Using fashion to celebrate transgender women

Sharmila Nair designs and retails saris online. The literature graduate did not know much about the transgender community, but inspired by the Kerala Government in India’s zero discrimination policy towards transgender people, Sharmila decided to launch a collection of saris dedicated to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community with transgender women as models. UNAIDS spoke to Sharmila about how fashion can promote social change.

(The views and opinions expressed in interviews or commentaries are those of the interviewees and contributors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of UNAIDS)

UNAIDS:  What is your collection called and why?

Sharmila : The collection is called Mazhavil collection, which can be translated to – ‘The Rainbow Collection’. The title of the collection not only refers to the wide spectrum of colours used but also symbolizes LGBT pride and diversity.  

UNAIDS: What inspired you to use your design talent to highlight the LGBT community?

Sharmila: The media is known for portraying transgender people in a certain manner. I thought this was the best way to break the stereotype. To show that transgender women are beautiful people and they are one of us.

UNAIDS: What is your perception about how transgender people are viewed in India?

Sharmila: Transgender people in India are slowly beginning to get some attention. I see my initiative as but a little drop in the much larger ocean which is the quest for gender equality. However, with the overwhelming response the collection and my initiative has received from both my customers and the media, I feel that I have created some ripples on the still waters. In time, I hope that these ripples will grow into larger, stronger waves of change. I am sure that this will bring about a positive change in attitudes, in public perceptions and eventually in the lives of the LGBT community in India.

UNAIDS: Did you face any challenges while creating this campaign?

Sharmila: Initially, when I mooted the idea, there was a lot of skepticism. But then my husband, my parents and my in laws gave me a lot of support.

The main problems were to get a place for the shoot and to get makeup artists to be willing to be part of the initiative. When we approached people and told them that we were going to shoot the collection with transgender women, they made silly excuses to avoid coming, even those who committed initially didn’t turn up. Eventually, we got a team together and we went ahead with it.

UNAIDS: The transgender models that you chose for your campaign have never modeled before, is there a reason you chose amateur models as the face of your creations?

Sharmila: From the very beginning Red Lotus has chosen to do campaigns with amateur models. Our thought process goes like this- There are plenty of people in the industry who can give opportunities to professional models. But there are a lot of people who love to model or who love to wear saris who don’t get the chance.  We are more comfortable working with amateur models because we love to capture them as naturally as possible.  Our only criteria is that they should have the confidence that they can carry the sari off well. Maya and Gowri were great in this department so it all worked out wonderfully.

UNAIDS: What has this experience taught you?

Sharmila: Initially even I had my concerns about the LGBT community because I was influenced by our conservative society. After working with Maya and Gowri, I learned and understood that they were just like any other person. It opened my eyes to that. I started accepting transgender people for who they are and I hope that this sends out a message of acceptance.

UNAIDS: You’re only 25 years old, so what’s next for you?

Sharmila: This acceptance is really big for me, I didn’t expect this.  We have fueled a lot of conversation. We have created a high demand and also high expectations. We are coming back with another campaign this December – You will just have to wait for it!

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