Chinese models in vogue in Western fashion world

KEN MORIYASU, Nikkei staff writer

DALIAN, China — The latest “Top 50 Models” list on features five women from China. This 10% of the list marks a significant, and growing, portion of an industry that is mostly Caucasian.


Sui He

Taylor Swift (R) performs and model Sui He walks the runway


Ming Xi

Sun Fei Fei & Xiao Wen Ju - Diesel Black Gold Fall 2013

Fei Fei Sun

The Chinese models on the list include: Sui He, who in 2011 became the first Asian model to open a Ralph Lauren fashion show; rising star Ming Xi, who has been one of the busiest models during this year’s fashion weeks as she walks for Chanel, Dior, Lanvin and Diane von Furstenberg; and Fei Fei Sun, who has been featured on the cover of Vogue Italia and Elle France.

Fashion shows in Paris, Milan and New York are turning to Chinese models in a bid to attract their compatriots who spend lavishly on high-end items. Chinese are the top consumers of luxury goods by nationality, accounting for 29% of global share, according to consulting firm Bain & Co. Responding to global demand, a modeling school in northeast China is busy training an army of future supermodels.

The next step

Dalian Model Art School, a government-authorized modeling school located in the sunny beach resort of Jinshitan, is about an hour’s drive from the center of Dalian, Liaoning Province.

Visitors to the center are greeted by two motionless, yet smiling, models dressed in evening dresses.

Students of the Dalian Model Art School take to the runway at the Dalian International Fashion Festival.

“They’re training to hold beautiful postures for long times,” Principal Yu Mei said as she came out of the domed building at the center of the campus. A former top model in China, Yu approached in all her 175cm, wearing a red Issey Miyake dress. “Come in, I’ll show you what we do here,” she said, taking this reporter to the main hall, which consists of a huge pool with a catwalk above it.

Once Yu took her seat, loud music began and students in swimwear took to the catwalk. This impromptu fashion show was a class for second-year students. One by one, they proceeded down the catwalk, smiled for Yu at the end, and made way for the next student. After swimwear came cocktail dresses, then casual wear.

Yu watched the students intently, before suddenly applauding one girl. “She’s amazing. She’ll do well,” Yu said, referring to an upcoming competition in Beijing. Yu clapped the whole time the model was on the catwalk.

Why did the principal have such esteem for the girl? Yu gave several reasons: good body balance; so-called small faces; a gorgeous smile; and the ability to express herself on the stage.

The right moves

A small face is not something that can be taught in a modeling school, but that is the harsh reality in the world of fashion.

Aspiring models learn how to stand, walk, sing and dance.

The school has around 300 students, mostly female, aged between 16 and 18. They watch videos of the latest Western fashion shows on a large screen during classes to study trends in color, hairstyle and makeup. This year’s trend is “cool and slightly masculine women,” Yu said. This is necessary knowledge for these students as they prepare themselves for competition.

The students also take classes in liberal arts, English, gymnastics and ballet to prepare for careers as models in outside of China. Extracurricular activities include the giving of bouquets to VIPs at airports and serving as attendants at store openings. These duties are seen as making the models more conscious about being watched and the importance of looking beautiful at all times.

Chinese models are becoming ever more in demand in the industry. The most successful of them, Liu Wen, is estimated to have made $4.3 million in 2013, which would make her the fifth highest-paid model in the world. The New York Times Style Magazine called her “China’s first bona fide supermodel” in a cover story in 2012, which profiled her journey from being a daughter of a construction worker in Hunan Province, to walking the runway for Dior, Chanel and Jean Paul Gaultier.

Students at Dalian Model Art School dream of such success. Recruiters from modeling agencies in Beijing and Shanghai visit the school and sign contracts with top graduates. Some alumni have already appeared in shows by Chanel, Hermes and Gucci.

Those not chosen by agencies often find jobs as flight attendants, staff for foreign-owned hotels or members of Dalian’s popular mounted policewomen unit.