Nonita Kalra: “The Entire Fashion Business Must Change if We All Need to Survive”

Nonita Kalra: “The Entire Fashion Business Must Change if We All Need to Survive”

Success comes to you if you lead with editorial, says Nonita Kalra former editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar India 

On the last day of June, Harper’s Bazaar India’s editor-in-chief Nonita Kalra sent out on Instagram a screen shot of her editor’s letter in the June-July issue of the magazine. This was the second time Bazaar had produced an edition in pdf format. Titled ‘One World’, Kalra’s note dedicated the issue to her team, even as she talked about the demands confinement places on creativity. “To survive we need imagination,” she wrote. To the curious and somewhat confused followers and readers (about the status of Bazaar India following multiple rumours that it was on the verge of being wrapped up by the India Today Group, its publishing partners in India since 2009), the note held finality. There was no trace of disillusionment or recycled bitterness in Kalra’s words.

Followers sent her fond notes, complimenting her on her work, the respect and regard she has earned over the last two decades as a fashion and luxury writer and editor—a long, 13-year stint as editor of Elle India included. Interestingly, nobody sent out typical farewell thoughts; a majority waited to see what she would take up hereafter.

A couple of days later, a note from the Bazaar publisher found its way to WhatsApp inboxes suggesting that the magazine was on a pause, that “it will not be printed till November for many reasons”. I got the note as a circulating forward as did dozens of others in fashion and media.


I instantly reached out to Kalra for this interview, keen to listen to her thoughts on this supposed decline of fashion magazines. To also express why fewer players in the ring meant our tribe was shrinking and it left me feeling a bit deserted.

For an editor of her experience and acumen, Kalra’s observations matter very muchon the Indian and global fashion industry, the ongoing pressures on fashion magazines as an advertising driven revenue model focused on celebrities, the imminent changes nudged by the pandemic and whether it is time to drop our “whiteness” (as she symbolically calls it).

Admittedly, the one question that whirred most in my head for Kalra was whether the changes in the global-local fashion industry, the trajectory of fashion from being practiced and written about once as a form of art to now as a business, had changed the journalist in her.


A still of Nonita Kalra, when she was editor-in-chief of Elle India.

She agreed instantly too, to the interview. We set up a Zoom chat. Both of us, delightedly enough, wore lipstick. Kalra was as always or most-ways in a black dress. For me, she is fashion media’s Winona Ryder, as I have told her in the past.

Kalra spoke freely, feistily and frankly. In her inimitable style. Edited excerpts.

Did you see this ambiguity, or Bazaar going on pause coming when the pandemic/ lockdown situation took hold? Or, did you have some kind of sense even earlier? 

In March, I would have dismissed Bazaar being put on hold as a ridiculous notion, a silly rumour. We had a wonderful 2019-2020 and closed the year in profit. It is a hard thing to do when you are relying only on vanilla advertising. As you know, the magazine has no website or digital footprint apart from Instagram. But two months into the lockdown, I knew that things were going to change forever. Is this the death of print? The death of fashion magazines? I do not know. But what I know is that the way we consume content has changed forever. How? I don’t think anyone has an answer for that right now.

Did you start preparing your team and yourself in some way should there be a fall or a team retrenchment? 

I did not think it would fall or go on a pause or result in a mass retrenchment. I thought the pandemic would put a pause on physical copies. We were ready to roll out PDF versions of the magazine. In fact, we were already earning some revenue for this new format. But before that, Bazaar had already started to aggressively use social media for storytelling. We ran with weekly digital covers, moving (animated) covers, illustrated covers. We moved on to mini issues, master classes, and IG Live interviews. We profiled Bollywood, created new celebrities, shot fashion over FaceTime; we were literally on beast mode because we wanted to engage with our reader at all times. This was also our way to sensitise ourselves to the New Normal (much as I hate that term). We turned our focus inwards to mine our happiness, with our “the little things that bring you joy” campaign. I don’t think at any point anyone was imagining the future. We went from a 15-day lockdown to another 15-day extension and this carried on. Life felt as if it was on perpetual pause and no one had any idea what the future would hold.


Photo: Instagram/bazaarindia

The March 2020 cover of Harper’s Bazaar India.

Does this in some way fulfill the “end of print magazines” prophecies or is it typical to the fashion glossy with an international title?  

