Indian models not in fashion overseas

For top Indian model Apoorva Vishwanathan, the difference between success on the catwalks of her own country and an international modelling career can be measured in inches -- two of them.

"I wish I had endless legs. I could be cat-walking with the Heidi Klums of the world," said the Bangalore-based Vishwanathan who stands five feet nine inches (175cm) in her bare feet.

"But you've got to be at least 5'11" for any international fashion house to come near you," she told AFP during the recent New Delhi Fashion Week.

Compared to the West, career modelling is still in its infancy in India, although it has made huge strides on the back of rapid economic growth and the growing profile of Indian fashion designers.

Only a handful of Indian models have tasted success abroad, with the likes of Lakshmi Menon and Ujjwala Raut modelling for Gucci and Yves Saint-Laurent.

Lakshmi Menon, a rare success story (PIC/AFP)

Menon walked for Jean Paul Gaultier shows in Paris and went on to become the face of French luxury goods maker Hermes, replacing Ukrainian Daria Werbowy.

The financial pay-off for those who do break out of the relatively low-paid domestic scene can be enormous, and Raut is quite frank about why she is no longer seen working the Indian fashion shows.

"They can't afford me," she told the Times of India in an interview last week.

Whispered allegations of racism have been made by some who tried and failed overseas, but Vishwanathan believes the main barrier is the natural body shape of Indian women.

"We are genetically more voluptuous and curvaceous," Vishwanathan said, adjusting her tight mini-skirt as she sat down during a break in her daily round of make-up sessions, hair-dos and fittings.

"Agencies abroad want girls who are really thin, almost skinny. It is tough for us to fit into their requirements.

"I have been around on the Indian fashion scene for 10 years and would have absolutely loved to make it big internationally. But even if you have a little body to you, you're out of the race," she said.

Another factor is that Indian models tend to start their careers much later than their Western counterparts, with parental pressure often keeping them in college until their early 20s.

"In the international context it means they are already over the hill," said Anjana Sharma, fashion director at IMG Reliance.

"Gisele Bundchen started modelling at 14, Kate Moss was discovered at 14 and by 16 she was a known face," she said.

Once frowned upon in conservative India as an immodest career choice, modelling grew in popularity -- and acceptability -- in 1994, the year former Indian models Sushmita Sen and Aishwarya Rai took the Miss Universe and Miss World titles respectively.

Both went on to successful and lucrative film careers, fuelling the aspirations of millions along the way.

More recently, the launch of Vogue India in 2007 heralded the start of a new fashion era and an overhaul of wardrobes of the nouveau riche.

"You name any international magazine and they are now in India," said popular dress designer Samant Chauhan.

"It has opened the outside world to India. Models in India are now more aware, assured and ambitious."

Rikee Chatterjee, a 24-year-old up-and-coming model said her family fully supported her decision to take up modelling even before she finished her college degree.

"They understood and backed my choice," she said. "A lot of parents now are happy enough to see their kids in the limelight."

But there are some limits.

Indian models generally hesitate to do lingerie work, or other shows that involve baring a lot of skin, and most lingerie ads in Indian fashion magazines use foreign models.

"The question is not so much of modesty -- but of negative public opinion," said Nonita Kalra, editor-in-chief of the Indian version of Elle fashion magazine.

There are also complaints of a bias against darker-skinned models in India where a light complexion is widely considered synonymous with beauty and skin-lightening creams rack up annual sales of 500 million dollars.

Top Indian model Dipannita Sharma ruffled feathers earlier this year when she accused not just the fashion industry but the country as a whole of being "obsessed" with fairness.

"We will take another hundred years to completely get over it," she said.

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