Lakshmi Menon on Setting Boundaries and Breaking Barriers

Photo by Eeva Rinne | All fashion by Savio Jon

In recent memory, it’s a rare occurrence that the entire planet comes to a collective standstill and the fashion industry even less so. Always producing and creating, it seems against fashion’s excessive nature to have to slow down and consider exactly what we can improve on. Yet, it’s clear in this historic moment that creativity, like all energy, is constant and we can either embrace the occasion or fall to the wayside. The moment is not lost on supermodel and new mom Lakshmi Menon who stepped up graciously to the challenge of capturing visuals in her home of Goa, India. One of the biggest muses of the ’00’s to brands like Givenchy and Prada, Menon has captivated designers and audiences alike with her deep-rooted inner strength, sharp intellect, and confidence that exudes with ease. Via FaceTime from halfway around the world in London, photographer Eeva Rinne captures Menon in Goa with an on-ground assist by stylist and designer, Savio Jon while speaks with the supermodel about her modeling start with Jean Paul Gaultier and Riccardo Tisci, new life as a mother, and dismantling the white, male gaze.

Photographer – Eeva Rinne for
Stylist – Savio Jon | Features Editor – Irene Ojo-Felix
Special thanks to Red Model Management (New York)

Shooting in Goa with photographer Eeva Rinne and your friend, designer Saviojon was truly a marker of our times. How did you first meet Saviojon?
Lakshmi Menon – Both Savio and I pretty much started off our career at the same time, he as a designer and me as a fashion model in 2001 or 2002, I think. Modeling was one of those odd jobs that I was doing while I was at university. We met while I was doing a job in India and he was styling and we sort of hit it off. He’s a very good stylist and that’s how he sort of got into designing. As a designer starting off, it was a struggle to make enough to pay the bills and he decided to start styling. It’s been 18 years of a long friendship. We’ve always been there for each other and I’ve done a lot of shoots for him. Just for his collections

You mention you got discovered in university and that education was very important to you. How did you juggle the two back then?
Education, yes, it is essential. In India especially we still value education. Being a dropout? It’s okay to do that in America and you still have the opportunity to do other things. In India, being called a drop out is like a social stigma. Your parents will kill you. You know, how would we show face in society. It’s a strange mentality. It’s just ingrained in you from the time that you start going to nursery school into primary school, into middle school, secondary school and the next thing is a university. There’s no break in between.

It’s only now I think parents who are sort of from my generation who are sort of open to the idea that you don’t need to get into university immediately. You have the option of trying out other things in life and then deciding whether you want to get into academics or forge a career in something that doesn’t require that level of academia.

So how was the balance in the beginning when you were still doing course work and traveling?
I finished my three years of coursework and my work was more during the weekends. I was at Bangalore University in the south of India and had Saturday, Sunday off so I would take a flight to Bombay on a Friday night – it’s about an hour and a half the flight time. I would get in there, shoot and get back home Sunday night, ready for college on Monday morning. It was a good gig and some good pocket money. I wasn’t making much but being at university meant all the other kids were sort of struggling and begging for money from their parents. I had my own and it was great.

Photo by Eeva Rinne | All fashion by Savio Jon

It seems like traditional, conservative Indian values clash with the mentality of becoming a model. Scouting is improving in the region but is it true that it wasn’t until recently people had been more receptive to the idea?
I think in the late 90s and the early millennium there was a whole shift. It was also because of the age of the internet. There is so much more information available. Some were even exposed to the lifestyle of people in show business, whether it’s fashion or whether it’s film. And it looked like a lucrative career for your daughters especially. That whole taboo that these professions were looked down upon, faded eventually. That stigma is not there anymore. Now when you say that you’re an aspiring model they think that’s a great thing because they know that it opens many doors to other things. It’s a stepping stone into the other careers if you want to. It opens the world out to you in the form of travel and to be able to travel is an education. It’s such a privilege. It’s not anything that you would learn at school or university. It’s a different kind of learning. It’s life lessons pretty much.

I wanted to go back to how was it when you were rising on the international market? How was it navigating the industry, going to shoots, and being backstage far from home?
I’m good at making friends, in a sense, or putting people at ease. It’s really about going there with a good vibe and being open. You go in there and bring something to the table, including a great attitude. I’ve made such good friends in the industry, with hairstylists or makeup artists. You just meet people and you just click. So for me being backstage, being on set, I was very curious about the people I was working with. Who they were, where they came from, what their backgrounds were. In a way that also helped me to understand what is the nature of the work. Who are the people that come together consistently? What makes them tick? What is their creative force? When you start you’re also trying to understand the profession that you’re in and you’re there for such a short period. A show is barely a couple of hours, from the time you do your hair and makeup. Three hours at the most. If you’re doing a shoot it’s maximum a couple of days, generally a day. In that short span of time, you have to able to be able to get along and to find common ground. It’s a great learning space, modeling. It’s not as vacuous as people may make it out to be.

