Conversation with Zinnia Kumar

Story photographed by Umit Savaci

Observer Shirt

Model for our latest campaign, Zinnia Kumar, is a multi-talented woman whose work spans across multiple disciplines including science, philanthropy, fashion & film. Born in Australia of full Indian descent, Zinnia entered the modelling industry relatively late, saying she was unlikely candidate due to traditional beauty standards. Fast forward to 2020 and Zinnia has been featured in the pages of Vogue Italia, and listed as one of Vogue India's most influential global Indians to know. Before entering the modelling world, Zinnia worked as a conservation biologist in the outback with wetland birds & on remote islands with Little Blue Penguins. She also volunteered her time over a 10 year period to teach refugee and disadvantaged children in Australia, India and Thailand, and was chosen by the Australian Government as a Youth Ambassador to work under the Department of Foreign Affairs. An eager learner, Zinnia is currently studying for a doctorate in colourism at Oxford University, whilst continuing to work on a number of environmental and humanitarian projects. This includes an upcoming documentary feature film raising awareness of colourism & unravelling the social, physical and psychological effects of skin colour discrimination in India. Ahead of International Women's Day, Kowtow's Creative Director, Gosia Piatek and Zinnia discuss the future of fashion, portrayals of beauty and how our putting our values first can help enable an equal world.

Gosia Piatek

Hi Zinnia, thank you so much for joining me in conversation. As I mentioned in my email, we’ll be celebrating International Women’s Day soon and I thought it would be a nice opportunity to share you work with our community – because not only are you the model in our latest editorial, but you’re also a published scientist and activist. You are such an inspiration in that every day you challenge the status quo. I would love to know which women have inspired you most throughout your life?

Zinnia Kumar

When I was young, I loved Mother Teresa, I loved that she was so selfless in the service of humanity. My mum has always been a source of strength and inspiration to me, she keeps me going when I feel like giving up. Also, most recently Leslee Udwin (award winning activist & filmmaker), an incredible friend and mentor. I am endlessly awed by her energy, drive, tenacity, bravery and fearlessness. She inspires me to believe that anything is possible and to always fight for what you believe in.

GP

It is so important to surround yourself with others that lift you up. Being an ethnic woman in the sciences, what are the biggest challenges you've faced?

ZK

Sexism. I overcame this by finding supportive female supervisors who appreciate what I am capable of and not what I look like defining what I am capable of.

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Oversized Boxy Tee, Sabine Pant

GP

It’s frustrating to hear that sexism is still so prevalent within the sciences (and across industries more broadly). It’s admirable that despite the challenges that you have faced in your science career, you’ve still remained passionate and dedicated to the field.

You once stated that science is art. What creative freedom have you experienced with your work in science?

ZK

If I can think of an idea no one has done, I can do it. I can delve deep into uncharted territory and find an answer. It is incredibly creative and forces you to think outside the box.

GP

I read that part of your studies in Human Evolutionary Biology included human attraction. Has this knowledge helped you to unravel the illusions of beauty that exist within the fashion industry?

ZK

Yes 100%! What I’ve realised is that beauty is an illusion, it is a trend that constantly shifts and evolves with popular culture and societal influences. What was considered beautiful 10 years ago, probably isn’t anymore, what we think makes us beautiful today won't be the same in 5 years’ time.

GP

I completely agree. The portrayals of ‘beauty’ that we are presented with are constantly changing and therefore impossible to meet. How have you seen these trends change over time?

ZK

In terms of trends, what you see most often becomes familiar, and what is familiar often becomes attractive. Where seven years ago, ultra-thin, toned bodies was socially considered highly attractive. However, that’s because it was the only body shape we ever saw in popular culture. Today, the repeated exposure of plus size shapes has meant much of the public have fallen out of favour with the narrow ideal in favour of one that suits their own natural bodies. It’s funny how time and perspective changes things so drastically.

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GP

Definitely. We hear our customers when they say they want more diversity. In our 14 years, we’ve taken our photoshoots from New Zealand, Australia and London, and the model agencies are still so limited. There is a fine line of what is genuine and what is token, and I never want to feel like we’re doing something for the sake of it being on trend.

How do you see fashion changing within the next decade?

ZK

I think fashion itself will see a slowdown in fast fashion and rapid consumerism. People will start to buy less, preferring high quality items that transcend fashion trends. Towards the end of the decade manufacturing will shift from China to India. The Indian economy will overtake the US in 2030 to become the world’s largest consumer market. Consumers across the globe will become highly conscious of where their garments come from, who makes them and what environmental impact it is having on the world. I think this is what makes Kowtow revolutionary, it was started with this commitment in mind, well before sustainability became a fashion ‘trend’.

