THE FASHION BUSINESS thrives on change. New silhouettes, new colours, new trends – embracing what’s next every season – makes fashion one of the most exciting and dynamic fields. In such a fast-changing environment, then, it’s quite surprising that modelling, one of the pillars upon which fashion’s cult of the image is founded, is not as forward thinking as it likes to pretend. If you study the typical female looks that have prevailed since fashion became a multibilliondollar concern of global scope, you’ll notice that the same kind of Caucasian, long-limbed, usually fair girl has been the dominant canon of beauty.
Although every few years a new type of girl comes to embody the look du jour – think of the recent waves of Eastern Europeans or Brazilians taking runways by storm – the overall aesthetic rarely veers from what came before. After all, when even a multiracial country like Brazil can only export Teutonic glamazons such as Gisele Bündchen or Raquel Zimmermann, it’s clear that those standards of beauty are deeply ingrained and not easily challenged.
Some would argue that the absence of diversity on the catwalks is the least of the problems the modelling industry should preoccupy itself with, contending that issues such as underfed – and underage – models are much more pressing. At the same time, however, given the huge influence that fashion has on the collective consciousness of millions of young people – girls in particular – around the world, the homogeneous look promoted by casting agents and designers is at odds with the realities of 21st-century globalisation.
At the spring/summer 2014 shows, after countless surveys showed that most houses only cast a handful of token “ethnic girls” in their shows, a group led by Naomi Campbell, Iman and Bethann Hardison sent petition letters to the fashion councils in New York, London, Milan and Paris, asking them to accept the fact that runways should reflect the multicultural society in which we live.
In the end, though, nothing speaks more loudly to fashion executives than the basic laws of economics, which explains why even though models of African or South Asian origin are still a rare sight in the pages of magazines and at the shows, Asian models, especially those hailing from China, which is poised to overtake the US as the world’s largest luxury market, have been the most successful “new entries” in the rosters of casting agencies in the last few years.
Ju Xiao Wen, Liu Wen, Sun Fei Fei – these are all names that even European or American fashion followers are familiar with, something that would have been unthinkable as recently as five years ago. Just look at the top rankings on Models.com and you’ll see the clout that Asian girls – mainly from China but also from Korea and Japan – have begun to have in the industry, scoring major advertising deals and headlining the top shows in Milan and Paris.
The juggernaut that China has become in terms of spending power obviously plays a role here, which is why it’s not unlikely that when the economies of Africa or South Asia start roaring their engines to rival the powerhouse that East Asia has become, we might see another shift in the industry and the welcoming of yet more waves of “new faces”, a term beloved by the modelling industry.
In the meantime, the fashion world’s obsession with Asians shows no signs of abating. It all started about a decade ago, when a then-unknown from Shanghai, Du Juan, was photographed among a bevy of Chinese girls – and Australian top model Gemma Ward – by lensman Patrick Demarchelier for the first issue of Vogue China. That now-iconic foldout cover – six girls shot against the Shanghai skyline – was a harbinger of things to come, both in the business of fashion and in the way the fashion system was beginning to embrace Asian looks.
A few high-profile campaigns later and a coup as the first model to land the cover of Vogue Paris, styled by then editor-in-chief Carine Roitfeld, and Du Juan, a former ballerina with the prerequisite statuesque body and a pouty mouth reminiscent of a Chinese doll, quickly became the first Chinese supermodel, turning into an international celebrity and hanging out with everyone from Karl Lagerfeld to Hollywood A-listers.
It’s been a whirlwind decade for the young Shanghainese, who is still based in the city and, in spite of her international globe-trotting and worldwide success, is extremely attached to her homeland. She’s deeply aware of the influence she exerts as a model on the many girls – in China and all over the world – who dream of one day emulating her meteoritic rise to the top echelons of the fashion world, and is a far cry from the stereotypical party-hopping, limelightseeking mannequin riding on her looks to become just another tabloid regular.
The beautiful Du Juan, who thanks to her early days as a dancer is blessed with a willowy figure and perfectly toned arms and legs, was recently in Hong Kong to pose for this Prestige Hong Kong cover story. In between takes, she chatted about the rise of Chinese models, the hardships of fashion week and cooking simple dishes at home with her mum.
How does it feel to be the first Asian model to make it big internationally?
I’ve been doing this since 2006 and I’m obviously very proud of what I’ve accomplished.
What’s behind the recent success of Asian models, especially those from China?
There are many models from China now, especially in New York. It used to be very hard to get a visa but now they’ve made it much easier. It’s because many brands are coming to China, doing shows and events. The country is getting stronger and all this attention is good for models from China, who are growing and developing very fast.
Are you friends with some of your fellow models?
