In many ways, this year's competition for Ford Supermodel of the World was like its predecessors. Gorgeous models from around the world gathered in New York City in January for the modeling industry's biggest event. For one week, contestants were mascaraed, moussed and molded into fearless divas on the runway. But this year's winner, 20-year-old Hyoni from South Korea, underlined a change in an industry that has been notoriously slow to embrace diversity. Hyoni, whose real name is Kang Seung-hyun, is the first Asian winner in the 27-year history of the competition. Since her victory, which earned her a $250,000 contract with Ford Models, Kang has walked in nearly 20 shows and shot ads for Benetton and Lacoste. "Fashion is changing," she says. "Many designers know Asian girls can be high-fashion models too."
A few years ago, Kang's chances of winning would have been slim. The clubby world of international fashion rarely called on Asian models, unless there was a geisha theme to a collection. From Twiggy to Claudia Schiffer to Gisele Bündchen, the supermodel archetype has always been skinny, white and blonde. But today, Asian models are starting to change the world's definition of beauty. Last December, part-time model Zhang Zilin beat out 105 other women to become the first Chinese contender to win the Miss World crown since the pageant began in 1951. Rising stars such as Du Juan from China, Korean-American Hye Park and Eugenia Mandzhieva, a Russian of Asian descent, are breaking into the industry, walking runway shows for big names like Dior and Oscar de la Renta, and landing advertising campaigns with Louis Vuitton, Dolce & Gabbana and Moschino.
Asian models have appeared before, but the numbers never reached a critical mass. The ones who shot to fame in the 1980s and '90s, including Filipina Anna Bayle, Korean-African-American Kimora Lee Simmons, Eurasian Devon Aoki and Siberian Irina Pantaeva, were of mixed-race heritage or had extreme features that the industry embraced as exotic. "The fashion world was not ready," says Pantaeva, who pounded the pavement in Paris for two years before being discovered by Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel.
But the industry is ready now. No longer is it just well-heeled Europeans and Americans who are scooping up $800 handbags and $2,000 jackets. Japan and China, the world's second and fourth largest economies, have become forces that luxury brands can no longer afford to ignore. Spending on luxury goods in China is expected to grow 12% a year and total $44 billion in 2016, according to figures from MasterCard. By 2015, China will make up 29% of the global luxury market, putting it on track to overtake Japan as the world's biggest luxury market, according to research from Goldman Sachs. At top fashion houses like LVMH, Asia already contributes a third of total revenue. Luxury-goods purveyors want to cater to Asian tastes on the runway, and more and more have started to use Asian faces to do so.
The face leading the Asian wave is Du, a 21-year-old ballerina from Shanghai. One year after winning Model of the Year at the China Fashion Awards in 2004, Du became the first Asian to grace the cover of French Vogue. Now the Yao Ming of fashion walks an average of 50 runway shows a season and has appeared in advertising campaigns for Louis Vuitton and Yves Saint Laurent. "When Du Juan came out, people sat up and took notice," says Joanne Ooi, creative director of Chinese luxury brand Shanghai Tang and one of the first to recognize Du's potential. "She's a very important de facto ambassador of China."
Du never dreamed of being a model, much less one of the first Asian supermodels. For 10 years, she studied at the Shanghai Dancing School, an élite institution known for producing world-renowned talent like Yuan Yuan Tan, principal ballerina at the San Francisco Ballet. But when Du reached 5 ft. 10 in. (1.78 m), she began to tower over her male partners, and it became unlikely that she would ever succeed as a professional ballerina. Though many Chinese, including her own mother, didn't consider Du particularly beautiful, her parents and teachers suggested she try modeling because she was so tall. She started out with odd jobs for a Hong Kong fashion event in Shanghai, the Shanghai Auto Show and other trade shows that took her to France and Brazil to model traditional Chinese costumes. Most of those irregular gigs paid no more than $250, which meant the 17-year-old had barely enough money to cover her rent and basic living expenses. Fast-forward five years, and the former car-show model is now reeling in $5,000 to $10,000 per runway show, $30,000 to $50,000 a day for catalog work and even more astronomical rates for advertising campaigns.
The success of Asian models like Du is part of a larger movement within the fashion industry to reflect more diversity on runways and in ads. The trend "has reached a critical point," says Bethann Hardison, a black former model who has lobbied to build awareness of the dearth of minorities on runways. The world of high fashion has long been rife with institutionalized stereotyping and racism, based on the increasingly wrong-headed notion that everyone in the world wants to look like Kate Moss. Though black models started to make inroads three decades ago, only a handful of black models today, such as Chanel Iman, Jourdan Dunn and Noemi Lenoir, are regulars on runways. The fashion industry has often cycled through ethnicities, from black models in the 1970s to Brazilian models in the 1990s to Russian and East European models in the past decade. White faces, however, have always been in voguenot surprising, given that most of the decision makers in the industry are white.
