Sunny Kamble is a model and actor who has worked with some of the biggest names in the industry. He still fondly remembers his first show at Lakme Fashion Week in 2009 where he walked for Digvijay Singh. A dream that he had cherished since he was 12 years old was becoming a reality. He also specifically remembers the moment when actors and industry stalwarts, Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan and Hrithik Roshan, walked as showstoppers for the Varun Bahl and Karan Johar show in 2010 for Couture Week. When Kamble talks about his peers and idols, he refers to them as “men”.
The male models he sees on the ramp these days are boys. And Kamble is a man among men. His mocha skin glistens under the harsh lights of the runway and you cannot look away from his striking abdominal muscles. You can almost smell the black coffee and hyper masculinity in his breath. A picture of him teasing his assumedly naked body in a bath robe finds place of prominence on his Instagram feed. “As the millennials say: ‘do it for the gram’,” goes the caption. Veteran fashion designer Manish Malhotra’s “uffff” comment under the picture summarises what we all feel when we see the picture. But the times — they are a changing. TJ Gill (@tjsinghdreamer on Instagram) is a twink, if there ever was one. He is tall, svelte and graceful. His ballerino limbs sway about him as he aimlessly wanders the ornate halls of the St Regis Hotel in Mumbai. He has just walked for some of the top designers and is now waiting for a friend. This is the first time I’m meeting him in the flesh and while I can admire his gangliness, he cannot see me clearly. “I can’t find my glasses, I’m blind without them,” he says and flashes those pearly whites.
A picture of Gill at the Manish Arora finale show at the LMIFW 2020 show stands out on his Insta feed. He’s wearing a bejewelled coral pink and baby blue outfit. His eyes are highlighted with ginormous fake eyelashes. His skin is bronzed with make-up and there’s a shimmer on his lips. “Male models today are mostly young, good-looking guys with sculpted faces and slimmer bodies as compared to what it used to be a decade ago. Just like in Europe, with all these huge design houses like Gucci, Prada and Alexander McQueen, we have embraced this new generation of slim models. When I started out two years ago, there were literally two to three male models who looked like me but now it has changed so drastically and all the agencies have started signing these younger band of male models who are slim and thin,” he says. “Now, there is more emphasis on the faces rather than just muscular bodies like back in the day,” he adds. I like to call this the Timothée Chalamet and Harry Styles phenomenon.
Chalamet shot to global, unprecedented fame last year on the back of the sleeper hit, Call Me By Your Name. He starred alongside the classically good-looking Armie Hammer, but it was Chalamet that captured the world’s imagination. With a face resembling that of Michelangelo’s David, Timmy was the name on everyone’s lips. A few years ago, Zayn Malik, the ridiculously good-looking former member of One Direction was a Twitter trend. Today, his prettier ex-band member gets, Harry Styles, close to a million retweets and likes on Twitter. A picture of Styles wearing a pink Tutu broke the already broken (thanks for that picture, Jen Aniston) Internet.
Owner, director and MD of Toabh Talent Management, Sangeeta Bhatia is witnessing a change in the Indian fashion industry in relation to masculinity. “Fashion is more gender-neutral these days, so the models in the market today are not as manly or bulky as they were back in the day,” she says, adding: “The awareness of the masses has increased over the years and also the acceptance of modelling as a profession, hence the number and the variety of the models in the market has increased tremendously. While scouting models these days, agencies look for younger models in the age group of 17 to 25 years. The younger the model, the more time he has to be groomed and also placed internationally, which is our forte.”
Started by two friends, Nikhil Dudani and Smita Lasrado, feat.artists were ahead of the game. “India is such a diverse country. I felt that we missed that hunger for being different…It felt like most models or agencies here felt they had to be the same,” Lasrado told Homegrown following a collaboration with the website and photographer Harshvardhan Shah. “Feat looks for character and uniqueness before signing a male model. We’re not interested in 100 similar looking commercial models. And it’s extremely important to us that the models have hobbies and skills. It could be that they play sports or an instrument, are studying graphics or film,” Dudani and Lasrado tell me. “Our male models play sports, edit videos, produce music, shoot photographs, play instrument or dance. Most are politically and culturally aware as well as interesting.”
