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New Chinese Models Are Reshaping Global Runways

Local agencies are signing more models that don’t have classical Han Chinese features with knock-on effects for who gets cast by megabrands in Europe and the US.
Ying Ouyang, represented by Elite Model Management, walks the runway during the Fendi Haute Couture Fall/Winter 23/24 show, July 2023 in Paris, France.
Ying Ouyang walks the runway during the Fendi Haute Couture Fall/Winter 23/24 show in Paris, France in July. (Getty Images)

Key insights

  • China’s closed borders during ‘zero-Covid’ restrictions forced local scouts and casting directors to open opportunities up to a more diverse cast of models.
  • However, the pandemic stunted many models’ career trajectories with fewer pathways from the domestic market to big global clients in Europe and the US.
  • Chinese model representation overseas remains disproportionately low considering China’s proportion of the global population and fashion industry sales.

Seeing fresh-faced Chinese models like Ying Ouyang, Yang Xiru, Wang Canlan, and Lan Shuqi, who walked in the couture shows for Fendi, Valentino and other brands this month, had become a bit of a rarity in Paris. Until this season, there were few models able or willing to navigate the lengthy pandemic travel quarantines which kept China’s borders mostly closed for nearly three years.

“There was a huge traffic jam. Most of the Chinese models were stuck in China for those three years,” said Vincent Lou, a Shanghai-based casting director who just finished working on the Christian Dior repeat show in Shenzhen. The effect was a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, it meant more opportunities for some new faces. Chinese brands that would have shot campaigns abroad stayed in the country, and local magazines were also limited to the local talent pool, allowing a few models to build out their portfolios faster. On the other hand, it also halted models from moving onto the international runways and rising to the next level of their careers.

“There was this kind of joke going around [among models]: ‘I was just a new face a season ago in 2020, and then three years later, am I still a new face or what?” Lou said.

During the more prominent women’s ready-to-wear shows in February, which was the first season that Chinese models were able to travel freely, some international brands were conservative with their castings. The models that grabbed headlines on Chinese social media were established names like Lina Zhang and Liu Wen.

“They use the older models because there’s nobody else [of a certain level] to use,” said Leigh Gow, managing director of Huayi Brothers Fashion Group, who oversees the modelling and talent division. “So they continue to use models that are still famous in the international market from the old times, but definitely they need to find some new fresh faces. The door only opened now so we don’t know [who that currently is].”

It’s a similar story of familiar faces dominating the editorial market. For example, Fei Fei Sun covers the current July edition of W Magazine China, while Qin Shupei was the Vogue China April cover star and Lina Zhang covered the title in July. Du Juan, one of China’s most recognisable faces, allegedly did cover shoots for both T Magazine China and Vogue China in close timing earlier this year, which spilled over into a nasty public spat on social media concerning the editors on both sides.

Du Juan was a trailblazer starting in the mid-2000s, and for many internationally, she is the first Chinese model to carry mainstream name recognition. The next big star to arrive was Liu Wen, and a cohort of girls followed quickly including Qin Shupei, Ming Xi, and He Sui. Shortly after, there was Ju Xiaowen, Lina Zhang, You Tianyi, and He Cong.

Icons are everywhere this year. The March Cosmopolitan China cover was dedicated to 30 years of the Chinese supermodel, selecting five women: Chen Juanhong, Mary Ma, Anna Wang, Emma Pei, and Pan Haowen whose careers span from the 1980s to the present day as the emblematic faces of their eras.

Cosmopolitan China March 2023 edition.

Alex Slavycz, who has been based in China for the past 15 years and is co-founder of creative agency The ASCC World, said locally “there’s definitely a move towards established faces coming back. [By contrast], I don’t see it so much in Korea. They’re still very much obsessed with the hot new girl there. Here, they’re looking for people who have a story [and a] history that have something to say rather than just, you know, a pretty perfect face.”

But it’s not just diversity of age that seems to have gained traction. Because casting directors in China couldn’t fly models in during much of the pandemic, they got more creative with their choices and veered out of classical Han Chinese features. The country officially recognises 55 ethnic minority groups apart from the majority Han, such as Hui, Miao, Uyghur, Yi, Mongols, Tibetans and Zhuang.

