Burberry’s 1st Indian Model Neelam Gill Talks Racism, Fashion & Being Paid More Than Men


Back in early 2014 we shared the news that luxury fashion brand Burberry, established in 1856, finally hired an Indian woman for their Spring/Summer 2014 campaign. Yep, it took 158 years for them to recognize that brown girls like fashion too. But it’s all good, ‘coz hey at least the great fashion awakening is finally happening.

We truly mean that too, as we have shared numerous stories on fashion brands, events and campaigns choosing to go against the narrow standards and fashion “norms” and include diversity in their visuals. But is the awakening actually happening industry wide, or are these moves still more on the token side than a wave of change?

If you scratch beneath the powerful messages and representations of diversity that are getting plenty of media attention, it is important to know that there is still a LONG way to go until fashion and advertising are completely color blind industries where the skin color of a model does not matter, and many races are represented.

The British-Indian model featured in the Burberry campaign, Neelam Gill, has gone on to have a ridiculously successful career and no doubt that shoot was pivotal to the opportunities she has been getting. In an interview with the Evening Standard, Neelam spoke about the race problem the industry still has, how she has dealt with it and her thoughts on feminism.

In the Burberry campaign, her skin was made to look darker than it actually was, which Neelam explains was a good thing.


“They made my skin darker with spray tan. They wanted to make me glowing because I was the first Indian to model for the brand and they were proud of that,” she said.

In her eyes, it was a direct statement to the rest of the industry and how slow they are in celebrating different shades of skin other than white, and do it in a way that is seen as normal, not exceptional.

“The industry is improving — but there is a long way to go. There needs to be a major change in model casting. A lot of shows cast non-white models as a token thing. I have never seen a show with more than one black, Asian or Indian girl, which is frustrating,” she said.

A recent study by The Fashion Spot examined just how deep the diversity problem within the industry is, and found that after looking at 460 fashion print ads during Fall 2015 in the United States, the results weren’t exactly shocking. In fact they even called it “business as usual”, because 84.7 percent of the models cast were white.

Diversity needs to no longer be considered some sort of event or gesture, but a regular part of the fashion industry. But the examples are still so few and far between, that when the world’s second largest retailer H&M featured its first model wearing a Hijab in their latest campaign for their recycled fashion initiative (also featuring badass plus size fashion blogger and model Tess Holliday), the world went into overdrive.

Mariah Idrissi is a 23 year old Pakistani-Moroccan British girl was excited to be part of the campaign, because she believes the fashion community is ignoring a huge market of fashion lovers.

“It always feels like women who wear hijab are ignored when it comes to fashion. Our style, in a way, hasn’t really mattered, so it’s amazing that a brand that is big has recognized the way we wear hijab,” she told Fusion.

It was a big deal to many women like Mariah who finally got to see someone who looks like them being acknowledged and celebrated for who they are on a platform that has become very influential and powerful.

“For a major retailer like H&M to choose a Hijabi girl as their model is certainly a breakthrough in the advertising world in America,” writes Naila Sheikh at Brown Girl Magazine.

Nail goes to to explain that diversity isn’t just about doing the right thing or a nice gesture, it is good for business.

“Muslims are projected to spend $484 billion on clothing and footwear by 2019, an increase from $266 billion in 2013, according to a 2014-15 study commissioned by Thomson Reuters. Making affordable and luxurious fashion relatable to more than 1.6 billion Muslim consumers worldwide — it is indeed a smart business strategy on H&M’s part,” she writes.


For Neelam, the issue of racism hasn’t just been confined to the catwalk. The more visible she has become, especially because of her friendship with ex-One Direction member Zayn Malik, she has experienced backlash from everyday people, proving that race issues still run deeper in society than perhaps we’d like to admit.

“I don’t care if people call me ugly but when it is about your skin color that is unacceptable. I can’t believe some messages aren’t taken down from news sites. I see comments such as ‘she is black as f***’, or ‘like that refugee I saw on TV’, and then they find my family and troll them…You may think I’m ugly but don’t be racist,” she said.

However she isn’t about to stop speaking up about the issue, because if attitudes like that are going to persist, they might as well be met with just as many positive and intelligent responses. One of the issues she has with racism in fashion is how certain designers use “aesthetics” as an excuse not to choose models of color. Neelam calls BS on that!

“Designers don’t want to distract from the clothing. If you have a black girl, even if she looks amazing in the gown, she will stand out and they want the focus to be the collection. That’s wrong: India and China are huge markets for designers. They need to realize that fashion is so broad, and they should put models on the runway or in ad campaigns that girls can identify with,” she said.

She has had discussions with other models of color, such as British supermodel Jourdan Dunn who has also been very vocal about the fashion industry’s color problem and how tokenistic some attitudes still are when it comes to race.


“People don’t cast you because they already have a black girl,” she said, pointing out the subtle “quotas” that seem to exist in fashion.

In the end it is going to take people in positions of power to make the necessary changes from the top and continue to lead the way in forcing a trickle down effect.

“If Christopher [Bailey, CEO of Burberry] hadn’t believed in me I don’t think I’d be where I am now. It takes someone with his power to make mainstream fashion accept you. I don’t even think I would be cast in India,” said Neelam, adding that she now feels a responsibility to speak up for other girls like her who are finding it hard to break through.

Could we love Neelam Gill any more?!? Well actually, yes, because here’s what she had to say about feminism and the the ludicrous notion that you can like fashion at the same time.

“I consider myself a feminist because I believe that men and women should be equal. [Fashion] is about your body [but] I don’t see feminism as the way you dress. I see it as your values. You can be a feminist and do a shoot in a bikini. In fact, that is empowering,” she said. Yes and Amen, girl!

Also, being that modeling is one of the few industries in the world where women out-earn men, Neelam has no problem responding to complaints she hears about that.

“Men always tell me that I’m being paid more than them for the same job. I reply ‘good’. What’s the problem with that? I’m touchy about it because look how many industries are male-dominated — women work their asses off only for men to be promoted above them. I’m glad to be in one of the few industries where women earn more than men,” she stated.

What a smart, brilliant and powerful young woman she is! We need more women like Neelam challenging the boundaries on all levels, using their platform to bring change in a positive way. To hear more about her passion when it comes to dismantling racist ideologies, watch this awesome vlog she made with fellow Brit Harnaam Kaur (who made headlines around the world for not being ashamed to rock a beard due to a medical condition she has).





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