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www.chinaview.cn 2006-05-24 08:46:38

    BEIJING, May 24 -- Former Miss China Du Juan has proved her appeal in her native Shanghai. But how well does her charm translate to the catwalks of New York?

    Not too badly, apparently.

    "I saw her once while out to lunch walking down the street, and every head turned as she floated by," US website Models.com's editorial director Wayne Sterling said in an e-mail message.

    Since appearing with Australian model Gemma Ward on the cover of Vogue China's premiere issue last September, Du has been in constant motion. She has graced Paris and Italian Vogue, too. In Paris and Milan earlier this year, Du sizzled on the catwalk at Marc Jacob's Louis Vuitton show, as well as for Hermes, Yves Saint Laurent, Bottega Veneta and a few others. That led the editors at Style.com Vogue and W Magazine's website to name her as one of autumn's top 10 new faces.

    But Du Juan is more than just the next big Asian model.

    Her success, in many ways, reflects the changing attitude towards Asian beauty in a globalizing world. Buoyed by interest in Asia and movie stars with a growing international presence, China's potential as a land of buyers of luxury goods has made Chinese beauty matter. The daughters of the East, therefore, have an even more prominent role to play in the fashion industry, in which a convergence of taste has been emerging. All this makes Du Juan hot property.

    More proof of the 178-centimetre model's rising status was her appearance in Models.com's top-50 female models' list in April.

    And she's not alone.

    While the concept of beauty in the fashion world doesn't usually heed geopolitical currents, Asians have received more and more exposure in the West in recent years .

    Earlier, one Asian may have been enough for the blue-chip runways of the most prestigious brands but their numbers have quadrupled now. The latest wave also comprises Korean-American Hye Park and Japan's Anne Watanabe, among others.

So why the interest in Asian fashion?

    Interest in the Asian region has grown. China's rise, Japanese economic resurgence and the spreading popularity of Korean pop culture have had attractions: More people want to read about, write about and watch Asia. In the United States, the number of Asian women in the news, commercials and TV shows has risen, even if only slightly.

    Then there's the rise of Asian actresses. Lucy Liu is the most famous Asian-American actress today, with several blockbusters on her resume.

    Riding on more mainstream movies such as "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Memoirs of a Geisha," and the proliferation of Asian film festivals across the world, China-born actresses such as Zhang Ziyi, Gong Li and Maggie Cheung have been propelled into international magazines and endorsements.

    Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li both have appeared in People magazine's 100 most beautiful people list, with Zhang making her third appearance this year.

    The rise of these Chinese actresses has helped fuel a surge of Western interest in Asia, Hong Kong-born New York-based designer Vivienne Tam said.

    Perceptions are changing, says Kyeyoung Park, associate professor of anthropology and Asian-American studies in University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

    "In general people in the United States are more accepting of Asian aesthetics and Asian beauty," she said, although people are quite confused about what exactly being Asian and beautiful means.

    Still, all this has indirectly benefited Asian models.

    "Because of globalization, in particular of Chinese actresses, we have a trend pulling for more and more Chinese models," says Alain Deroche, executive director, publishing, Asia-Pacific for Hachette Filipacchi Media, which licenses several titles in China, including the fashion magazine Elle.

    But this only partly explains the emerging trend. A more important driver is big business. "Fundamentally, the attraction is the market," Vogue China's editorial director Angelica Cheung said.

    Dollar signs

    Models.com's Sterling puts it more bluntly: "The wider acceptance of Asian models comes down to one thing: dollar signs. All of [New York], London, Paris and Milan is buzzing right now about the possibilities of the Asian luxury goods market."

    According to a 2005 Ernst and Young's report, "China: The New Lap of Luxury," China is already the third-largest consumer of luxury goods, accounting for 14 per cent of global sales, behind only Japan (41 per cent) and the United States (17 per cent). The report says that by 2015, Chinese consumers could match the Japanese in influence.

    "We don't think it's mere optimism," Ernst & Young partner Conway Lee said in an e-mail message.

    "First of all, one should take consideration of China's vast population, which is also a huge consumer base of luxury products. Second, one should take consideration of the growth rate of the luxury goods market in China."

    Lee cites estimates, one of which comes from the US Department of Agriculture, to show that by 2020 China's middle class could expand to more than 500 million and that China could equal the size of the entire US middle class if only 8 per cent more of its population could achieve the standard for middle class.

    Market growth predictions are also tantalizing. China's luxury goods market will grow by 20 per cent a year till 2008, then slow down to 10 per cent till 2015.

    So far, many luxury goods firms share the idea that good times are coming. LVMH is expected to add two to four stores a year to its 100 that already operate in China.

    Giorgio Armani intends to set up 20 to 30 stores by 2008, when Saks Fifth Avenue also will open a store in Shanghai.