Masculinity is not about being a MAN anymore. It’s about just being human. Still, a long way to go, but India has now started looking at masculinity from different perspectives. It’s now more inclusive of men irrespective of their body structure, facial hair or voice, etc. It’s beyond these standards set by society,” says Feat model, Kangkan Rabha. A decade ago, Rabha would probably not be as popular a face as he is now. In fact, he may even have found it difficult to find a gig in the industry. Today, he has walked runways like Zegna in Milan and Rick Owens, Etudes and OAMC in Paris.
Another popular runway and magazine favourite, Zander, began his modelling journey when the fashion industry was evolving from the monotonous and exclusively “broad body type”, which was then a benchmark to be a male model. Since then, the industry has transformed completely, and the river is not flowing in only one direction. “Gone are the days when modelling circuits looked at masculinity as the only measure to find a male model. Nowadays, a male model might have to wear androgynous clothing for an editorial or even for a runway show,” he says. And what are the attributes that make a good male model these days? Distinctive looks are a bonus in Zander’s book. And Zander’s looks have helped him carve a name for himself — he’s travelled miles since the time Deepak Badhwar saw potential in him and introduced him to Varun Bahl who offered him his first show in 2015.
Advertising professional and creative producer Oshin Gupta has worked with some of the biggest names in the country. The change that she has noticed is that earlier, the brands would insist on a “well sculpted white person”. However, over the years, she believes that there has been a massive inclusion of Indian models who are not necessarily forced to fit into the masculine archetype. “In today’s time, to catch up with the change that’s happening in the society — inclusion of LGBTQ, more empowered women and understanding men — brands are constantly trying to keep up with that image. You’ll see many feminine boys, girls with tattoos and short hair, and overall breaking away from the existing structure,” she says. This is something she has seen across brands, from Allen Solly to Van Heusen, and from Lifestyle to Fastrack.
Modelling agencies are rushing to fill this demand. Ankit Mehta, CEO of Inega, believes that an evolved and inclusive idea of India has transcended into fashion and advertising in the past two decades. He states that brands are making an attempt to create campaigns based on who the customer is, rather than what they want the customer to be. This change in premise has created the model that can be related with and understood. “There’s been a change in how India sees India,” he says, “That change has broken stereotypical ideas of beauty and masculinity.
Then, there’s Lubna Adams. Easily one of the most powerful people in the industry, her insight and idea about the industry is of prime importance because she choreographs the most popular runways. “Today, masculinity is more metrosexual. It’s not about beefy bodies or puffed up arms or chests. It’s all about having a lean look and it’s about having a different look. Internationally, there’s been a change. I think India was very influenced by Bollywood — it still is to a certain limit — but today, even Bollywood has become lean. Today, the whole pumped up look of lifting weights is gone which is why, I feel, because this lean look is in, the men are working on their personality rather than somebody who is pumped up, beefed up and thinks he’s become a He-Man,” she says.
And what do menswear designers think? “I think male models a decade ago were supposed to fit into a certain mould. I think that has completely changed now. I think male models today need to be a lot more relatable than aspirational,” says designer Kunal Rawal. “The way India sees masculinity has completely changed in the last few years. That’s absolutely amazing. Earlier, the concept of masculinity was very restrictive. It was all about tall, bulky and good looking — all the wrong things you can imagine — having a six-pack and a certain kind of body. Today, masculinity is more like the way it is meant to be. Being masculine is a wider term — to be who you are in your true form. It is far more inclusive today. Coming from a designer’s perspective, there is no set mould that a model has to fit into. It’s all about relatability, having a personality and definitely, confident in whatever medium you’re working in,” he adds.
But is this just a trend? After all, masculine and hunky male models were all the rage once upon a time. Their sharp jawlines and strong shoulders carried the weight of multiple brands and swooning women in equal measure. “People have more confidence and there is generally greater acceptance and inclusiveness (today). But I hope it’s not a trend. Because trends are boring,” says designer Rajesh Pratap Singh. We couldn’t have put it better ourselves.