The secret life of Lakshmi Menon


The secret life of Lakshmi Menon

The supermodel's piercing calm has taken her through dizzying success and profound loss

By Mamta Mody  November 10th, 2015

No matter how hard I tried, it was impossible to approach the interview with Lakshmi Menon without some trepidation. I ascribe this to her proclivity for elusiveness. There’s nothing to be gleaned from those poker-faced runway pictures and her artistically framed Instagram posts. Any effort at unearthing revelations, I was sure, would have to be from my side; Menon doesn’t need to please me, or anybody else.

The only Indian model to consistently mark her presence on international runways since 2007, Menon is secure in her place. She has clocked miles walking for Jean Paul Gaultier, Stella McCartney, Zac Posen, Alexander Wang, Chanel and Givenchy. In a recent interview, designer Riccardo Tisci said her “impressive personality” was integral to his shows. If you think she’s been typecast in the role of ‘exotic South Asian girl’, you’ll find that her fashion editorials across Europe, UK and the US, and campaign work for fashion houses like Max Mara are all free from tokenism; Menon, like all the best models, has transcended the specifics of her origin. And it’s been hard work finding that space, she says. “As a model you’re pretty much at the bottom of the food chain when it comes to making a decision,” she says, of avoiding being pegged in an industry ruled by blonde, blue-eyed Caucasians. “A designer’s source of inspiration can come from anywhere in the world — it’s fairly democratic there. But when it comes to putting the girls in those clothes, there’s no democracy.” Sadly, her popularity in India hasn’t gone beyond a few striking fashion editorials that use her unerring fashion instinct and unself-consciousness to advantage.

In front of the camera, the 33-year-old is as poised as you would expect, in command of every inch of her body. She requires very little fussing over, and her persona brings a hint of insouciance even to the sombrely ornate Dries Van Noten skirt she wore at the cover shoot. She works expertly with light and shadow; if real beauty lies somewhere between contrasts, Menon knows exactly how to find it every time. There was barely a bad picture on the monitor and each shot wrapped up in record time.

I needn’t have worried about Menon. She has a warm aura that draws you in slowly and locks you in with an air of calm. Even while we spoke in the make-up room, in between shots, she was completed unhurried. She spoke slowly, weighing her words and being surprisingly candid. A pace she’s maintained in her life too; Menon chose to reject modelling offers at 17 to complete her degree in sociology from Bangalore University. When she was good and ready, she started modelling and her Parisian debut happened soon after with a Jean Paul Gaultier show when she was 25, a little old for a model just starting out. “[Unlike most models] I had the luxury of an education. I think I got in at the right age and I wasn’t a babe in the woods — I was shy, yes, but I never had any hatred towards myself,” she says.

Talking to her, I noticed too that modelling doesn’t define her sense of self-worth. She has an enduring curiosity and wanderlust (“Travel is the best education”). She divides her time between Mumbai, Alibaug, Paris and New York, working and visiting family and friends. In Alibaug, she’s overseeing the construction of the new home she will be sharing with her partner, architect Bijoy Jain, as well as 14 dogs and a turtle named Bathsheba, all rescues. New York, her work base, is enriching, she says; it gives her a chance to visit galleries and go to the theatre. In Mumbai, her least favourite stop, she spends time with her two cats, reads, watches films voraciously (Vittorio de Sica, François Truffaut and Yasujirō Ozu are favourites) and listens to music (American jazz saxophonist Art Pepper is a recent discovery). “I’m like a sponge,” she says of her almost hedonist approach to the arts. “Because at the end of the day, you need to engage all your senses — sitting in the city and listening to car horns isn’t going to do anything for you.” And maybe that’s why after almost 12 years as a fashion model, she has managed that tricky business of staying relevant, smoothly. 

Somewhere along the way, she picked up photography. Menon shot her first digital fashion campaign for designer and friend Savio Jon last year, and has a lookbook shoot lined up for multi-designer boutique store Le Mill. You can’t help but notice Prabuddha Dasgupta’s (her partner and celebrated photographer) influence on her work, a result of the powerful dynamic she shared with him till his passing in 2012. She accepts the compliment, reminiscing about her first camera, a gift from him. Facing his lens for all those years, she says, was a learning experience. Coping with his loss has scarred her. “I feel different at my age... this mega shift in my space, is perhaps, expected in your later years. But change is good, as heartbreaking as it may seem. From where I stand now, I feel like I really am a sum total of all my experiences."

