Indian Fashion Gets a Plus-size Look

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A Big Deal

Several years ago, when the channel Fashion TV first began to beam into the Khanna household in Delhi, Rajat, then just a boy of about six years, developed an odd habit. He would have his parents sit in the living room and then, as the TV crackled with the noise of a distant fashion show and his indulgent parents applauded him, the little boy would walk with the swagger and icy strut of a supermodel, one long stride after another, pushing his hips out, walking to and fro in the living room of this middle-class Delhi apartment as though it were the ramp at the Milan Fashion Week. And, as he would make the exaggerated twirl of runway models, his father, Rajat remembers, would break out into the words, “Arre, mera beta model hai.”

Rajat speaks of that early memory with a deep fondness. It appears his parents weren’t serious. But Rajat was. Over the years, as relatives, struck by his growth spurt (Rajat is now six foot one inch tall), began to comment that he should think of pursuing modelling as a career, as college friends impressed by his sharp and clear facial features began to make similar suggestions, and he himself began to idolise the model-actor John Abraham, working out in a gym and at one point developing “four packs”, doing the usual routine of participating in auditions for commercials and TV shows, and once even coming close to joining a grooming school for aspiring models, Rajat began to fancy himself in the fashion world.

It was only in college that he first got the opportunity to ask someone from the industry for some tips. A college festival was taking place in Delhi, and there was a fashion show by professional models as one segment. Rajat managed to make his way backstage, where he found what he was looking for—a model. He asked him, Rajat says, how he should start his career. But the model only glanced at him and said what surprisingly no one had ever told him before: “You are too overweight to be a model”. “I was a bit round then. But that was a little odd, I felt,” he says.

Rajat let that comment pass and moved on. But there was some truth to what the model had told him. Rajat was about 82 kg then. And in the next few years, he began to pile on more weight. Today he weighs 120 kg and has a waist size of 42 inches.

But Rajat is far from being too overweight to become a model. Rather, it appears, he is just the right overweight. For in the last four years, Rajat has managed to become a model in a marginal but new segment of fashion in India—the plus size.

Fashion, it seems, is becoming accessible. Not just in price, but also in size. There is a proliferation of brands—many of them a new breed of retailers on the internet—that now cater to the large and underserved category of large-bodied men and women. Fast- fashion brands are rolling out new plus-size lines. E-commerce websites have sections for large sizes. And to wear them, to advertise for them, is this new category of plus-sized models.

“Not every plus-sized person is insecure or in a shell. I am very proud of myself and my body. That’s why I am here” - Neha Parulkar

It is still very much on the margins of fashion in India, but beginning to catch up. In the West, plus-size apparel and its models have been around for much longer, although also marginalised within the industry. There are several new brands that are making fashion for the large bodied. There are e-commerce portals, there is talk of inclusivity. This year, there was a beauty competition for large- bodied women, Miss Plus Size North India. And among the more established entities, Lakme Fashion Week is hosting its second catwalk in two years for plus-sized models later this year.

Several plus-sized models in India, given the new nature of this category in India, are first-time models. Most of them do other jobs, while moonlighting as plus-sized models. Some of them were conventional models who had to quit the industry when they began to put on weight. And many of them, having been insulted and mocked for their weight in the past, say they are body-positivists. It is an interesting new world where activism meets plus-size fashion.

“I think the real reason why plus-size fashion and us (plus-size models) are picking up is because people want to see clothes for them being worn by models like them,” says Fizah Khan. “Not just some ideal body type.” Like most traditional models, Khan entered modelling at the age of 15. Based in Mumbai her family trace their ancestry to Afghanistan. Khan’s father works in the film industry as an actor and scriptwriter, and for a long time in his youth was the actor Sanjay Dutt’s body double. She believed then, she says, that she was made for a career in the glamorous industries of modelling and films. Except, as she came closer to the end of her teenage years, she began to put on a large amount of weight. By 17, she was already heavy, stuck in a terrible relationship, depressed, and her fledgling career in modelling was over.

“People say you drop weight when you are depressed. I just kept putting on more and more,” she says. She went adrift for about four years after she turned 17, a time when she was so depressed that she had trouble sleeping, used to often overeat, and relatives and friends made matters worse by commenting on her bodily transformation. Last year, she was steered back into some control by the world of plus-size fashion. Khan is a size 18 now. She weighs 97 kg and is 5 foot 7 inches tall. She was signed last year by Calae, a new clothing brand that caters to, as they call it, ‘curvy women between sizes 14-24’ . Khan was pursuing law in college then. But when the opportunity came, she dropped out. “Why should I do something I’m just okay at. Better do something I like and where I might actually excel,” Khan says.

