began to look to engage with Indian faces again,” says Stobe.
But cause and effect is never so linear. Fashion is nothing if not unpredictable. Will this be the decade of the Indian model, or is this just a zeitgeisty flash-in-the-pan? Nobody can say for sure. “The world and fashion are both unpredictable right now,” agrees Arora. “It could be a trend. But whether or not you think it’s going to work out, you still have to try. Whatever I have done, whether a show or an editorial, I am just so happy I did it.”
10 ways Bhumika Arora shines bright in New York:
Photographs: R. Burman; Styling: Malini Banerji;
Hair: Matthieu Tuozzoli using Obire hair care/ Atelier Management;
Make-up: Campbell Ritchie using Chanel/ Art Department;
Manicurist: Miss pop nails;
Mode: Bhumika Arora/ The Society Management;
Production: Ryan Fahey;
Assisted by: Alex Golshani (Photography), Iva Dixit and Jahnvi Bansal (Styling);
Image Retouch: Bandi Ramchander;
Location Courtesy: Hudson Yard Loft