Yes. We meet during fashion week and we hang out and are very close. I just got back from an event for Elle China and I gave an award to model and friend Ju Xiao Wen. At the shows now there are more and more Chinese models and it’s almost like a family because we’re all friends. When I first started, it was very difficult because I was modelling alone in all these foreign countries but now there are more of us out there.
You were born and raised in Shanghai and still live there. What do you miss the most about the city when you travel?
Everything. Home is the most comfortable place for me. That’s why I didn’t move to New York in 2006. I would rather fly back and forth, and always come back home. I miss my family and friends, and my mum’s food.
Is there another place you really like?
New York, because it’s very dynamic and you can discover new things every day. Everyone is very free and they accept different cultures very easily.
What’s the biggest perk and the biggest drawback of being a model?
The good thing is that I get to travel and to work with good designers, stylists and photographers. There are no bad things about modelling because I enjoy working with others and having new experiences. The only thing is that sometimes I feel lonely because I have to fly alone, especially during the four fashion weeks, but overall it’s been very good to see different things and to deal with different ways to grow up. It’s helped me to become stronger.
Is there a favourite photographer you like working with?
It’s difficult. Everyone is different. Each photographer has a different style and different teams. What’s exciting is that I never know what tomorrow is going to bring. The team is always different. It’s always new and you don’t know what’s going to happen.
Do you have a memory of a memorable shoot or show you did?
Yes, when Chanel came to Shanghai for the Paris Shanghai collection. It was on the Bund with all the buildings in the background and the models walking against the skyline. It was very Asian and I was proud of that because Shanghai is my city.
Can you tell me more about growing up there and your days as a dancer?
With nine years doing ballet, I learned a lot. In a way, ballet is similar to modelling because you’re on a stage and they’re both a visual language. From ballet I learned how to be persistent and never give up.
Do you still dance, just for fun or to keep fit?
Not really. My job is the best sport [laughs].
What about your recent foray into acting?
I just did it this year. I have not much experience yet and I haven’t thought about being an actress, but maybe in the future, you never know. I like modelling and I want to be a model first, because that’s what I do. Modelling and acting are somehow similar because you work with a production team to create images, but for now I want to focus more on modelling and really be the best at it. A lot of directors approached me with stories but I only want to work with the best teams and the best directors.
Is there a model or an actress you look up to?
Maggie Cheung. We often meet in Beijing for dinner after events and stuff like that because we share the same agent. She’s very sincere. She’s a muse to me but every time when we talk I can feel her sincerity. She also has her own style, which is very unique.
What about your own style?
Relaxed and comfortable, like what I’m wearing now [pointing to her cashmere sweater, yoga-style sweatpants and sneakers]. This is the Du Juan style. I just like to be comfortable.
You must have a favourite designer.
Yes, Alber Elbaz from Lanvin. I love that in the 10 years he’s been at Lanvin, he’s always kept the same beautiful style.
And in terms of jewellery? Are you a fan of jewels?
Yes, there’s this piece from Van Cleef & Arpels, this floral ring that I really like [Frivole Between the Finger Ring]. I love Van Cleef & Arpels because of its history and because the pieces are always elegant and artistic.
What about your personal regime? How do you keep healthy with such a fast-paced job?
It’s better now compared to the past because I got used to it, so it’s more relaxed. I like escaping from fashion and just staying at home, getting some sleep, cooking with my mother and making tea. I don’t have as much pressure as before and since I’m not as famous as an actress I can still go to the market, the movies and do whatever I want without too much trouble.
If you were to give a piece of advice to a girl in China or anywhere in the world who wants to become a model, what would you tell her?
That modelling is actually very hard but if she really wants to do it she has to think about what she has to give up, and learn to be persistent. People think modelling is easy but in order to be successful you have to work hard and give up a lot.
What has been the proudest accomplishment in your career so far?
It was in 2006, the first time I completed all the four fashion weeks. It was exhausting. You don’t even have time to eat between shows, just rushing and having a sandwich in a car, but after that I got ad campaigns with Louis Vuitton, Yves Saint Laurent and then Giorgio Armani. After that season, I felt I’d really made a contribution to the rise of the Chinese model and inspired a lot of Chinese girls to go to overseas and start modelling in a big way on the international stage.
PHOTOGRAPHY / RICHARD RAMOS AT FAST MANAGEMENT
STYLING / DENISE HO
MAKE-UP / CANDY LAW
HAIR / DICKEY BLUE
PRODUCTION AND CASTING / FRANCISCO ANTON-SERRANO AT FAST MANAGEMENT
STYLING ASSISTANT / AMRITA JETHMALANI
PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANTS / CAMILO GERMAIN, GORDON LO AND AH WING
PRODUCTION ASSISTANT / GUM GUM
LOCATION / GRAND DELUXE HARBOURVIEW SUITE AT THE PENINSULA HONG KONG
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