Australian Fashion Week 2021: Meet Nitesh Pillai

Introducing the 20-year-old Indian-origin model breaking into the fashion industry

Reading Time: 4 minutes


A little over a year ago, Nitesh Pillai had a big dream on his vision board. Last week, just days before his 20th birthday, he finally made it a reality.

“I gave my first show ever at the Australian Fashion Week. It was such a great experience, I couldn’t have asked for more,” the Indian-origin model tells Indian Link with a grin.

Walking for award-winning brand COMMAS, he made his debut on Tamarama Beach, braving the 10° winter morning in a lightweight silk cotton robe by the luxury swimwear brand.

(In fact, the UNSW law student woke up at 2:30 AM to make it to the runway show’s 4 AM call time – then he promptly headed to class.)

In today’s new media age, he’s one of the lucky few to find their big break online. Nitesh’s modelling journey began through TikTok, where an agent in London came across his videos and put him in touch with her colleagues in Sydney. He was eventually signed to IMG Models.

How does it feel to be managed by the same talent agency as Gisele Bundchen, Bella Hadid, Ashley Graham, and Cody Simpson?

“They’re a big name in the game,” he admits. “I’ve gotten a lot of great opportunities through this. I’m really happy and humbled.”

As a first generation Australian, he remains acutely aware that modelling isn’t a conventional career path. But in his case, that’s half the appeal.

“Growing up as a person of colour, I think we start to see life through its limitations rather than its potential,” he observes. “I see so many beautiful people around me with stunning features, but they look down on themselves because it’s not conventional. I wanted to become a model to be part of a change.”

With his curly hair and darker skin tone, a far cry from the Eurocentric beauty standards that have largely dominated the fashion industry, the model certainly stands out from most of his modelling peers.

“The fashion industry has historically leaned towards one kind of look,” Nitesh confesses.

nitesh pillai
Credit: Pat Supsiri

“But we are beginning to see a shift. There’s a move away from the orientalism that has surrounded portrayals of South Asians as poor or dependent on larger world powers. Even at Fashion Week, there were models from many different backgrounds around me, and this year marked higher Indigenous Australian representation than ever. Of course, there’s still work to be done.”

He recalls attending a casting call for a brand that has built its identity around diversity.

“They have plenty of designs inspired by South Asian and African culture and I was excited to be a part of that. Unfortunately, when I visited their office, I didn’t see that diversity reflected around me.”

It’s an allegation the fashion industry has faced on many occasions, including the time Urban Outfitters came under fire for their Native American-inspired collection or when Gucci sent non-Sikh models down the runway wearing turbans.

According to Nitesh, it proves a clear gap in the market to be filled by both designers and models from different backgrounds to bring their unique perspectives.

One might believe that celebrating uniqueness is a mantra of sorts for the 20-year-old.

“I was the only South Asian student in my whole year back at Marcellin College. I’ve always stood out, but I learned that this can be a power. To anyone concerned about looking different, I’d say to embrace your uniqueness and never shy away from being yourself,” Nitesh tells Indian Link.

Credit: Pat Supsiri

Despite his age, the young model reveals a charming maturity in his outlook to life – something he attributes to his mixed heritage.

“My family is from Malaysia and India and I grew up in a primarily Caucasian area in Sydney. My father is Christian, my mother is Hindu, and I’ve studied Buddhism as well. Through all this, you really get to see and appreciate different points of view,” he smiles.

Now that he can tick the Australian Fashion Week off his vision board, what’s he looking forward to next?

“I’d love to do a show in Milan or Paris. Or I’d love to try my hand at acting!”

Up Close and Personal

Current favourite song? “Grey Area” by Kaytranada

Currently reading? The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success by Deepak Chopra – this is maybe the fifth time now! I’m also reading Meditations by Marcus Aurelius and Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes. I love philosophy, it’s a great way to understand yourself and your place in the world.

Currently watching? The Office.

Brands or designers you’d love to work with? Akira Isogawa, Prada, and Burberry. I’m keen to work with designers in India as well, to be a part of the representation of darker skin tones in fashion there.

Tips for upcoming models? Firstly, believe in yourself even when others doubt you. Secondly, know that you’ve got to do things differently if you don’t want to be average. Learn to enjoy the habits that are good for you like exercise, hydrating, and taking care of yourself. Seek out opportunities and learn to network, it’s so important in this business. And finally, build your presence on social media, but don’t get bogged down by the mean comments and unfair comparisons.

READ ALSO: Contemporising the Kanjivaram sari

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Rhea L Nath
Rhea L Nath is a writer, editor, and content creator based in Sydney. In 2021, she was the winner of the Alan Knight Student Award (NSW Premier's Multicultural Communications Awards)

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