Asha Florida

Yashu Rao, 27, a third-year UF materials science and engineering doctoral student, directs participants at the fashion rehearsal Thursday afternoon for the upcoming Indo-Western Fashion Show Oct. 18 at the Reitz Union Rion Ballroom.

 

Apple-size hoop earrings graze her cheeks, a reptile-print dress flows down to her ankles and a black bindi rests between her dark, groomed eyebrows. 

Appajosula Yashodhara “Yashu” Rao, a 27-year-old UF materials science and engineering doctoral candidate and Asha Florida president, is dressed in the Indo-Western style that she’ll display at the fashion show she’s organizing for Oct. 18 at 7:30 p.m. in the Reitz Union Rion Ballroom. 

“You have these two kind of contrasting fashion industries but then when you mix them together you create this funk,” Rao said. 

Asha Florida, a branch of the international nonprofit Asha for Education, is hosting the volunteer-run show. The organization fundraisers “to catalyze socio-economic change in India through the education of underprivileged children,” according to its website.

The event will include an exclusive “premium 100” reception at 6:30 p.m. for special attendees and the models’ guests. There will be a section in the audience for UF students attending GatorNights to view the production. 

In September, about 60 people strutted across the Reitz Union Amphitheater for a chance to be a model in the upcoming show, but only about 50 will be selected by Rao, who is a model herself. 

Local networking fashion company Sliick helped organize the event. As a Sliick brand ambassador, Rao said when she began her modeling career with the company, members “hyped” her up and created a body-positive environment, which she used for inspiration for the fashion show.   

Sliick CEO Erinesha Hamilton, 26, explained how Sliick’s mission connected with the fashion show’s purpose. The hostility and competition on social media among women with different body types inspired her six years ago to create a brand focused on unity, body-positivity and empowerment. 

“Just being on social media, it was a lot of slim versus thick happening at that time,” Hamilton said. “So I took the first three letters of slim and the second three letters of thick to make Sliick.”

Rao said she experienced a lot of bullying and cultural shame since childhood as a plus-size Indian female. Her family required her to wear long clothes to hide her body, which limited her creativity and ability to explore fashion. 

“Being Indian, the plus-size community gets really really disrespected,” Rao said. “We’re treated not really well.”

With the freedom and confidence Rao acquired with adulthood, she was empowered to defy restrictive cultural standards. She began wearing shorter skirts, exposing her shoulders and blending Indian and Western styles. 

Rao said she hopes the show will celebrate diversity, inclusivity and both cultures’ fashion industries. 

“My ultimate goal as a person is to show that beauty starts just from here,” Rao said pointing to her heart. “It doesn’t matter what you look like.”