DIYANSHI VERMA steps out of the green room, walking with the ease of a seasoned model and rubbing off some of the make-up on her face. Having already auditioned for Balaji Telefilms, she considers acting as her back-up career — in case she fails to become Miss Universe. She has already modelled in Delhi and Lucknow. Like any other model, she carefully watches fashion sh ows on TV to pick up cues, and says that she hardly needs to rehearse the catwalk. It is easy to forget that Diyanshi is only 10 years old.
The backstage of India Kids Fashion Week (IKFW) could have been the backstage of any runway show. The models, aged between 4-14 years, walk confidently, put on cute smiles, pout and pose for the cameras. They smile wi der when they hear the audience, mostly made up of ‘mum my mana g ers’, cheering loudly. One look at the overstyled hair and bright makeup is enough to bring to mind Little Miss Sunshine, the 2006 Oscar- winning film that satir ised the world of pre-teen beauty pageants in the US.
Once off the ramp, Diyanshi’s face appears unnaturally pink with the remnants of make-up. She likes it as long as it’s “natural and not over the top”. Both Diyanshi’s parents are doctors in Muzaffarnagar. But she has no interest in the profession. “I do not want to be a doctor. They help people, but it’s so boring. They sit from morning to eve ning, writing presc riptions.” Her parents indul – gently smile and explain that she has a mind of her own. They feel compelled to encourage her talent, they say.
Diyanshi’s friend, Jannat Rahmani, 9, is the showstopper for designer Niharika Sharma. Jannat is well aware of her place as a celebrity. She played the titular characters in the soaps Phulwa on Colors andKashi on Imagine. Besides several TV commercials, she has done cameos in Bollywood films. Unlike other children, Jannat does not feel the need to keep smiling to please the adults. She’s wearing fashionably threadbare jeans and mesh gloves and walks with a self-assuredness that is all her own. Only her missing front tooth and the stuffed green frog in her arms hint at her age. Her parents Zubair and Nazneen Rahmani pro udly tell us that the little fashionista is a make-up exp ert. Zubair, an auto dealer from Lucknow, has found a way to channelise his ambitions as a failed actor. Jann at’s younger bro ther Ayaan, 4, made his stage debut by walking the ramp for many desi gn ers at IKFW. One can see that Ayaan is already enjoying his newfound fame. He throws a tantrum asking his flustered mother to fetch him balloons.
The inaugural edition of IKFW was held in Mumbai from January 17-19. Over 150 children walked the ramp for designers like Rocky S, Nishka Lulla, Payal Singhal and Narendra Kumar who showed their wares along with mid-segment brands. A surprise entry was that of 13-yearold Pune-based desi g ner Prachi Badve. Prachi says she never gave in to the pressure to dress in pink frills and big bows. Her designs do have a distinct adult sensibility.
In another five years, India will be ready for a couture week for children as the demand will keep growing, says Mahla
In the past couple of years, big-ticket designers like Gauri and Nainika, Gaurav Gupta, Malini Ram ani, Ritu Kumar and Namrata Joshipura have all entered the kidswear market, which was pegged at Rs 30,510 crore in 2008. It is now estimated at nearly Rs 34,000 crore and a large chunk of it is comprised of the unorganised retail sector. By 2013, the segment is expe cted to touch Rs 45,000 crore. With more than 30 percent of the country’s population below 15 years of age, and with an increase in nuclear families, kidswear is one of the biggest success stories of Indian retail.
Kidology, a multi-designer store for kids wear across cit ies like Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru, was started when the proprietor, who lived in Lo ndon, realised there were no options for kids’ designer wear in India. “Nobody was cater ing to this market and there was scope for experiment,” says Neha Sachar Mittal, co-owner of Kidology. The store sto cks formal wear by designers like Malini Ramani and Ga uri and Nainika, and caters to the “well-travel led, discerning custom er”, says Mittal.
Manoj Mahla, director of Craftworld Events, the company behind IKFW, explains the need for such an event: “Fashion week brings retailers and buyers together. There is a lot of potential in this market, especially for designer wear.” Explaining the psychology behind the event, Mahla says, “If I go to a designer store to buy for myself, I will buy for my kids if I find the option, especially as buying for children is an emotional decision for parents.” Ma hla plans to make this a bi-annual event like the fashion weeks that follow the spring-summer and autumn-winter format. He says that in five years, India will be ready for a couture week for child ren as the demand will keep growing.
Strangely though, the backlash that such an event could have attracted has been low key. While child psychologists in the US, where the pre-teen beauty culture is rampant, have analysed how the self image of children often gets distorted when there is over-emphasis on appearance thro ugh beauty pageants and fashion shows, parents at the fashion week dismiss the event as harmless fun that actually boosts children’s selfconfidence.
NONITA KALRA, editor-in-chief of Elle, is one of the few to have registered her protest against the event. She tweeted that the pictures of children in make-up were far more disturbing than any other news headlines. The organisers claim that they have used organic and edible hair and beauty products on the children. “We as Indians take umbrage over everything, and if we object to Salman Rushdie then how can we let this go? It is very obviously a marketing tool to manipulate both children and their parents,” says Kalra. She is quick to add that she objects not to designer wear for children, but to children walking the ramp as professional models.
The alternative is to hold an expo to promote kidswear with mannequins instead of models, a format which is followed in several countries. But in India, ‘fashion week’ has become a catch-all term to attract attention to any event of any calibre. A kids wear week is just feeding off this fashion week frenzy. Writer Shobhaa Dé thinks that glamorising and objectifying little boys and girls who can barely walk is grotesque.
Back at the venue, on the afternoon of the second day, a rumour that a Bollywood casting agent is coming to look for child actors leads to ‘mummy managers’ desperately speculating about the identity of the casting agent. “I really want my son to be discovered,” one mother is heard saying. What’s grotesque for one is an opportunity for another.
Sunaina Kumar is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.com