GP

That’s interesting that you say that, given India’s long-standing history of textiles, it has been argued that the apparel industry in India has the potential to perverse and promote India’s cultural identity. With the growth of sustainable textiles and fair trade certified garment factories, and producers in India, do you see apparel production as an opportunity for cultural preservation and sustainable economic growth?

ZK

India controlled the worlds luxury textiles from the 15th to 18th Century. India and its merchants supplied fine cloth and garments to royalty across the globe for centuries. That was until the British Raj destroyed the industry, cutting off, smashing and crippling weaver’s hands and fingers, burning and looting Indian textile mills, banning and over taxing Indian fabrics imports between the 18th and 19th centuries. The Indian textiles market was further reduced by the introduction of cheap British Mill Cloth and American Slave cotton woven in Manchester, UK. However, after the American civil war cotton prices increased, and as a result demand for Indian cotton also increased, but the market had suffered severely through the economic & political sanctions placed by the British Raj. The sanctions also caused the stagnation of India’s luxury fabric sector as many highly skilled artisans were forced out of work.

GP

India has the most beautiful and intricate fabrics. Artisanal craft is still very prevalent there. And, as you know, this season we’re introducing hand knits, which have been made by a group of women in India who have come from refugee backgrounds and have been empowered to use their traditional skills to create a livelihood for themselves and their families.

Where do you see the future of the apparel industry in India?

ZK

Personally, I would like to see India, known once more globally for its luxury, high quality fabrics, because it has always been a luxury fabric market. It’s a shame that globally we see Italian, French & European fabrics as purveyors of luxury and Indian fabrics as somewhat ‘third world’, when in reality there is nothing third world about the fabrics lest for a label and a legacy forgotten in history.

I hope that India will be able to regain what she lost over 150 years ago and cement her place once more in the world's markets, this time by forging a new identity. With the Indian government’s commitment to renewables & sustainable development, India has an opportunity to create an industry preserving artisanal techniques for future generations whilst at the same time building a textiles empire built on sustainable, eco conscious & fair-trade practices. Something that no other manufacturing nation has been able to properly do in the modern era. I think this commitment is what will drive economic growth in the country.

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GP

It’s really unfortunate that there is such a stigma attached to fabric and apparel production on India, given the rich history of the country has with textile production. I agree this sector has the potential to drive the country’s sustainable economic growth, and what better an industry to drive that growth that preserved and utilises existing cultural capital and skillset of much of India’s population.

Do you experience tensions between your passion for wildlife, the environment, and your work in the fashion industry?

ZK

Although modelling pays the bills, I have had to make some tough choices. I turned down one of the biggest shoots of my career - a campaign for a luxury brand, because it featured endangered Chinchilla and endangered Lynx fur. As a conservation Biologist, I could not justify wearing an endangered animal and selling the extinction of these beautiful creatures so that a brand could profit. If I, who chose to conserve endangered animals wore them, what hope would the animals have? I am proud that I made that decision even if others wouldn’t. I’m glad that most brands have made a commitment to stop using endangered furs and furs in general.

Beyond that, I have been pleasantly surprised to be working with quite a few sustainable & fair trade fashion brands recently, as well as seeing larger retailers attempt to make a commitment to sustainability. It gives me hope that this is a wider trend.

GP

We admire that you put your values at the forefront of your career decisions. At Kowtow, we’re constantly facing challenges due to our strict values in terms of sustainability and ethics. Whether that be not being able to use a certain trim on a garment, or not being able to use a particular material in one of our stores, due to lack of transparency or issues with the sustainability of these materials. However, these challenges and sacrificed seem worthwhile when we remember that they are the result of us looking after our planet and its people.

What words of advice would you give to people looking to make a change in today’s world?

ZK

Biggest piece of advice I've learned, you don’t need a position of power to make change, you don’t need to be an authority. You just need courage and the will to do something about whatever you’re passionate about and do it. Don’t worry about where you start or how small it is, as you gain courage and confidence to do something, you will start pushing your comfort zone and challenging yourself farther. You may have off days and good days, but don’t be discouraged, because that is part of the battle. Nothing meaningful, ever comes about without resistance. Keep going.

GP

Thank you Zinnia. It’s been a pleasure getting to know you and have you wear our clothes. We're looking forward to seeing what you do in the future and keeping in touch!

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