Making Waves: Smita Lasrado and Nikhil D.
Beauty is subjective, and in a world of airbrushed superficiality and Instagram validation, it’s difficult to understand its true connotation. There is, however, a section of people who are strong advocates for reforming the Indian beauty ideal. They believe in celebrating an alternate reality, where natural beauty is unconstrained and individualism is prioritised. Meet stylist Nikhil D. (Dudani) and former model Smita Lasrado — co-founders of model agency Feat. Artists, who hope that their organisation is not positioned on one of the two extremes — aspirational and accessible. “Why can’t we have both?” laughs Lasrado, as the three of us sit down in their home office space in Khar. Nikhil D. explains, “We’re not trying to put ourselves in any kind of box, and we shouldn’t be pigeonholed because we’re trying to do justice to the population of our country.”
As they settle in a couch for the interview, I can’t help but notice the differences between the two. Nikhil D. walks in with his unruly, salt-and-pepper mane and an unpretentious style, woven together with major street influences. He is calm, withdrawn even at times, but articulate. A design graduate from Wigan and Leigh College India, Mumbai, who has formerly worked in leading Indian publications, Nikhil D. is currently dabbling in freelance styling, content creation and casting. His multi-hyphenate profile has never deterred him from scouting fresh faces for his projects, as he believes that his audience should be able to relate to his models. Lasrado, on the other hand, is chirpy, full of interesting anecdotes and a great conversationalist. She was a model, once based out of Paris, and her illustrious client list included fashion houses like Chanel, Saint Laurent, Vivienne Westwood and Christian Dior. Lasrado’s wardrobe reflects her personality —classics styled with Parisian nonchalance and accentuated with quirky extras. The only similarity I find is in their thoughts — they refuse to be considered unconventional; they are fighting to be the new normal.
The friends hail from Mumbai, and have been part of the fashion world for almost a decade. After identifying a gap in the Indian industry, where models of different ethnicities, sizes and skin colours are not adequately represented, they decided to become the flag-bearers of diversity, founding Feat. Artists in July this year. Its portfolio represents a wide spectrum, including but not restricted to, plus-size, transgender, North-Eastern, dark-skinned and older models. With their foresight and strong grasp of the industry’s demands, Nikhil D. and Lasrado aim to create a progressive institution in which people are not confined by society’s limited beauty standards.
In a freewheeling chat, the dynamic partners discuss their insights on the industry today, how they are vying to change conversations around beauty and why their models are more than just interesting faces….
How has your idea of beauty evolved since the time you started your careers?
Nikhil D. (ND): It’s not changed a lot for me. When I was working for a magazine, I was shocked at how limited their idea of beauty was. There were so many models in Indian magazines or ad campaigns who were definitely not Indian. They were either Eastern European or….
Smita Lasrado (SL): ….or maybe Brazilian.
ND: I always struggled with that because I wanted to see people who looked more relatable. In India, fashion magazines were so aspirational that you couldn’t connect to what you were looking at. You saw hardly any Indian models in ads either…
SL: Eighty per cent of the models were of only one type — a very fair girl with long straight hair. I remember seeing Nikhil’s work from that time, and he has always been championing brown girls in his editorials.
ND: Today, we are in a good place, where everyone is looking for Indian models. It can also be attributed to the fact that Indian faces are doing so well internationally. I think 10 years from now we’ll be in a place where we will not be complaining about this at all.
SL: I think it’s a very cool space to work in now. Even when I started modelling, with the exception of one or two magazines in India, nobody would really book me. It’s only when I did stuff abroad that people started hiring me here. It felt like people still had a colonial hangover, which they don’t have as much today. We’ve found girls — who people immediately loved and booked — who are far from the conventional definition of beauty. We, however, still have to push for atypical faces to be accepted and skin colour still stands in the way sometimes. That’s one of the big things we want to fight with this agency. But if you’re light-skinned, it doesn’t mean that you’re not worthy to us, but it also doesn’t mean that if you’re dark-skinned, you can’t sell something that’s aspirational.
Where do you find such unique personalities and how are they different from the industry standards?
ND: They’re everywhere….
SL: We’ve got people from the South, the North, and the North-East. And 95 per cent of our models have other interests or hobbies and, hence, they can offer more. Like, if we have somebody who plays football, then I think he is a better fit for a sportswear brand than a professional model. I think this is what makes it more interesting for the client.
ND: We are signing runway models based on the industry’s (current) requirements. It’s not that we are getting somebody who would not fit into samples and pushing for them to be runway models. We cast people who we think are interesting and should be modelling. The industry is big enough for everyone — maybe somebody’s face shows great character so they would work in an editorial or somebody who has a good height and posture will do wonders as a ramp model.
SL: To give you an example — one of our male models is the classic definition of beautiful but we didn’t sign him merely because he was good-looking. He does other stuff — he is into a lot of sports and is a professional footballer. He’s honest and ambitious as well. We go with what we think is important and afterwards what we think can sell.
ND: One of our girls is fighting mental health issues and she’s really into academics….
SL: We encourage and promote their unique personalities. We give our models the option to choose. Some have made it clear that work comes first so we cater to that — what works for each model and how they want to be placed is important to us. Having said that, we have got a lot of people who have supported us — we’ve done a bunch of TVCs, editorials and commercial jobs that prove that there is a market for all kinds of faces. So, I think, people are getting it but there are still some hurdles that we have to cross. What I keep telling Nikhil is that you can never underestimate the audience. Four months ago, when we started, we thought that if we can book one job, that’d be so cool. We knew back then that it would be an arduous process to make people realise what this project is about. And today, we do not have enough supply for the demand. So for me, that’s a really positive thing. It makes me think that the market is actually ready. Maybe they aren’t ready for everything, but they are ready to see something different.
What is your vision for the agency over the next five years?
SL: We definitely want to be one of the most reputed agencies, and we want people to celebrate who they are. Obviously, we want to make a profitable business out of this, and so we are planning to expand into different divisions.
ND: We have similar ideas. We want to send our models on jobs outside India. We’re also working towards creating a brand for each of them based on their individual personalities — position them in the same way as international models have become brands to reckon with. And yes we definitely need to represent real people more in the modelling world.…
SL: ….and make that a norm, not an exception. For us, it’s not about an image — nor is it about doing something cool.
ND: The point is that everyone’s different. The perceptions that people have when looking at models are still narrow-minded. That’s something that we want to change.
SL: You could be a fair boy with light eyes, and you could, maybe, be a dusky curvy model, we have a place for both. We think that there is a market for everybody. That’s what we mean by inclusivity.
ND: Natural beauty — that’s something we look for, and I think that is good enough.