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Casting Chinese Models Is Complicated Business

Why many global fashion brands miss the mark — and therefore miss reaching their full potential in the Chinese market.
He Cong backstage at Dior's Fall/Winter 2019 Haute Couture show | Source: Courtesy
  • Sam Gaskin,
  • Casey Hall

BEIJING, China —  Jing Wen was perhaps the most sought-after Chinese model at the Paris haute couture shows, walking for Dior, Chanel and Alexandre Vauthier earlier this month. Despite her success, and that of compatriots such as Tang He, He Cong and Shuping Li, the number of Chinese models representing global fashion brands has not kept pace with China's growing share of the fashion market.

China is responsible for over a third of luxury sales and over 15 percent of sales in the wider fashion sector. In both instances, it is now the largest market in the world. Yet Chinese models hold only about three percent of the top spots on fashion intelligence consultancy IFDAQ’s databases and only four percent of the top ranks on

Among IFDAQ's rankings, which take into account brand campaigns, fashion shows, magazine covers and influence, there are no Chinese models in the top 50. Fei Fei Sun is ranked 51st, Liu Wen 56th, and Ming Xi 74th. Even with her rising profile, Jing Wen ranks just 152nd. uses different methodologies to rank models, but by no metric do Chinese models even come close to reflecting the proportion of industry sales to Chinese consumers. Zero of the 17 so-called "Legends", just two of 17 "New Supers" (Liu Wen and Fei Fei Sun) and only one of 42 "Industry Icons" (Du Juan) are Chinese.

While the size of the Chinese market would seem to present a compelling case for including more Chinese faces, especially in the midst of a massive industry drive towards greater inclusivity, Chinese audiences can take a view on representation that confounds misguided but well-meaning brand executives.

Jing Wen walking for Chanel Haute Couture Fall/Winter 2019 | Courtesy: Chanel

In some cases, Chinese consumers have actually pushed back against global brands’ efforts to introduce Chinese faces when they aren't in keeping with local followings and aesthetics. Despite her popularity among the masses, Chinese mega-celebrity Angelababy  was deemed too ‘cheap’ by some netizens to be a brand ambassador for Dior. Other Chinese consumers were disappointed with the choice of Ming Xi, who walked for Victoria’s Secret in Shanghai.

Brands might look beyond fashion to understand how to strike the right balance.  Disney's casting of Liu Yifei (also known as Crystal Liu), for instance, in the starring role of the film Mulan was widely praised on the Mainland.

Chinese consumers already see themselves as being part of Western brands.

Context is key, says Dr Jaehee Jung, Professor of Fashion and Apparel Studies at the University of Delaware. “When I did interviews with Chinese young women enrolled in Shanghai University, many mentioned Angelababy as their ideal beauty among other celebrities,” she says. However, she cited research showing that when it comes to choosing a face for certain Western brands, “casting Caucasian models rather than local Chinese models seems to be more appealing to [some] Chinese consumers."

Yu Zheng, a blogger and influencer who has over 9 million followers on his FashionModels Weibo channel, points out that there is often a financial incentive.  “[At the lower end of] the Chinese modelling market, the prices of some European and American models can be lower than that of Asian models, which makes it a more economical choice for some emerging brands – even though I have always encouraged Chinese brands to choose local models.”

While the right Chinese casting can of course be a huge hit, some consumers in China's lower tier cities continue to associate a European campaign face with the European heritage of many luxury brands. This can skew the bigger picture.

IFDAQ's data places American model Grace Elizabeth as the top-performing model in Beijing based on publication performance, influence shares and demand value in the 18 months to July 5, 2019. "Chinese consumers already see themselves as…being part of Western brands," offers

Chen Yu, a model who was born in Yantai, China, and is now represented by State Management in New York and Urbn in Milan says that like many of her peers, she would be glad to see global brands hire more Chinese models.

However, according to Yu Zheng, “it's not just a matter of nationality, but whether the Chinese models they choose will really satisfy Chinese consumers, rather than some stereotype used when choosing a face that doesn't fit the Chinese aesthetic. You know, many of the [Chinese] supermodels who have become popular in foreign high-end fashion circles are not popular with Chinese commercial fashion brands either,” he explains.

Iva Mirbach, Head of Research & Innovation at IFDAQ, ays that while European brands have typically cast more Asian models in response to increased sales in the Asia Pacific region, “ even [when brands] don’t book Asian models, their revenue increased anyway.”

When foreign brands do cast Chinese models, Chinese consumers often prefer them to stay within somewhat narrow bounds of beauty.

