Meet Zinnia Kumar: Ecologist, Writer, Model, and Activist

Whether she’s challenging colourism, deconstructing beauty ideals or inspiring new conversations about fashion and sustainability, Ecologist, Writer, Model and Activist Zinnia Kumar is proving to be an icon of our times.

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“There are still implicit racial barriers in fashion and media,” says Zinnia Kumar. It’s a big statement – huge. But after spending time with the model, ecologist and activist, and seeing her inner strength transcend whatever she’s wearing – whether it’s a dreamy, watercolour-print dress by Aje, a feather-adorned silk satin pyjama set by Michael Lo Sordo or a black leather suit by Viktoria & Woods – it’s clear that she doesn’t do anything by halves.

Indeed, just two years ago, in March 2021, Kumar became the first Indian woman to cover Vogue Australia in its 62-year history (not to mention the first ecologist to grace any Vogue cover, ever), appearing on a special digital edition. And though it was a major coup, Kumar certainly isn’t naive to the barriers that still exist. A published academic who completed undergraduate research on human attractiveness in Sydney before attending the MPhil in Modern South Asian Studies program at the University of Oxford and graduating with an MSc in Industrial and Organisational Psychology from University College London, Kumar is also a NIDA-trained presenter, public speaker and advocate, known equally for her modelling portfolio as for her work challenging colourism in the fashion and beauty industries.

Case in point: Kumar’s Instagram features her at Paris Fashion Week, walking in shows for fashion heavyweights such as Jacquemus and appearing in campaigns for brands ranging from Off-White to Swarovski and Lenovo ThinkPad – all interspersed with text posts and statements on everything from ‘nepo babies’ to sustainable fashion. And her 1.2 million followers lap it up. Over the past few years, Kumar has successfully used her social media platforms to continue pushing the need for change in the industry.

“From selecting the same 10 to 15 racial models over and over to racial minority casting trends, such as a preference for dark-skinned Africans over Indigenous or Asian dark-skinned models,” she says, “diversity that’s based on comfortable, agreed dogma is designed to pacify rather than show racial diversity in its truest form.” Instead, believes Kumar, the solution is to continue pushing brands, agencies and companies past what she calls “the first few acts of diversity”. “It’s about striving to push the bar instead of accepting existing standards with complacency,” she explains. “It is important to deconstruct agendas and narratives and question if we are really carrying the right message without ego and transference.”

“It is important to deconstruct agendas and narratives and question if we are really carrying the right message without ego and transference”

Kumar speaks with confidence about the industry, perhaps because her journey has been a gradual one, affording her the time and ability to take stock. While Australia has been home to her family – a family of Indian farmers – since 1859, “It was not until I left Australia that I realised how much discrimination I faced at all levels of my career, from university supervisors to modelling agencies, casting directors and brands,” she says. In interviews, Kumar has recounted memories of how growing up, her mother struggled to find a shade of foundation suitable for her darker skin tone, and how her grandmother advised her to avoid the sun, for fear of her darker skin meaning she might not find a husband and, therefore, risk being denied the accompanying freedom and privilege.

These stories are exacerbated and reinforced by the numerous Australian agencies that initially rejected her. Kumar blames tall poppy syndrome. “In Australia, there is a constant issue of safeguarding one’s position and not letting others shine,” she says. “[But] outside of Australia, ‘tall poppies’ are often celebrated. They have more chances to succeed and be recognised for their work.” True to the phenomenon, it was only after Kumar found success in the UK that she finally gained recognition in Australia – that her voice began to be heard here at home.

It was acknowledging barriers such as these that motivated Kumar to create The Dotted Line, a marketing, business and production company and advisory that helps fashion, luxury and retail brands create campaigns in a mindful, sensitive and conscious way. It recognises early movers, marginalised people and those with great drive who are doing well but need help getting to the next level. “Most people get stuck and are unable to succeed in fashion and media if they don’t get a hand up,” she explains.

The Dotted Line team comprises Kumar and three others: Karan Makol, an advertising and talent management executive; Suri Singh, a brand marketing executive; and Rohit Makol, an investor and tech founder. “We connected over having similar experiences of being a South Asian person in the Western world, growing up in a society feeling like we weren’t good enough,” reflects Kumar. “We have now all become individual powers in our own industry sectors.” Their common goal? To show fashion and beauty brands that diversity is ultimately key to commercial success. “The universe that we all occupy as humans is naturally full of diverse cultural consumers from all backgrounds,” she says. “Consumers want to see themselves, and this naturally increases a brand’s profitability and cultural currency. Fashion is a form of self-expression, and within fashion, visibility is important as it creates belonging and is linked with psychological wellbeing, social acceptance, self-esteem and purchase intention.”

“It is important to deconstruct agendas and narratives and question if we are really carrying the right message without ego and transference”

More specifically, Kumar believes that stricter advertising laws in the future will help brands more easily navigate issues surrounding diversity and inclusion. “Woke activism trends in casting are not the same as striving for actual diversity and equal opportunities,” she says. “Inclusivity is about social belonging, which is a human right and the fabric of harmonious communities and workplaces.”

What’s more, she believes the onus for diversity is currently on editorial teams, creative directors, art directors and casting directors – the front-facing teams that come up with campaigns and messaging – when in reality, the change needs to be systemic in order to be meaningful. “I can confidently say that at present, an entire population of Indians – with over 1.4 billion people, the largest-growing middle class in the world and the highest spenders with discretionary income and owners of real estate of any ethnic minority in the UK, USA, Europe and Australia – go largely unrecognised within the fashion space.”

Kumar holds a similar viewpoint when it comes to sustainability. “Currently, most of fashion sustainability can only be addressed with non-existent government regulation. The public deserve to be educated with real solutions and cutting-edge science,” she says, adding that sustainability and diversity officers also need to be supported in order to prevent burnout arising from growing ‘eco anxiety’. “

At present, the sustainability sector is still dominated by white voices that reinforce Western capitalistic thoughts on sustainability, ignore the impacts on the global South and ignore Eastern and Indigenous philosophy on integrated communities that live with the land and resources.” Everything Kumar says is with intensity and conviction, but it’s actually her optimism for the future that shines through. She’s passionate, not dogmatic; realistic yet never fatalistic. In a word, Kumar is an embodiment of both inspiration and imagination.

“To me, imagination is the starting point of creativity; it’s that single moment in your mind when you think of an idea”

“To me, imagination is the starting point of creativity; it’s that single moment in your mind when you think of an idea,” she says. “And it’s exciting because you can manifest and create it into the real world.” Clearly, Kumar is an icon, though she’s reluctant to be labelled as such. “I believe icons are created by the impact they have on society, the environment and the next generation,” she says. “The icons of the future are people who inspire us through their own sheer self-determination: unapologetic people who can break down decades of old dogma, redefine beauty and change their respective industries while forging a new path forward.”

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