Chinese supermodels have long found themselves adored by international media and ignored in their home country. They’re often derided for having looks that appeal to Western audiences but don’t align with Asian aesthetics. And it’s hard for their personalities to come through on the runway, staring straight as they stride forward with blank faces, where their job is to showcase the clothes, not themselves.
Recently, however, several Chinese models have broken through as personalities in their own right, with their own senses of style and their own fan followings.
Supermodels tend to have strong, expressive facial features often interpreted in Asian culture as lacking femininity. They are said to be “model beautiful” rather than “physically beautiful,” and get much less publicity than traditional celebrities, such as movie stars and singers.
Supermodel Liu Wen has even said of herself, “I don’t think I’m beautiful. If you look in the past, Chinese people have always considered things like big eyes, a pointy nose, or luscious lips beautiful.”
Consequently, fashion brands have typically been more interested in the likes of Fan Bingbing (Louis Vuitton), Tang Wei (Armani), and Jiang Xin (Givenchy).
A major shift in Chinese public perception towards Liu happened in 2015, when she paired up with South Korean singer Choi Siwon for the dating show We Got Married. A member of boy band Super Junior, Choi has a loyal fan base in China, especially among young women, but somehow Liu stole the show.
To many of the show’s fans, Liu’s charms came not only from her physical beauty as a supermodel, but how genuine and humble she was, even showing slight shyness during moments of physical intimacy with Choi. She also has an understated, easy style, wearing simple, comfortable clothes offset with the latest luxury handbags.
Liu Wen now has 20 million followers on her Weibo, not too far behind leading brand ambassadors in China Angelababy (84m), Yang Mi (77m), and Fan Bingbing (60m). In the past three years she has partnered with La Perla, Giorgio Armani, Estee Lauder, Tiffany & Co., and Michael Kors.
Ming Xi (6m Weibo followers) is another supermodel who broke into mainstream celebrity through reality TV, participating in the shows Up Idol and Back to Youth. She has partnered with L’Oreal, MAC, Salvatore Ferragamo, Kenzo, Bloomingdal’s, Michael Kors, Swarovski. However, after falling on the Victoria’s Secret runway this year, she has been criticised for insufficiently focusing on her day job.
Sui He (4m Weibo followers) wore the wings at the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show for seven years straight, making a name for herself both abroad and in China. She is especially popular in her home country because she meets her compatriots’ own beauty standards.While many Victoria’s Secret Angels sport a tan during the show, Sui He has the pale skin coveted by the majority of women in East Asia.
Sui He’s successful showings for Victoria’s Secret has helped give Chinese consumers more confidence to try out Western luxury brands. Despite the criticism regarding the outfit design of Victoria Secret’s Show, especially the ones with Chinese-inspired elements, Sui He’s outfits almost always wow the Chinese audience — her pale skin appearing through the transparent elements of the lingerie are so popular that Chinese fans nickname her “He Xian’gu,” referring to a Chinese mythological figure who is believed to be an immortal.
Less chic than Liu Wen, Sui He is thought to look sweet and approachable, traits that saw her cast in the 2015 film You Are My Sunshine. Her past brand partnerships include Shiseido, Bloomingdale’s, and Banana Republic.
With more Chinese people paying attention to Chinese supermodels’ careers and their place in pop culture, Chinese consumers have also begun to follow their personal styles, not only because of their physical advantage of presenting clothing beautifully, but also because of the simplicity and edginess of their style.
Sharp-tongued Chinese fashion bloggers have long criticized mainstream celebrities who wear too many ill-chosen luxury items. Gogoboi, for instance, once said Dior ambassador Zhao Liying “doesn’t look bad in this (new Dior) dress, she just makes it look like something you can get from Taobao.” The popularity of Chinese supermodels’ personal styles demonstrates Chinese people’s fatigue with flashy, sometimes gaudy luxury clothing.
Supermodels have long been appointed ambassadors of makeup brands, but now that they are being thought of as stylish fashion insiders with spectacular bodies and charming smiles, rather than skinny, unapproachable cloth hangers, there is an opportunity for fashion brands to step in.