Chinese Models Break Barriers in Beauty and Business-------
“Sometimes a Westerner will say to channel the thirties or forties during a photo shoot,” says New York-based model Xiao Wen Ju. “I want to tell them what China was up to then…it would terrify them!” She’s referring, of course, to the violent upheaval of a 3,000-year-old dynastic system, civil war, Japanese aggression, and Communist rule that characterized much of China’s past century.
Modeling—and fashion at large—are relatively new phenomena in modern China. It wasn’t even until 1979 that the country saw its first-ever fashion show when Pierre Cardin presented twelve French models to a bureaucratic, Mao-suit-clad crowd at Beijing’s Cultural Palace of Minorities. Today, roughly thirty-five years later, the greater China region has grown to become the world’s second-largest luxury goods market and boasts a ferocious appetite that’s largely dictating the terms of a $300 billion industry.
In the last decade, however, one contingent of girls—excuse me, women—has inadvertently become de facto cultural ambassadresses who are softly wielding their influence in meaningful ways. They are the industry’s leading Chinese models, including Du Juan, Liu Wen, Xiao Wen Ju, Xi Mengyao (or Ming Xi), Sui He, Wang Xiao, Fei Fei Sun, and Shu Pei Qin, among others, and they are introducing new notions of beauty back home in the East while simultaneously breaking racial stereotypes in the West.
It was the trailblazing Shanghai beauty Du Juan who paved the way. Following her big break—being featured on Vogue China and Paris Vogue covers in the fall of 2005—she participated in the four big fashion weeks of New York, London, Milan, and Paris. “I remember being the only Asian model at Chanel’s Spring 2006 Couture show,” she recounts. “So many backstage photographers would ask me if I was from Japan or Korea. When I would tell them that I was from China, I felt so proud.”
Though she is the epitome of what constitutes classic, conventional beauty in mainland China—she has wide eyes, a high nose bridge, and petite lips—Du Juan enabled those who followed to successfully fill an industry void at a time when Eastern faces were hardly choice. “There were only two or three of us Asian models back then,” she explains. “But the competition was still intense because the shows didn’t want Eastern faces, and if they did, they only wanted one.”
Since then, the number of Asian models has almost doubled from 5.4 percent to 10.1 percent from 2008 to 2013, according to Jezebel’s New York Fashion Week racial diversity report—Givenchy showed its Spring 2011 Couture collection in Paris on an all-Asian cast. Other brands, like Alexander McQueen, Fendi, Lanvin, Louis Vuitton, and Valentino, have even taken measures to stage elaborate runway productions (similar to Mr. Cardin’s) in Beijing or Shanghai.
Chinese models have also been placed in barrier-breaking campaigns in the West. The Hunan-born model Liu Wen, for example, was the first Chinese model cast for international beauty brand Estée Lauder and as an alluring Victoria’s Secret Angel. “I want people to gain a deeper understanding toward Chinese models and not just think that we are only suited to wear red,” she says. “Even a lot of Chinese people will think that we are demure, so I hope to spread a more empowering image of Asian beauty that is characterized by strength and personality.”
For model Xiao Wen Ju, her unconventional looks made for a rocky start to modeling. “Girls love to look at themselves in the mirror, right? But every time I would look at myself, I would just think that I looked so unattractive,” she says. “When I first began modeling outside of China, people would ask me, ‘How can you be so pretty?’ I was shocked.”
It was only then that she stopped using double-stick tape for her eyelids and exaggerating her makeup to make her eyes look bigger (both are requisites for go-sees in mainland China), and the industry and fans alike responded in kind. “I was so happy when I saw Weibo and Instagram—people in China were talking about me, like, ‘Xiao is so good, she was so brave to be herself.’ Before I came [to New York], I wanted to change who I was, but now I really love it.”
Other bold statements, like Fei Fei Sun’s January 2013 Vogue Italia cover, shot by photographer Steven Meisel; Ming Xi’s buoyant energy in an SS’14 Diesel campaign captured by Inez & Vinoodh; or Sui He as a fierce face for Shiseido, shot by Nick Knight, have helped move the diversity needle, but there’s still a long way to go. VFiles’ Model Files series recently spoofed the growing demand for Asians in modeling by creating a fictitious all-Asian modeling agency called The Asiancy, which ultimately drew attention to the industry’s overwhelming whiteness.
“There certainly are many more Asian women on the runways and rosters of modeling agencies than before,” says veteran casting director Jennifer Starr, who gave both Wang Xiao and Sui He their breaks with CK One and Ralph Lauren, respectively, in 2011. “There’s even an Asian woman representing a major [Western] cosmetics brand. Yes, things are changing. We need to applaud that change, educate people on the need to continue in that direction, and to make the pages of our magazines and our runways as culturally diverse as the streets of our global cities.”