That’s a common misconception. I think that people look at modeling as a very surface-level job and don’t understand the very critical work that goes behind the profession. In your career, there are a couple of people that stand out who took you to the next level. How did they help further your career?
I started with Jean Paul Gaultier and the beauty about somebody like Gaultier is that his idea of beauty is not defined by the cookie cutter. It’s so vast. It is free of gender, it’s free of bias, it’s free of race, it’s free of all of it. For him, the question of “what is beauty” is it’s a vast big word. It’s not a narrow mindset or perception of what beauty should be. I feel the reason why there was this surge of white, cloned models, and this is just a theory, was because straight, white men run corporations and it’s a very straight, white, male gaze that was being perpetuated. Look at Victoria’s Secret, one of the biggest contracts. I’m sorry to say but it was totally a straight male fantasy. And I’m not saying that I haven’t been part of the system. I think as I’ve grown older and become more aware of things, I realize that that’s not the way I want to be perceived. You don’t want to participate in something like that because you do realize that other young girls are looking at your pictures and thinking that this is the way to be.

Then you have people like Monsieur Yves Saint Laurent, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Riccardo Tisci. Pierpaolo Piccioli at Valentino. These are people who are not defined by these narrow precepts of beauty. We live in a world with people who are of different ethnicities, cultures, shapes, sizes, hair textures, skin colors. To have people like Jean Paul Gaultier who supported me right in the beginning I think it was great because at that time it was just white women all over. It was always a pleasure being backstage at his shows because you’d see women, men, cis or transgendered.

Photo by Eeva Rinne | All fashion by Savio Jon

And that was back in the 90s and 00s, which wasn’t long ago. What we currently demand, back then was a radical thing to do. Fashion is often described as a microcosm of world culture. Does fashion have a larger responsibility to the audience it’s selling to?
Somewhere there has to be a sense of responsibility. Now I have a young daughter and the last thing I want her to get into is that she’s there just for the male gaze. It’s incorrect to even lead her in that direction.

Can we take some back and empower ourselves, I wonder, with how we even view our bodies and our sexuality?
Absolutely. I think we need to have more women in fashion to make things that are women-friendly. I think now we’ve reached that stage where I feel that there are women who are taking charge of the situation including bringing in the female gaze. I mean, I love the fact that there are so many more female photographers now in the fashion business. Young and upcoming. Have you seen Unconditional Magazine? It’s an all-woman team and it’s great the way they approach editorial content. There’s The Gentlewoman, too. You know there is great reading material, great interviews, great content. Women are smart creatures. You can’t just undermine them and give them a magazine which is just fluff. Women are, especially Millennials, defying gender which I think is amazing. To be bogged down by it, in itself works against all of us, whether it be male, female. It breeds toxic masculinity.

Are there any photographers that have stood out recently to you in that regard?
I love Ethan James Green. He’s so gender-bending, gender-defying and it’s so amazing to see. I see that in so many young kids. They don’t care about gender any longer. There are other issues at hand. I think that young people are taking control of the narrative and I think it should be allowed to flourish. I’m really happy about it, the fact that I’m seeing it in my lifetime. I know that 20 years down the line my daughter will have something better to look forward to. This is only going to get better.

It’s interesting just seeing how far fashion has come. However, it seems like it was a force of hand. If none of this happened – #MeToo, a pandemic, the rise of black lives matter – it probably would have been business as usual. When it comes to inclusion, do you think fashion is hitting the mark?
What do you think? I’d say no. I think true inclusion is people who don’t fit any gender, any race, any religion, size, and caste class. It’s just completely free of that. This whole thing of size zero, size two because it just looks more photogenic. We’re trained to think that in images, thin looks good on camera. So that’s all you get to see. Anything beyond that does not look good on camera in our minds. Those are the things that we need to get away from.

Photo by Eeva Rinne | All fashion by Savio Jon

Switching gears, the Indian fashion industry has substantially grown beyond just modeling. How is that sector of the world fighting for their place within fashion?
We’re leaders in textile and embroidery. India has trouble as an organized workforce if you want to call it that. India has worked always seasonally through the crop cycle of agriculture. 70% of the population is agrarian and that same 70% are also your craftsmen. It’s also dominated by a lot of religious festivals. I was talking to a friend of mine who has a workshop where they do embroidery for high fashion houses. Her struggle is how to deliver the fashion seasons in Europe and American versus what’s going on in India. They don’t care that Chanel wants this by the end of the month. All they know is that there’s a big religious festival and they’re all going to take off from work.

However, there are lots of designers here who work with people here who have figured out the seasonal cycle and are doing very interesting work. One of them is Rajesh Pratap Singh who works with a lot of weavers, develops great textiles. There’s Rajesh Mishra and Manish Arora, who both show in Paris. Ashish is in London. There’s this amazing guy Ramesh Nair who’s the creative director at Moynat, and who’s exceptionally talented. These are people who are coming in now because fashion designing as a profession is fairly new in India. It’s only 30 years old. It’s in its adolescent stage and still got ways to go.