While Fenty received plaudits from English language media for leaving the scars of South Sudanese model Aweng Mayen Chuol visible in close ups of the brand's earrings last month, Zara came under fire in China simply for showing Jing Wen's freckles in February. Commenters on Chinese social media said it was "misleading" and "discriminatory" to show Li de-freckled by foundation or Photoshop.

According to some high-profile Chinese fashion industry leaders, the backlash from the latter example can partly be explained by the fact that Zara is a foreign brand.  The implication being that if it were a popular Chinese brand trying to push the boundaries of beauty standards from within, then that may have been received more positively than a brand seemingly imposing them from abroad.

Zara's beauty campaign featuring Jing Wen | Source: Zara

Nevertheless, there is less appetite for diverse kinds of beauty in China, claims Yantai-born model Chen Yu. “When global brands go to China, some of them make a good impression because they take their time to learn about Chinese consumers and what they think,” she says. “They don’t just project their own thoughts on what the market should know.”

Not everyone’s definition of beauty in China is so narrow that it excludes freckles, of course. “We’re a big country and we have a lot of people,” says Jenny You, a former booker for Elite China who founded her own agency, Lacoco, representing foreign models in Beijing in 2016. “Some of them [just] say really stupid things on social media,” she adds, referring to those who were upset about Zara's campaign.

And yet, You acknowledges that commercial realities in China sometimes push brands away from using Chinese models, especially at the lower end of the market. Many domestic brands selling on Taobao, for instance, still prefer to present themselves as European as a proxy for quality since most popular luxury brands are European in origin. It is a way to appear more upmarket than they really are.

There is a disconnect between the type of Chinese beauty favoured by Chinese consumers and the type that is celebrated by the fashion industry abroad.

These “very, very commercial [local] brands still use Caucasian models,” says You. A similar approach has been taken by local brands in Japan, South Korea and other Asian countries.

But the bigger issue seems to be the disconnect between the type of Chinese beauty favoured by Chinese consumers and the type of Chinese beauty that is celebrated by brand executives, photographers and other fashion industry leaders abroad.

Interestingly, in the absence of a big inclusivity movement in China, an appetite for the exotic and the privileging of ‘Western’ beauty has begun to open the door for Uighur and Kazhak models, ethnic minorities from the North and West of China, at least for commercial jobs.

Xinjiang models Na Di and Shereen and actresses Gülnezer Bextiyar and Dilraba Dilmurat are among those who have broken through domestically. Dilmurat has also acted as a brand ambassador for L’Oréal, Mikimoto and Dolce & Gabbana.

Gülnezer Bextiyar for Alexander McQueen | Source: Alexander McQueen

Lynn Lin, who worked for Esee Model Management for six years before striking out on her own, says models from Western China “look mixed, so maybe it’s easy to call them commercial models, with beautiful faces, beautiful eyes.”

Guli Nu'er, a Xinjiang-born influencer who vlogs on Weibo, says clients have often perceived her as mixed race in the past, a misattribution which sometimes works in her favour. "I don't have a strong feeling about it," she says.

Despite this local phenomenon, at the top levels, Chinese models are almost exclusively Han Chinese. “There are fewer models from Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia doing high fashion,” Lin says.

Han Chinese are just one of 56 official ethnic groups in China, though they’re by far the largest, with over 90 percent of Chinese citizens identifying as Han. Ethnic minorities therefore constitute approximately 139 million people, counting groups as diverse as the Zhuang, Hui, Miao, Uyghur Muslims, Tujia, Mongols and Tibetans.

That leaves a discrepancy between foreign brands, who tend to cast more visibly ‘Eastern’ looking Chinese models, and Chinese consumers, who sometimes prefer Chinese models who don't. In some ways, it is the inverse of Western beauty tropes which hold mildly exotic features in high regard.

Chen Yu says He Cong, for example, is “super beautiful” but also “a little bit alien-looking. She does have traditional beautiful eyes — her eye corners go upwards — but her cheekbones are well defined, and traditionally Chinese don’t like such sharply defined cheeks. They like more of an apple-cheeked, rounded cutie.”

Casting Chinese models to satisfy Chinese consumers' complex and sometimes contradictory tastes has become something of a minefield.

The differences between Eastern and Western beauty standards are compounded by an issue the same the world over — that fashion insiders tend to have a different view on beauty than the consuming masses they are supposed to serve.

As a result, casting Chinese models to satisfy Chinese consumers' complex and sometimes contradictory tastes —  while gaining plaudits from Chinese fashion industry insiders and the Asian diaspora in the West —  has become something of a minefield. Meanwhile, there is reason to believe the boundaries of beauty are expanding in China. Thankfully, says Chen Yu,  "within the past three or four years I've seen major changes on social media and even on TV."

Additional reporting by Queennie Yang


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Agenda-setting intelligence, analysis and advice for the global fashion community.
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