At least once a week Siddharth Z., 23, thinks of opening the green envelope in a book in his Delhi apartment. It contains ₹5,000, the earnings from a modelling assignment six months ago. It’s his Plan B: He will open it if his childhood dream of becoming a runway model evaporates.
“I fought with my parents for my dream…used my savings to go to Mumbai from Jaipur (his home town). I am left with nothing now. Zero. How long can I ask friends for help? Covid-19 has ruined me,” says Siddharth, running his fingers through his light-brown hair. “I don’t want to go back home and sit in my dad’s kapde ki dukaan (fabric store) but what choice do I have?” If he opens the envelope, it will be to use the money to book the one-way ticket home.
After spending nine months in Mumbai last year, Siddharth got just three assignments, all with e-commerce websites. The pandemic had left the fashion industry stranded, cutting short an email chain that was showing him the path to modelling for a leading designer’s runway show. Unable to afford Mumbai rents, he moved to Delhi in November with the help of friends, hoping things would look up. They haven’t yet. He’s surviving on his savings and money loaned by friends.
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Whether they are new or experienced, models across the country are struggling to survive. Sales of wedding wear, the biggest money-churner for designers, continue to be low—so there’s little work for runway models. Live fashion shows with new collections are few and far between. If a designer does decide to showcase a new line in a digital film or social media campaign, they demand that models work for less pay—a “discount”. Lockdowns and mobility restrictions have put a stop even to the e-commerce catalogue shoots, which pay less than live shows in any case.
But it’s not just the models who are struggling. Manufacturers, karigars (artisans), tailors, photographers, make-up artists, runway choreographers, designers, everyone connected to the industry is hoping for a miracle. In 2020, India’s apparel market was down 27%, from ₹4,129 billion in 2019 to ₹3,022 billion, management consulting firm Boston Consulting Group noted in February. The same report expected the market to rebound strongly on the back of consumer and supply side factors.
But this was before the devastating second wave. Now, even if the industry rebounds, models may find the going tough. Their careers, averaging a mere seven-eight years, don’t allow for easy pivots, and they have to maintain their physique and looks regardless of whether they get work. Siddharth had to cancel his gym membership a year ago but does yoga at home and eats simple, home-cooked food—mostly eggs and vegetables—to stay in shape. He’s spending about ₹6,000 a month on his food and looks.
The common thread through my interviews with 15 models, who had left Mumbai and returned home to save on living costs, was “hardly any work”, “offers are available if you give 80-90% discount”, and “there should be a union for models to help us in difficult times”.
It’s a cut-throat profession and the competition is fierce. Each year, grooming schools produce hundreds of models, all hoping to be the next supermodel in a world where the showstoppers are increasingly Bollywood and cricket celebrities and where fashion and luxury brands are beginning to look towards “real people” and influencers for their modelling needs. There is a frenzied struggle for assignments: For every model who refuses to discount fees by 50% or more, there are 20 others ready to work just to earn some exposure.
In the pre-pandemic era, fashion shows would be organised every couple of months, so a model could make ₹1-6 lakh a month, depending on their looks and experience. Now, most say, earnings have fallen 70-80%.
Gina Narang, founder of the Mumbai-based modelling agency A Little Fly (ALF), says they haven’t got many calls over the past year. “The situation is such, it’s out of everybody’s control,” says Narang. She says models are being offered ₹15,000-20,000 for a full-day shift when “it should be ₹50,000-60,000”.
The pandemic has only made a bad situation worse, says Liza Varma, a former Miss India and a show director who runs a Gurugram-based academy to groom models. “The Bollywood culture, the tourist models (from countries like Russia, ready to work for low fees), they had already started hurting the industry. This recent Instagram trend (brands hiring social media influencers for campaigns) is spoiling the industry. And because of covid-19, it is now in a shambles,” says Varma, who groomed Miss World 2017 Manushi Chhillar. Many brands expected models to shoot at home, something the Instagram influencers are far better at.
Varma estimates that work options for models, across genders, have fallen at least 60% during the pandemic. “The seniors, who used to make ₹3-4 lakh during one fashion week, are out of work. Fresh models get some work for some e-commerce websites, which is little money,” says Varma, who has been part of the fashion industry for close to four decades. “Most designers are not using many models. If they want models, they expect 15-16 hours of work a day at just 20-30% of what the model’s actual fee is. How is that fair?”