It’s interesting to talk about the cycle as Western fashion is now reconsidering if the current cycle is sustainable. Do we need to be coming out for four collections?
No! I feel that people need time to produce, especially if you’re looking at getting artisans from other countries. You have to understand different cultures and allow them to thrive and at the same time to be able to use their skills. To take what is happening in the West, in Paris for instance, and then impose seasonal collections onto a place like India which has its own season, culture, and work ethics…it’s tough. When you’re producing four to six collections a year, it’s obviously, going to be tough on deliverables. Yet on the other hand, if you ease off that saying, I’m only doing two collections a year, it’s sustainable and it’s slow enough. Honestly, how many collections does a human being need? I think about myself and I look at spring/summer and fall/winter. Everything else in between I’m not even interested.

It’s important to focus on your work and just create something innovative. Something that challenges your own repertoire. I viewed the Dries documentary and he has a very slow approach due to textiles development. Yet, it must be acknowledged that there’s a part of fashion that’s reluctant to change. Another offset of #MeToo was an analysis of how we’re treating models. Is it necessary to stay in a long casting line to possibly lock down a fitting for Balenciaga or Marc Jacobs that used to last until 1:00 a.m.? Be told that you can’t leave because if you do you’ll miss your moment? It seems like an unordinary, unnecessary amount of pressure to be put on models.
That’s the worst thing ever and I’ve walked out on so many castings like that. “Oh, the client really wants to see you but you’ve got to wait.” And I respond, “You know what? I’m going to grab a quick bite and come back. I’ve put my name down.” But they’ll say, “You can’t leave.” People took pride in that kind of abuse. They thought that this was the way they showed the world that they’re really serious about their work. When you look at hierarchy and power, models are pretty much at the lower end of the spectrum.

When you were first starting out were there times you felt powerless?
There’s that whole thing of where they used to ask you to strip, wear like a bathing suit and walk around. I’m going to be wearing clothes by the end of it so I don’t see why I should be stripped down. They take these Polaroids that become part of somebody’s collection. I don’t know for whom or what. In the beginning, I used to just think to myself “don’t think about it” but now I’m like, “No, sorry. You can’t.” Am I wearing a swimsuit in the collection? No? So why do I need to?

It’s good to even hear the fact that you felt empowered enough. You mentioned you started a little bit later when you first debuted on the international market, how much did that help you as far as feeling like you could speak up for yourself?
It’s a mafia there. It’s the casting directors. The politics of it can be frightening but it’s important to keep your head about you in the business. Otherwise, you just get dragged down and get pulled in so many different directions. It’s impossible to live with yourself like that. You have an agent in New York, an agent in London, one in Paris. It’s fashion week and agent number one is saying, “Oh, you know, you’ve got to be here.” Agent number two is saying, “Oh, you know what? This designer who’s in New York. You’ve got to be at this one’s party.” It’s endless. And when you start lending them an ear you end up ruining yourself.

To survive in this business, I think it’s important to have a certain level of emotional maturity, which only comes with age, I’m afraid. It just doesn’t happen when you’re 16. It’s the only way to handle that level of rejection. It’s not easy at that age when you’re scrutinized for the way you look and they’re openly saying in front of you, “Oh, you know. I think her thighs are too big.” It’s just upsetting and if you’re young it must affect you so deeply psychologically.

Photo by Eeva Rinne | All fashion by Savio Jon

But it is an industry that picks you apart based on what you can contribute, looks-wise. Curiously, I wonder is there any advice that you would give to yourself or models who are starting in the industry?
I think it’s just about learning to say no. Knowing there’s a line that we all have personally, professionally that you just don’t cross and that you don’t allow others to cross. Those boundaries need to be established right at the outset. Your negotiating points, you start negotiating from there. If you can do that, you’re able to maintain your self-respect, your self worth and that is so critical for your survival, just in the world at large. Forget fashion. You cannot allow anybody to take that away from you. It is why you’ve got to know when someone oversteps that boundary and you have to lightly just tell them, “You know. Okay, this is not going to work.”

How has your life even shifted as a mother? How is your view of fashion in the world shifted?
Being a mother, I see things more from my daughter’s perspective. I mean, she’s only seven months now but I imagine as she’s getting older what would all this mean to her. What would be her perception of it? So far, what we have experienced has been very toxic and now it’s changing. I’m hoping that this encourages people who are moving away from the stereotypes and allowing for a more diverse set of voices to come together. I just find that I can’t believe that this is the 21st century and we’re still talking about race, we’re still talking about women’s rights. We’re living in the age of information. Ignorance is no excuse any longer.

We’re wasting precious time and resources that could be focused on creating the next thing. Making this next 10 years stand for something. Fashion references the past a lot. I’m wondering, “What’s the thing that we’re going to add that’s going to set this generation apart?”
It doesn’t happen when everything’s going super easy. When everyone’s just riding the wave. You’ve got to swim against that tide to make it happen. And it’s happening. I’m so happy about all of it. Black Lives Matter. Wondering about the impact we have on our environment. I was reading that every 100 years there’s a serious pandemic and I think it just makes people sit up, take notice and make the necessary changes. Because obviously whatever was being done up until this point is not working. The ones who are complacent in this day and age will not survive. It’s the fighters, it’s the survivors who are going to make it out.

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