Indian designer Sharmila Nair broke several stereotypes when she decided to use the transgender community as the inspiration for her new collection of saris. She took the initiative one step further by asking two transgender women to model her clothes in a stunning photo shoot that has now gone viral.
Nair, who lives in the city of Cochin in the southern Indian state of Kerala, has named her collection Mazhavil, the local word for rainbow. “Since the LGBT community is represented by the rainbow flag,” Nair told Mashable, “I thought why not give my collection the same shades and use all the colours of the rainbow.”
Made under her brand Red Lotus, the saris are made from Hubli cotton that has been dyed with rich natural colours, and paired with printed blouses.
Nair was inspired to do her bit for inclusion after seeing a Facebook post on Kerala government’s groundbreaking policy for transgender people, which assured them of their freedom and movement, and emphasises their equal rights and access to social and economic opportunities, services and resources.
She contacted the local organisation Queerela, which works for the rights of transgender people, who then put her in touch with the 29-year-old models Maya Menon and Gowri Savithri. The two friends were initially surprised and skeptical, after facing years of discrimination and hardships.
“They couldn’t believe that someone would approach them for modelling. They were scared and had questions about why we were so interested in taking them as models, whether our collection would even get sold and how it would affect our brand,” Nair says. “Yet, once we started they were thrilled.”
After meeting the two, Nair herself had a first-hand experience of the kind of discrimination that transgender people continue to face despite the government’s policy. Both the models were facing economic difficulties. While Maya runs a yoga centre, Gowri still finds it difficult to get a job. Nair had trouble finding a place to shoot because she had transgender models, and finally chose a beautiful church in Cochin as the location.
The designer hopes that the now-viral photo shoot will open up more opportunities for the two. “It takes time to break stereotypes and for people to accept,” Nair adds. “They are very creative, and really put their heart and soul into the shoot.”
In a country where the transgender community remains socially excluded, living on the fringes of society, with members make a living by singing and dancing at weddings or child births or begging and prostitution, Ms Nair defends her choice.
The models, both 29, are college graduates, but they are unemployed because they are transgender. This assignment has brought them visibility and the designer says she hopes that it will also bring them acceptability so that they can get employment.