It is unfortunate that one of the main ingredients that form the fashion industry is as good as redundant in our country. There was a time when major ad campaigns, magazine covers, runways were dominated by models, more so, supermodels. Each face celebrated a uniqueness and an individuality. Over the years, film stars have replaced them as the indian film industry dominates the entertainment quotient in our country and film stars are the icons. In a world where modeling is a profession but not considered very lucrative for many, I managed to find one solitary model for whom this industry is her work, profession and sole income and more importantly one who has excelled tremendously in the fashion industry. She frequents the Milan, Paris, New York, London and many other fashion weeks and walks the runway for umpteen designer giants like Jean Paul Gaultier, Hermes, and Ralph Lauren amongst others. She was the face of Hermes and other fashion houses such as Givenchy, Max Mara, H&M. She has led many campaigns, graced copious magazine covers and she has been in the Pirelli calendar. Lakshmi Menon, by far, is the most successful indian model to have made a mark on international shores. However, in her own country, she stays far away from the world of fashion.
I managed to get hold of her and we chatted over the phone and I learned more about her glamorous yet mysterious life. Lakshmi began her modeling career when she was 18, but it was a slow start for her. She was doing odd jobs as she was still at university, and even though she began her career with the supremely talented Prabuddha Dasgupta (which worked to her advantage) it did not translate into jobs. Lakshmi was not an overnight success.
In fact, her career trajectory has been slow and steady and that has helped her develop a greater understanding of the modeling business. Unlike many models, Lakshmi did not become a model because she was fascinated by the world of glamour. Rather it was and has always been her work, her profession and her source of income, reason being the choices that she has made over the years of doing certain campaigns or working outside the country.
Photography: Bharat Sikka
‘I really work well outside India. The way I look is so ambiguous that they can’t really tell if I am Indian or of mixed origin, so that works to my advantage. I guess that’s the reason I have been here this long as a modeling career can be quite limiting in that sense. Also the problem with the Indian fashion is that they really don’t pay well,’ she says pragmatically. ‘Bollywood dominates all the big beauty campaigns so the money goes there. Though there are now many International fashion magazines, but even then you see the same Katrina Kaif, Priyanka Chopra and others who are recycled at least 5 times a year and it’s the same old story—their stardom is talked about and their fabulous lives are featured. This is why I don’t find it lucrative to work in India and why I much prefer to work in Europe and America.’
Coming from an army background helped Lakshmi get in tune with the modeling lifestyle. Similar to the army, a model’s life is always on the move with no planning ahead. ‘With my father being in the army, we moved around considerably when I was a child. I think that helped me to work in the business of fashion, as I have never had the need to nest or be in one place. I can be anywhere and be at home completely. There is a lot of movement and pressure physically, emotionally and mentally, in this business, which can take a toll on you. Physically, one can take care of oneself—you can train yourself and your body to eat the right thing and do the right thing. But emotionally and mentally, one needs a lot of strength.’ And fortunately Lakshmi figured it out in the early stage of her career and did not go through the pressure and dilemmas that many young models find themselves facing.
Photography: Bharat Sikka
Also her maturity enabled her to say NO when she needed to, even though it was tempting to say YES. ‘I know I have a certain limit after which no matter what I have to say—that’s it. I tell my agent I am shutting down for 2 weeks or 3 weeks and that’s my time off and it’s important to establish that to yourself and with your agent. I think most girls think that the agents have hired them for the job but in fact it’s actually the opposite. I have hired the agent so it’s my call when I want to say no or yes.’
In a world where most models have lost their individuality and most tend to look like clones of the other, Lakshmi has managed standing her ground. She wishes she was part of the ‘80s and ‘90s movement that one saw in the fashion industry world over. ‘All the girls of that era—be it Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford or the Indian models, Mehr Jesia, Shyamolie Verma, Madhu Sapre—they all looked different. They were all unique and they celebrated that. No wonder it was the supermodel era. What has happened in the last 10 years is that it has become so generic—everyone has a similar look, but I think it’s changing again slowly. But when I started out working in Europe and America, when I opened a magazine page, I couldn’t tell one girl from another, as they were all so similar looking. I think the stylists or designers did not want the attention to be taken away from the clothes. They wanted the focus to be on the clothes and not the model, unlike the supermodel era where the girls did grab a lot of attention. And then the absolute antithesis happened, and girls were literally like coat hangers and had no personality. They were just there to show clothes. I do think now however, that all that is changing as there is only so much you can control and you are bound to reach a saturation point. Things have to evolve and if they don’t, they just become boring and stagnant.’
Photography: Bharat Sikka
Talking of evolution over the last ten years, Lakshmi has grown tremendously as a model and as a person. The years that she has spent traveling, interacting with people, exposing herself to different cultures—have been a learning experience for her. ‘When I compare myself to when I was 21, I see a huge growth. I was a young girl back then who did not know much of what was going on in the world apart from the current affairs that I probably read in the papers. I think it’s the depth that you acquire, as you get older, as you expose yourself to other things, that’s what is really interesting to me. And I think that has really helped me evolve as a person. I think when you are modeling in your ‘20s, it’s different to when you are modeling in your ‘30s. There is a kind of maturity that you acquire and that sort of helps. So I think the evolution as a person and as a model happened simultaneously and to apply that kind of depth both in my life and work and my understanding of it in the last decade of my life, has been a very learning experience and I am very thankful for that.’
Photography: Bharat Sikka
Today Lakshmi is at a stage of her life and career where she is happy and in retrospect, she is pleased with the way it all panned out. She knows this business will not last long, and that does not unnerve her. In fact, she is very composed and believes in living life one day at a time. Since she has already carved out a name for herself, she can afford to be picky with her assignments. She is by far, today’s most prominent and deserving supermodel. Not only because she is doing tremendously well in her profession, but because she, in her own way, represents individualism. There is some-thing to be said for the fact that Lakshmi Menon has always worked on her own terms, made some difficult yet wise choices and continues to dominate the ephemeral world of super models.
Our conversation with Lakshmi Menon was first published in our Fashion Issue of 2014. This article is a part of Throwback Thursday series where we take you back in time with our substantial article archive.
Text Shruti Kapur Malhotra