Size’Lining The Male Model: Plus Size Models In India
The conversation about plus size models and the fashion industry usually revolves around women, but what about the men? Plus-size models from the Indian fashion fraternity weigh in on what the future holds for them
Remember when in The Devil Wears Prada, Andy is mocked over her non-sample-size figure? We know you’re replaying the movie in your mind right now. And while we’d hope that a lot of toxicity at the workplace shown in the film is more fiction, the sizing quote is, well, the truth. In fashion, anything except sample sizes are still regarded as anomalies. But, we’re not denying that the fraternity is taking notes on size inclusion as well as body positivity in messaging. Though an industry resistant to change, fashion can no longer afford to discount the sweeping reforms demanded by ‘woke’ buyers. In fact, it is not just societal pressure that nudges brands to add to their inventories beyond size 12. A steep growth in the category, projected to reach $696,712.1 million by 2027 as per the global plus size clothing market report by Allied Market Research, is also a reason for change.
However, as a few brands expand their size charts, there is still a lack of plus-size representation in imagery. In fact, till date, the quotidian details presented globally when explaining the word ‘model’ is largely that of a petite body for a woman, or a chiselled physique for a man. Plus-size models featuring in campaigns, editorials, or on the runway are few and far between. One may observe that it’s taken decades of advocacy for curvy women to find their footing in the industry. Despite the fluctuating number of plus-size women models in international shows every season, other legacy brands including Chanel (Jill Kortleve for fall/winter 2020) and Versace (Precious Lee in spring/summer 2021) have not shied away from size diversity. In India, fashion houses like Sabyasachi, Shivan & Narresh, Masaba, NorBlack NorWhite, HUEMN, Gaurav Gupta, and a few others, have represented plus-size female models. But for plus-size male models, size inclusivity still remains a distant dream.
Barring a few international brands, among which are ASOS, 8on8, and Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty, not many advocate for plus-size men. One can’t miss pointing out that for Rihanna’s lingerie line, Steven Green modelled in a pair of boxers without being segregated as plus size. Even a few talent scouting agencies abroad — IMG Models launched a division dubbed Brawn in 2016 with model Zach Miko — welcome plus-size male models. But in India, size inclusion for men is at a nascent stage. The biannual Lakmé Fashion Week (LFW) has been a proponent of this idea, with their 2016-launched plus-size shows in collaboration with plus-size label aLL: the Plus Size Store. For these shows, a few plus-size men and women are selected, post auditions, to walk the runway. Plus-size male models, however, are yet to find enough opportunities in designer wear. This may also be why one is hard-pressed to locate them on modelling agency rosters here.
With an inclination to change the stereotype that plus-size men cannot model, Mumbai-based Kais Sundrani auditioned for the 2016 LFW plus-size show (curated by Little Shilpa), and walked the runway. He later walked the runway in 2017 (the late Wendell Rodricks launched the aLL PRIMERO collection), and 2019 for this annual show. Sundrani, who juggles between modelling and managing multiple businesses, mentions, “Though I am on the heavier side, I deserve equal opportunity.”
Delhi-based plus-size model Rajat Khanna, who says he has worked with 65 brands, can often be spotted on the Myntra website. After walking the runway for PlusS at IFFD (The Indian Federation for Fashion Development) Delhi in 2013, Khanna walked for LFW plus-size shows in 2017 and 2019. Opining that plus-size men are under-represented in India, he says, “A 20-year-old plus-size man who wants to model here will not find opportunities.” Khanna stresses that representation through communication is a by-product of expanded brand sizes. He says, “Only mass-market brands have invested in our category as of now.”
After four years of struggle to crack a single audition in the South Indian film industry, Varshita Thatavarthi was spotted by Sabyasachi at his jewellery exhibition in Chennai. She recalls, “I remember him walking up to me and telling me that he finds me beautiful because I am dusky and curvy.” Talking about how representation for bigger women was once a rarity, she adds, “Growing up, I have never seen plus-size models in Sabyasachi or even other fashion campaigns. So I never imagined this meeting would translate to work.” She was wrong. Not only did Thatavarthi play muse to Sabyasachi in his 2019 winter campaign, the designer was also commended for not typecasting the size 16 model in clothes typically associated with fuller women. She adds that Sabyasachi neither under-represented her nor gave her preferential treatment, making her feel like any other model. This is also why she steered away from the term ‘plus size’. Thatavarthi says, “I like that the movement is gaining momentum and I’ve gotten used to the term. But our intention was to show that everyone, irrespective of size and shape, needs to be celebrated in fashion.”