Photographs: Justin Polkey/Citruz Fashion Networks; Styling: Nidhi Jacob; Art Direction: Prashish More; Make-up and Hair: Deepa Verma; Model: Lakshmi Menon; Production: Parul Menezes; Photography Assistant: Neil Danvers; Styling Assistants: Akanksha Kamath, Palak Sharma

 

No matter how hard I tried, it was impossible to approach the interview with Lakshmi Menon without some trepidation. I ascribe this to her proclivity for elusiveness. There’s nothing to be gleaned from those poker-faced runway pictures and her artistically framed Instagram posts. Any effort at unearthing revelations, I was sure, would have to be from my side; Menon doesn’t need to please me, or anybody else.

The only Indian model to consistently mark her presence on international runways since 2007, Menon is secure in her place. She has clocked miles walking for Jean Paul Gaultier, Stella McCartney, Zac Posen, Alexander Wang, Chanel and Givenchy. In a recent interview, designer Riccardo Tisci said her “impressive personality” was integral to his shows. If you think she’s been typecast in the role of ‘exotic South Asian girl’, you’ll find that her fashion editorials across Europe, UK and the US, and campaign work for fashion houses like Max Mara are all free from tokenism; Menon, like all the best models, has transcended the specifics of her origin. And it’s been hard work finding that space, she says. “As a model you’re pretty much at the bottom of the food chain when it comes to making a decision,” she says, of avoiding being pegged in an industry ruled by blonde, blue-eyed Caucasians. “A designer’s source of inspiration can come from anywhere in the world — it’s fairly democratic there. But when it comes to putting the girls in those clothes, there’s no democracy.” Sadly, her popularity in India hasn’t gone beyond a few striking fashion editorials that use her unerring fashion instinct and unself-consciousness to advantage.

In front of the camera, the 33-year-old is as poised as you would expect, in command of every inch of her body. She requires very little fussing over, and her persona brings a hint of insouciance even to the sombrely ornate Dries Van Noten skirt she wore at the cover shoot. She works expertly with light and shadow; if real beauty lies somewhere between contrasts, Menon knows exactly how to find it every time. There was barely a bad picture on the monitor and each shot wrapped up in record time.

I needn’t have worried about Menon. She has a warm aura that draws you in slowly and locks you in with an air of calm. Even while we spoke in the make-up room, in between shots, she was completed unhurried. She spoke slowly, weighing her words and being surprisingly candid. A pace she’s maintained in her life too; Menon chose to reject modelling offers at 17 to complete her degree in sociology from Bangalore University. When she was good and ready, she started modelling and her Parisian debut happened soon after with a Jean Paul Gaultier show when she was 25, a little old for a model just starting out. “[Unlike most models] I had the luxury of an education. I think I got in at the right age and I wasn’t a babe in the woods — I was shy, yes, but I never had any hatred towards myself,” she says.

Talking to her, I noticed too that modelling doesn’t define her sense of self-worth. She has an enduring curiosity and wanderlust (“Travel is the best education”). She divides her time between Mumbai, Alibaug, Paris and New York, working and visiting family and friends. In Alibaug, she’s overseeing the construction of the new home she will be sharing with her partner, architect Bijoy Jain, as well as 14 dogs and a turtle named Bathsheba, all rescues. New York, her work base, is enriching, she says; it gives her a chance to visit galleries and go to the theatre. In Mumbai, her least favourite stop, she spends time with her two cats, reads, watches films voraciously (Vittorio de Sica, François Truffaut and Yasujirō Ozu are favourites) and listens to music (American jazz saxophonist Art Pepper is a recent discovery). “I’m like a sponge,” she says of her almost hedonist approach to the arts. “Because at the end of the day, you need to engage all your senses — sitting in the city and listening to car horns isn’t going to do anything for you.” And maybe that’s why after almost 12 years as a fashion model, she has managed that tricky business of staying relevant, smoothly. 

Somewhere along the way, she picked up photography. Menon shot her first digital fashion campaign for designer and friend Savio Jon last year, and has a lookbook shoot lined up for multi-designer boutique store Le Mill. You can’t help but notice Prabuddha Dasgupta’s (her partner and celebrated photographer) influence on her work, a result of the powerful dynamic she shared with him till his passing in 2012. She accepts the compliment, reminiscing about her first camera, a gift from him. Facing his lens for all those years, she says, was a learning experience. Coping with his loss has scarred her. “I feel different at my age... this mega shift in my space, is perhaps, expected in your later years. But change is good, as heartbreaking as it may seem. From where I stand now, I feel like I really am a sum total of all my experiences."

Photographs: Justin Polkey/Citruz Fashion Networks; Styling: Nidhi Jacob; Art Direction: Prashish More; Make-up and Hair: Deepa Verma; Model: Lakshmi Menon; Production: Parul Menezes; Photography Assistant: Neil Danvers; Styling Assistants: Akanksha Kamath, Palak Sharma