Khup S. Hangsing, 26, refuses every offer seeking steep discounts. “I love modelling. But if brands ask for so much discount, how will I maintain my lifestyle? My profession demands that I exercise right, look right, eat right. I need money for this,” says Hangsing, a non-binary model. “This profession is my passion but that doesn’t mean I will settle for less.” At present, he is dependent on family and friends for support.
Designer Tarun Tahiliani, known as a fair-wage provider, admits to negotiating for lower fees. “We all negotiate. We always work with people who (suit) our budget. What can you do? Sales are less. When revenues fall, budgets fall,” he says. “Models are an important part of the fashion industry. We are incomplete without them. But yes, I agree that we, designers, need to do better.”
Last month, Palak Gupta, who has walked the ramp for leading designers over the past five years, was offered a day-long photoshoot by a fashion brand for ₹25,000, less than half of what she usually charges. “I know…everyone is having a tough time but this is exploitation. Why can’t designers use fewer models but pay what’s right?” Gupta, 28, says, quickly apologising for sounding angry.
Gupta, who has done 30-odd projects at a “reasonable discount” over the past year, turns down seven-eight offers each month. “Imagine running around in five-inch heels and a 20kg lehnga 15 hours a day and then being paid for four hours of work,” says Gupta.
Through all this, working conditions have been far from ideal: Brands didn’t follow covid-19 safety protocols (“temperatures not checked”, “too many people standing closely”).
Both Gupta and Hangsing agree on the need for a union to secure their rights—an initiative that has been attempted twice, in the 1990s and 2000s. “As a community, we models need to come together,” says Gupta. They haven’t been able to so far.
Sunil Sethi believes there is no need. As president of the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI), an association of designers that works to further the business of fashion and ensure its sustainable growth, he says the council “plays the role of a union only”. In April, the FDCI started the Covid-19 Support Fund, with contributions from members, to provide assistance to small businesses and young designers in need. “Please tell the models we are happy to help them,” he says. “Until they reach out, how will we know? We can’t give a lot but we can certainly help.”
Some of the models interviewed for this story said they did reach out to the FDCI but didn’t get a response.
Sethi insists “the glass is half full for the industry. Every part is suffering but people are trying to keep themselves busy.” He does admit that the tendency, over the past couple of decades, to take film actors and cricketers as showstoppers in fashion shows has taken a toll on the budgets available for other models. “Let’s admit it, we are a country of Bollywood crazy.”
A GAME OF NUMBERS
Supermodel Nayanika Chatterjee, 52, has seen this obsession from close quarters. Today, the rise of influencers is contributing further to the decline of the model. “In this age of counting popularity on the basis of (social media) followers, this obsession has killed the model. Nobody is pushing the model brand. You tell me, can you name any supermodel from the present generation?” says Chatterjee, who hasn’t earned a penny in the past 12 months. Earlier, she used to have a busy calendar, given her strong personality and striking looks.
In her three-decade career, Chatterjee has tried twice to set up a union for models. It didn’t work. “There was always so much competition, backbiting, that it just never took off,” she says. Now, most models are associated with modelling agencies, which act as the bridge between models and brands.
Varshita Thatavarthi, who works through an agency, would prefer a union. “All my (model) friends are talking about this discount trend. It’s getting out of hand. We have to pay 40% (30% commission, plus taxes) to the agency. If I agree to ₹25,000 for a shoot, how much will be left with me?”
Thatavarthi, famous as the “plus-size” Sabyasachi muse, says a union would not just work to ensure fair payments but also function as a support system in an industry that can be toxic and overwhelming. “Covid has reminded us we need to standardise rates, we need to talk about the pressure of the job, we need to talk about mental health. Yesterday we were losing our jobs because of Bollywood. Today it is Instagram influencers,” she says.
Like her, Amit Ranjan too has worked only on three-four projects since the pandemic started. He says, “The culture of how many followers you have has started dictating how powerful you are.”
That’s a reflection of society, says menswear designer Jatin Malik. “It’s all about relatability, since we are becoming more digital. I want to connect with people, that’s why we are moving away from models,” he says. For his next collection, Malik has chosen eight “regular” people and two models. “It’s about the clothes, the storytelling. Having the same models is no longer as interesting. Story is the king.”
Siddharth is not sure if things will look up for him again. “So many people have lost jobs, karigars, photographers (in this pandemic). So many are being helped out. What about us? Who will help us? How can you have fashion without a model?”