“They’re not your typical [so-called] perfect Asian faces we’re used to seeing. There are girls [from China] with big lips, girls with small eyes, dark skin, freckles. There’s just so much more diversity that’s directly related to [the limitations of] Covid-19,” said Slavycz.

However, not all of the new faces translate across international markets. “Gu Xue has an Inner Mongolian look and her face looks quite different to the majority of Chinese. She was quite popular when she was first introduced to the market but then she actually tried the international market but they didn’t really pick up on her. The local market still has its own tastes I guess,” said Lou.

Denise Hu, a Chinese casting director who works with international brands like Bottega Veneta and Gucci, said local clients are more open to unconventional looks than people give them credit for.

“They specifically want models with freckles or different hair colours,” she said. However, she gets requests from clients including western ones to avoid smaller eyes, after a backlash against images from Dior and Mercedes Benz in 2021 for featuring models that Chinese social media users criticised as orientalist.

“Quite a lot of my clients at the moment are trying to avoid having those models because they think it is a stereotype of Asian beauty in European countries.”

However, Hu said it’s more about the entire look and vibe of the model. “It’s the whole energy that you bring up with this brand. There’s a lot of models who have smaller eyes but they’re doing quite well, like Lina [Zhang].”

Among male models, Li Chengyuan and Xu Haoran had their breakout season walking for brands like Dries Van Noten, Givenchy, and Hermès.

On the domestic front at least, there’s even more reason to be hopeful as an up-and-comer. Chinese brands are more inclined to rely on models after a spate of scandals surrounding local celebrities signed to foreign brands — the latest being Cai Xukun, who fronts Prada, Tag Heuer and many more labels.

“All the movie stars or singers or celebrities, they have a lot of problems and some made the brands lose money. So all the brands are thinking about using models more again,” said Gow.

A few big international brands have started signing Chinese athletes as ambassadors in an attempt to mitigate scandals, but they too might be more inclined to go for supermodels over celebrities in the years ahead.

Lately, Gow is trying out a new strategy of signing overseas Chinese talent, such as second-generation members of the diaspora who speak both Mandarin and English. There’s precedent for it such as Estelle Chen who was raised in France and became a Victoria’s Secret face, or Eileen Gu, the Olympic freestyle skier who also has a string of lucrative fashion modelling contracts.

As modelling increasingly turns into a competition for clout and social media followings, Gow believes there is not only a market for them in China, but also internationally as the multicultural aspect could help counteract any rise in political tensions between China and Western countries.

Cory Bautista, the director of New York Model Management, said Chinese and Asian-heritage models who grew up in the west benefitted during the pandemic because of the lack of Chinese nationals available to work.

“We have girls that are Canadian Chinese — one is Ash Foo and Mackenzie Hamilton who is Eurasian — and they flourished because they stayed here [during the pandemic],” Bautista said.

But any Chinese model that makes it on the international stage still has to contend with low levels of representation not just for their own nationality but Asian models overall, in spite of the region’s disproportionately high share of global fashion industry revenues and its large population. In the luxury fashion sector, China alone is predicted to account for 20 percent of global sales by 2027, according to the latest BoF Insights report on the market.

Industry insiders point out that for big global contracts like ambassadorships, brands usually select only one Asian face at most. “That’s kind of unfortunate but it’s nearly guaranteed you can never really have two Asian ambassadors. There can’t be a Korean global ambassador and a Chinese global ambassador [from the same brand] at the same time,” said Slavycz.

These opportunities often mean vying for a spot against Koreans, following a pattern in celebrity ambassadorships. Although Korean celebrities often boast large fan bases in China, the opposite is not frequently true. By choosing a Korean celebrity, the reach can be wider as they may appeal to consumers in Korea, China, and other regions of the world.

“Chinese models sometimes feel like Korean models are taking all the market. With the influence of K-pop and celebrities globally, people seem to really have a preference of Korean culture in recent years,” said Hu.

Further Reading

About the author
Tiffany Ap

Tiffany Ap is Senior Correspondent at The Business of Fashion. She is based in New York and covers marketing and the critical China market.

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