“The real reason plus-size fashion and models like us are picking up is because people want to see clothes for them being worn by models like them” - Fizah Khan

This return to the fashion industry, through the large-bodied size route, has also helped her out of her depression. She laughs as she talks about how an increase in weight for women also suddenly results in more popularity with male friends, all of whom suddenly put her in what she calls “the sister-zone”. She had stopped going to nightclubs. But she has started frequenting them again, not dressed in a ‘stupid gown’, she says, but wearing more fashionable clothes. And she is careful about the brands she promotes because she doesn’t want to be just a hanger, but someone who can influence people to be positive about their bodies.

WHAT EXACTLY IS plus size in any case? The term, it is said, was first used as a descriptor for clothing, but over the years has come to describe women and their bodies. To many, it is an outdated fashion industry label—an offensive phrase telling large-bodied women something is wrong with them—that should be retired. The Lakme Fashion Week, which along with the plus-size brand aLL will be hosting a ramp walk for plus-size models this year, has opened up its runway to any male model who has a waist size of 40 inches or above and women with a waist size of 34 inches or above. According to Sachin Puri, a former hotelier who runs a Facebook page for plus-size models in India (Plus Size Models India), it often means anyone who is not skinny. “It is a large umbrella term,” he says. Puri, along with a friend Sana Saini, started the page a few years ago, noticing the growth of this fashion section abroad, and expecting such a movement to take off here too. He claims several brands that need plus-size models for advertisement shoots or trials contact him.

For Rajat, it began a few years ago, when he answered a call for plus-sized models for an apparel brand. He was selected to walk on the ramp, and then contracted to do advertisement shoots for it. If you look at Rajat’s face carefully, there is a high chance you will find a vague familiarity. That’s because he models for a host of brands on several e-commerce portals. Currently, he models for around 10 apparel brands, some of them exclusively plus-size brands and some in the large size category of mainstream brands like Raymond. He also appears on the shopping channel HomeShop 18.

Rajat, surprised at the number of brands contacting him to model for them, once asked a photographer who was shooting him the reason for it. “He told me I have a genuine, innocent face. Brands online want such faces,” Rajat says. According to him, brands, especially those who want to sell merchandise online, are beginning to realise that to cater to people they need to use models who do not just look good, but who also look like them. He auditioned (and got selected) to participate in the Lakme Fashion Week believing that the attention will get him even more work.

Rajat is in a rare category. For most plus-sized models, meaningful work can be hard to come by. And money is not as good as that of mainstream models. Rajat is optimistic that in the next few years a majority of brands will move online, resulting in more work. Neha Parulkar, a plus-sized model in Mumbai, who works in a bank, models many brands on her Instagram. She does not receive a fee for this, but it is understood that she can keep the clothes.

Her high point came earlier this year when she was asked by fashion magazine Grazia to pose in a swimsuit for an issue which featured models of a variety of sizes. “I was so nervous,” she says. “It was a one-piece suit, but I had never worn anything like this. And the editor and photographer had to talk me out of my fear.” When the issue appeared, Parulkar says she felt empowered by it. “It was just so beautiful. I was all there, fat, cellulite and all.”

Like all traditional models in India, their plus-sized counterparts eventually also want to make their way into films and TV. Rajat is soon going to theatre workshops, hoping it will help him become a TV actor. And Khan plans to try getting work in the film industries of the South.

But such a transition will be tough. Showbiz is where things become most regressive for large people, according to the models. “You are either playing a comedian like Bharti Singh (a popular reality TV personality) or you are some sidekick or a miserable person,” Parulkar says. Khan, 22, has been offered several TV roles where her character is a middle-aged woman, either an elder sister or a mother. “It is disgusting,” she says. “Either I am a hungry girl or somebody always crying about her physique.” Anjali Anand, the model who models for the brand aLL and has been able to make a successful transition on TV, where she plays the lead in Dhai Kilo Prem , about an overweight couple, on Star Plus. She once told Mint how she often gets offers seeking ‘fatty girl for ad film’ and was once picked for an ad she hadn’t even 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...” she said.

The increasing work for plus-size categories on offer also means people unused to the tedium of fashion shoots have to be able to cope with it. Rajat, who is now a father of two children and runs a business dealing in rubber materials, spends several days, from nine in the morning to five or six in the evening, sometimes even longer, going through changes of clothes for photo shoots. “My record so far is 125 changes in one day,” he says. Usually it is around 110 changes. For online portals, every change must result in eight good photographs from different angles, which customers can then browse through. “That means 125 clothes multiplied by 8 (shots from different angles) plus extra shots to be safe,” he says.

So how then does a father of two, who runs a business in rubber materials, deal with this level of tedium? “That’s simple,” he says. “I just love it.”