Some designers pin the responsibility for racial homogeneity on their casting directors, who are responsible for hiring models. They also blame modeling agencies for not sending more ethnic models to casting calls. But agencies are reluctant to recruit and cultivate ethnic models if there's no demand for them.
Part of the problem comes from Asia, where luxury has traditionally been associated with Western brands and faces. In Singapore, fashion-and-beauty magazines for women featured Western models in 73% of advertisements, according to a 2004 study published in Sex Roles: A Journal of Research. Similar magazines in Taiwan showed Western models in 50% of ads. But people in the industry say things are changing. Since its launch two years ago, Vogue China has featured a balance of Chinese and Western models on its covers. "It's not an issue to think of Western or Chinese models," says Vogue China's editorial director, Angelica Cheung. "Our readers just want somebody who makes a fashion statement."
Now that so many Asian women have the funds to make that statement, they're starting to love the way they look. In 2006, Japanese cosmetic giant Shiseido worried as its hair-care line began falling behind its competitors, and so it took a radical marketing turn. Despite its long history of using Caucasian and Eurasian models, Shiseido executives launched a new advertising campaign featuring top Japanese actresses and models with the slogan "Japanese women are beautiful." The aggressive strategy, complete with an original pop song, helped Shiseido's Tsubaki shampoo move into first place; it racked up $155 million in sales in Japan in its first year.
Other companies are taking similar steps. Shanghai Tang, which sells high-end clothing and accessories based on traditional Chinese culture, has used a balance of Asian and Caucasian models since it was founded in Hong Kong in 1994. But creative director Ooi has decided that henceforth the company should use predominantly Asian models. "Asian women's confidence has risen astronomically in the last 10 years," she says. "We're looking at a huge cultural shift."
That shift has led some Asians to fight backwith words and even lawsagainst the domination of Western beauty in Asia. In October 2007, the cover of Vogue India's inaugural issue featured Australian model Gemma Ward flanked by two Bollywood actresses. The use of a Caucasian model prompted some angry readers to vent their frustrations on Web forums. "The message this cover puts across to readers is quite aristocratic, fair-skinned empowerment," wrote a reader.
Malaysia's government even wants to legislate against what it sees as advertising's subliminal cultural imperialism. In February 2007, former Information Minister Zainuddin Maidin announced a plan to reduce the number of "pan-Asian" or Eurasian faces on television and billboards. The country's two state-run television stations already restrict the number of mixed-race models in commercials. "We have beautiful Chinese, beautiful Malays and Indians. Why not use them?" he said at a press conference. "Why must we use someone who has European features to persuade our people to buy a product?"
Today the shots are increasingly being called by Asians, including top designers Vivienne Tam, Anna Sui, Derek Lam and Phillip Lim. "In the past, when I tried to use Asian models, people thought I was crazy," says Tam, who launched her label in New York City in 1994. Her casting directors were concerned about the market, "but the perception is changing now," she says.
One label that has never shied away from diverse casting is Baby Phat. In February, at its show during New York Fashion Week, more than half of Baby Phat's models were black or Asian. Says company president Kimora Lee Simmons, the Korean-African-American former model: "People say, 'We couldn't find any [ethnic models]. Nonsense. If you're not interested in doing it, then sure, it won't happen."
Powerful modeling agencies are starting to get it. IMG Models, which handles such runway stars as Du, Naomi Campbell, Alek Wek from Sudan, Ujjwala Raut from India and Sonny Zhou from China, readily admits the industry's shortcomings. "It's more challenging to sustain a career when it comes to ethnic models," says IMG senior vice president Ivan Bart. "But we're willing to do it because we should represent women who have a global appeal in various markets." IMG opened an Asia-Pacific office in Hong Kong in 2005 and has since launched fashion weeks in Hong Kong, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.
Homegrown modeling agencies in China are blooming as well. In 2004, Singaporean Web designer Yen Cho quit his job and moved to Shanghai to launch 180 Models, an agency that now represents more than 200 Chinese models. "This industry is in a crazy stage," Cho says. "It's a growing pie, so everyone has a chance." Cho estimates that there are 20 to 30 other agencies in Shanghai alone, most of which opened within the past five years. Says Liu Jianfeng, an instructor in Donghua University's fashion-performance department in Shanghai: "It's just a start. We'll develop more models like Du Juan. It's like Chairman Mao's saying, 'A tiny spark can set the steppes ablaze.'" It's unlikely that Mao Zedong had fashion in mind when he uttered those words, but Liu makes a point: the biggest market for Asian models is open now, and there's no turning back.
During New York Fashion Week, Du spent her third Chinese New Year away from her family. The first two years were lonely celebrations, but this time was different. "There were lots of Chinese models this year, so we all ate dinner together," she says. With the door to China's luxury market swung wide open, it looks as if Du will have plenty of company in the years to come.