    Seibu, controlled by Dickson Concepts (International) Limited, is opening a five-floor 140,000-square-foot department store in Chengdu later this year. High-profile tenants will include Louis Vuitton, Dior, Tod's and Michael Kors, whose presence in second-tier cities reflects their confidence in the growing Chinese market.

    All this has meant more work for the Asian models.

    "Before, [they] might not do a show in China, but now they come every year," says Wing Wong, model movement executive at Elite HK China Model Management in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

    More importantly, Chinese models now have a certain cache, as companies strive to appeal to the Chinese market by incorporating more Asian looks in their brands.

    "Many luxury goods brands rapidly open stores in Asia, and it is a natural move for these companies to add Asian faces in their advertising campaigns to fit in with the market need," designer Tam said. "It is part of their business strategy."

    "Brands want Chinese women to represent their values," said Hachette Filipacchi's Deroche. This is already evident in this year's Fashion Week in Europe. Last October, Louis Vuitton's runway featured three Asian models, including Du Juan.

    In 2005, Hye Park was part of advertisement campaigns for Cavalli and D&G, and Du "has already booked some pretty massive campaigns for fall 2006," said Sterling, of Models.com.

    This courtship of Asian and especially Chinese buyers could mean this is only the beginning for Asian-born models with international ambitions.

    Unlike in Japan, Chinese fashion magazine readers respond both to international and local models and celebrities. "Asian models are becoming more popular because they are interesting to Chinese readers, who are also consumers," Deroche said.

    This is not the case in Japan, which partly explains why there haven't been more top international Japanese models, even though Japan accounts for such a large percentage of the worldwide luxury goods market.

    "Japan is very different from China, though they are both Asian, because the Japanese market is very westernized," says Vogue China's Cheung, though she concedes not being an expert on the subject. "My impression from my Japanese colleagues is that the Japanese Vogue readers prefer to see Western faces in the magazine."

    The impact could dramatically affect not only the number of Asian models likely to find work internationally, but also on the look of the Asian models who will succeed there.

    Tellingly, Vogue China has set its eye on finding and developing models with qualities considered good locally and internationally. "We are producing a magazine for the Chinese market, but at the same time, fashion is an international language, so we need to consider models who are appealing to our Chinese readers but have the kind of looks that can carry international fashion trends," Cheung said.

    She cites Du Juan as an example. Unlike previous Chinese models, such as Lu Yan, whom mainlanders found unattractive, Du has a cross-border beauty. "She is considered pretty (not only) by the Chinese, but also to the international fashion community," Cheung said.

    The search for Asian models with transcendent looks is likely to continue as companies become more familiar with the region and as China and the rest of Asia build new wealth.

    "Not many designers know exactly how to court and cultivate this audience, but this awareness has translated into a need for more models representative of that market. And we think it's only going to increase in the coming years," Sterling said.

    Yet while UCLA's Park believes the trend of greater acceptance of Asian aesthetics to be "irreversible," the demand for Asian models could still be dampened.

    China must still fulfil predictions, which could be derailed by an economic downturn. China's publishing regulators said earlier this month that no new foreign magazines, except those on science and technology, would be licensed.

    International fashion magazines have played an important role in facilitating interaction between the world's fashion industry and China. That has been possible through access to information such as Chinese and US or European editions' exchanging materials or co-operating for a photo shoot and also raising the bar of work done in China.

    By using top-level fashion photographers, stylists and supermodels to create original and exclusive shoots and covers, Vogue China has developed a good reputation among the international fashion community, said Vogue China's Cheung, with many top fashion talents wanting to work for the magazine only.

    "This is why Vogue China has such a great influence in terms of promoting Chinese models internationally," she said. "Because of the quality standard we have set, when we use any model in a big way, the international fashion community takes notice."

    Another challenge will be finding the next Du Juan. Chinese models face a language barrier and, far from home, must learn independence quickly.

    And even with about a half-billion women in China, finding the right look isn't easy. "We have a lot of beautiful girls in China, and it is a big country," Cheung said. "The difficulty is in finding those who also appeal to the international fashion community."

    It would also be premature to assume too much from Du's growing popularity. Though its markets can be anywhere, fashion capitals are in New York, Paris and Milan. Ultimately, Asian models' fortunes are tied to Asian brands.

    "I think it's too early to say Asian models will dominate," Cheung said. "I don't think that will happen until Asia develops its own fashion brands and really goes global."

    One designer leading this wave is Tam, whose clothes are sold in the United States by such high-end retailers as Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus.

    Asian models have always been part of Tam's advertising campaigns and catwalks. And Tam's reason for including Asian faces is obvious. "It is my root and culture," she said. "It is who I am."

(Source: China Daily)

Editor: Lu Hui
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