Andreja Pejic, Lea T and Hari Nef are the well-known names of transgender models who have struck the big time, walking in shows for leading labels and starring in campaigns for fashion's most luxury houses. But while these US-based models have had major success with brands including Givenchy, Gucci, Make Up Forever, Giles and Hood By Air, in a considerably progressive and courageous move, a small Indian brand, named Red Lotus, based in the southern state of Kerala recently launched a new collection of saris, modelled by two transgender women, Maya Menon and Gowri Savithri. Despite there being an estimated 1.9 million transgender people in India, they are often mocked and ostracised, existing on the periphery of society. Trans women, referred to as 'hijras', are frequently the victim of societal stigmatisation. With such prejudice and resentment across the nation, Red Lotus's Sharmila Nair's bold casting decision and colourful sari collection entitled 'Mazhavil' (meaning rainbow in Malayalam), has understandably grabbed headlines worldwide. Speaking to the International Business Times UK, Nair explained that she is "not burdened by conventional thinking. I consider transgenders as much a human being as I am." But personal open-mindedness aside, it was also the Keralan government's recent campaigns regarding transgender policy that influenced Sharmila's action: "In order to understand the issues faced by the transgenders' society, the social Justice Department (SJD) of Kerala conducted a state-wide survey covering the following aspects of their social, economic and personal life." And in November of last year, the state government finally offered the Keralan transgender community the same social and economic rights as all other gender groups, encouraging equality and the liberty to be yourself.
But how do the unknown models Menon and Savithri feel, fronting a campaign which has now gone viral, while living in a country that is overall unsupportive of transgender people? Speaking to The News Minute, Maya Menon expressed her gratitude and relief: "I could never have imagined that I'd look so beautiful. I have no words to thank Sharmila for the opportunity she gave us. I have never had open conversations even with my own family about this. Not many of my friends are aware that I am a transgender. But this shoot has given me the confidence to admit that I am one." Nair's bold move and this promising step towards recognition and acceptance of the transgender population has not only given self-belief to Menon but hopefully to many other members of the Indian trans community too. The designer took to Facebook this week to convey her appreciation for the global response to her campaign, stating: "The last fortnight has changed my life... Starting with a small effort to focus on the plight of the ostracised transgender community by getting them to come to the limelight and model for a saree collection of Red Lotus, I have been literally flooded by calls and message of appreciation. The media too went on an overdrive, highlighting my little effort, bringing the issue to very sharp focus... As far as the effort to turn the focus on to the plight of the transgenders is concerned, I can only say : "Mission Accomplished!!" We couldn't have put it better ourselves.