Things have changed a lot. You know this; you have been a part of the business (when you were the editor-in-chief of Marie Claire India). Do you remember when we went to the Fendi headquarters in Rome, in 2008? At that time we were fashion royalty. Our magazines were telling the reader what to wear and when to wear it.  But post that, post the recession, fashion became more democratic. It started rebelling against its inherent “whiteness”. When I use the term, it obviously references Vogue US which is now aiming to be more diverse in its hiring. It also includes what was happening in India where whiteness meant privilege and exclusion. Unfortunately, the industry did not adapt fast enough. Not just magazines but also our designers. Look at the number of big fashion brands shutting down or filing for bankruptcy. The problem was that we did not get past the fact that fashion is more than just consumerism. Fashion is about art, about storytelling, about individuality. Fashion is about your personality, how you represent your country, its craft. Fashion is so many things yet we were trying to keep it uniform, homogenised. The whole business of fashion needs to be relooked at if all of us need to survive. The year 2020 is a year of change. Whether the change is forced on us or is organic, nothing will be the same.

Is there something peculiar in the way international magazines are handled in India? A couple of fashion magazines have shut down in the last decade as have other, non-fashion titles from different publishing houses. 

I think the odds are stacked against you if you are a licensee. The fees are really high. It is difficult to make business sense if your balance sheet already comes with this huge cost. Also let us be honest, in India, the luxury business has never shown the same promise, as say China. And now even more than ever, luxury is not going to be a priority any time soon. The readers of Bazaar were readymade customers of luxury, who wanted the next It bag; they are not shopping for a year and a half.


Actor Aishwarya Rai Bachchan on the cover of Elle India, July 2001.

How did the advertising model of the fashion magazine dependent on celebrity covers work for you? Is it really what both advertisers and readers want? 

This was the one thing that I disliked most about my job. Of course, it is the current advertising model with a majority of advertisers insisting on celebrity covers because they think that’s the only thing the reader wants. But they are wrong. When I was at Elle we created a host of different covers and the response was always good. Over time the market lost confidence though in anything but Bollywood stars. Interestingly, whenever Bazaar did a model cover, or a cover with a different concept, readers responded very well to it. Unfortunately I could not complain too much as it was a very effective revenue stream.

From the time you took over as editor of Elle to the time you quit as editor of Bazaar, how did you change as a fashion journalist? Once fashion was a part of the art movement, Avant-garde photography, reflective realisations through the visual medium. Perhaps it no longer is. Did this democratisation of fashion change the editor in you? 

It has been a huge change. With Elle, we were the only fashion magazine in India at that time. I was completely fearless, to the point of glorious stupidity. You know the kind where you make a mistake and know that you can correct it next month – or repeat it. We would tell the advertiser that they were lucky they were getting to be in the pages of our magazine. If we didn’t have that fearlessness, we wouldn’t have been able to create the base for fashion magazines to have any semblance of journalism. We did style awards, beauty awards, had a blast. I was fearless, foolish, stubborn. When I left Elle I realised I should have developed a business sense, even though I had a great discomfort with certain aspects of it. When I came to Bazaar I was subdued. I was ready to play by the rules, to allow business to enter my journalistic decision-making.  The world had changed and I had been watching. Six months later, my then publisher asked me, “I had heard you were really a feisty girl. What happened to you?” He told me, “If you lose yourself, we lose the reason why we hired you.” He left the company shortly after that but gave me the confidence to find myself again. While I had learnt that you have to pick your battles, I also knew that if you create a team that will partner with you to write the stories you want, you can effect change. On the surface you can appear to be playing safe, but inside you can be creating authentic content. In fact, I was always criticised for being too intellectual, but I chose to take it as a compliment. I also believe that success comes to you if you lead with editorial. It is the only thing that will survive.


A tearsheet from the cover story of Harper’s Bazaar India, November 2018, featuring models.

What do you think about the fashion influencers? Did they really give competition to fashion magazines? 

I am actually grateful for the new breed of fashion influencers. They are evangelists for fashion. The more people talk about fashion the more effective the dissemination of the message. It is wonderful that this conversation is not limited to the pages of a magazine. In fact, fashion influencers truly understand the value of a fashion magazine. I also admire the way they create stories. It is not easy. They do the right thing and make fashion more democratic.

Have fashion magazines published in India done justice to the local fashion and design industry?   

Absolutely. It is an unfair to say that we have not done so. During my time at Elle, ninety five per cent of the time, we put Indian designers on our covers. You did the same with Marie Claire. And I did much of the same with Bazaar, where 70 per cent of the content led with our designers. So I don’t think we have done the fashion industry a disservice. Of course we could have done more but the industry too didn’t step up. Look at how Michael Kors works with the magazines internationally. You have got to put money into the product. You have to participate in the storytelling. The Indian fashion industry doesn’t do enough of that.

What next?

Really, nothing right now. The magazine is on a pause. I am on a pause. I am waiting to see what lies ahead. I am excited about the future. I call it my inner sardarni, but I feel joy for life. The willingness to fail and succeed, it is all there.