Does she see similar representation for plus-size men? She mentions, “I don’t know any plus-size male models here. But everything takes time. When I did the Sabya campaign, I was one of the newer plus-size female models. Now that we’re getting established, we will make way for bigger men.”
In a similar vein, when Masaba Gupta decided to feature Dhakabased brand patron Sobia Ameen, in her trackies, for her social media campaign, Ameen probably didn’t anticipate making headlines. Calling the shoot “life-changing”, the architect-turned-baker and now model, adds, “I didn’t call it modelling for the longest time because I didn’t think someone my size could be modelling.” Earlier, representation to her meant Ashley Graham. “Now, I know a lot of plus-size women models but not a single plus-size male model.” Recalling the Savage X Fenty campaign, she highlights, “Even as a plus-size woman, you’re objectified for some reason. There is disparity because, I think in many cases, women are still not considered anything beyond their bodies. But a man has to look like this ideal male prototype that we’ve created. It is sad and needs to change.”
Following this line of thought, plus-size male model Shakti Sikka says, “There is a monopoly of plus-size female models because they’re slightly more glamorous; that helps sell products.” Sikka’s journey started when he won the Reliance Trends Mr Lucknow title in 2018. He later walked for LFW plus-size show 2019 (aLL Primero x Rina Dhaka), and was contacted by a few brands to model, though he refused the offers due to the lockdown. A professional cyber-security trainee, Sikka opines that size inclusion is performative in India, especially in the segment for men, “Ours is an old-school mindset, and we’re yet to understand what inclusivity means.”
Understanding social media reach helps comprehend this divide, says Khanna. “It is commendable that plus-size women get to model with designers, and that is because of their social media reach. There are hardly any plus-size male influencers.”
Actor and model Rajiv Bhasin thinks that plussize female models are celebrated for diversity and have better collections unlike men: “We hardly have flattering clothes; you’ll only find big jeans to hide curves or clothing with basic checks.” Bhasin, who walked the LFW plus-size shows in 2016 and 2018 (aLL Primero X Narendra Kumar show), continues, “Why can’t we wear shorts? What are we to be ashamed of?”
All the plus-size male models interviewed for this story shared their peeves about being offered lesser compensation than the so-called regular models, despite them investing equal time in shoots. Bhasin states, “We mostly walk for free or are compensated with vouchers.” Khanna says he’s been working on the same pay for three years now, adding, “In a month, I shoot with five to 10 brands. If I increase my pay, I might not get work.”
Plus-size modelling in India is not a lucrative profession, maintains Sundrani. “To have this as a full-time job is difficult as there are fewer opportunities,” he says. Sundrani also highlights that at times, plus-size men are willing to do shoots for free or in exchange for a garment from the brand, thus disrupting an existing market. “Limited opportunities means no uniformity in pay,” he says.
When the pandemic hit him hard, Sikka decided to put his modelling plans on the back burner. Stating that he was not paid for LFW, an issue raised by a few models in previous news reports by other publications, he adds, “The show was probably to gain goodwill. In plus-size modelling, it is difficult to get paid enough to sustain yourself.” We connected with the team at LFW, but they were unavailable for a comment to corroborate this information.
The uncertainty of the pandemic has been looming over almost every segment in fashion. In this context, there is no doubt that the plus-size male model will take longer to jump the queue and become mainstream. Listing what can be done to accelerate this process, Thatavarthi says, “We can collectively fight this bias when designers create more work for us or create garments that make plus-size bodies look good. We need to change the dialogue, see that we are not discriminated against, and that everyone is paid well.”
Ameen urges brands to realise that at a time when everyone is constantly online, inclusivity in all spheres is important. “If you are looking to be inclusive, be persistent and faster. It doesn’t matter how big a brand you are, generations [of success] can be demolished because of a small PR situation.”
Sundrani and Khanna echo the thought that plus-size male representation in designer wear is key. Khanna wants to witness change through seasonal fashion weeks, adding, “It will be great if even one designer represents plus-size models in regular shows.”
On the contrary, Shakti doesn’t believe in inclusivity because he feels the concept stems from differentiation to start with. He concludes, “One should not be differentiated as a plus-size model or be made to feature in a ‘plus-size’ show. In the future, there should be one runway show, featuring diverse sizes.”