Remember our Supermodels of the New Millennium?
Forbes released its annual list of the world’s highest paid models. The line-up hasn’t changed much over the last decade – for the seventh consecutive year Gisele Bundchen was the top earning model, pulling in an outrageous $42m – followed not-so-closely behind by Miranda Kerr, Adriana Lima, Kate Moss and Candice Swanepoel et al, all on comparatively plebian salaries ranging from $3.2 to $7.2.
This year there were two new names that illustrate how rapidly growing markets in China, the Far East and South America are making magazines, campaigns and catwalks more ethnically diverse than ever before.
Joan Smalls, the Puerto Rican model who became the first Latina ambassador for Estée Lauder in 2010, appears at No 8. More notable still is the addition of Chinese supermodel Liu Wen, who, in five years, has risen from an unknown teenager to become the fifth highest-earning model in the world thanks to campaigns with Calvin Klein and Hugo Boss.
It is the first time an Asian model has appeared in the annual Forbes list – but then Liu Wen is used to firsts. The 25-year-old was the first Asian model hired as a face of Estée Lauder, and the first hired as a Victoria’s Secret Angel.
Her career is also notable because it highlights how much the fashion industry is responding to the spending power of China’s luxury consumers.
The daughter of a construction worker, Liu Wen grew up in Hunan province, best known as the birthplace of Chairman Mao and for producing tea, rice and cotton. After winning a modelling contest (she entered because she wanted a computer, the first prize), she moved, aged 18, to Beijing, just as the city was being transformed with luxury malls and new publications, such as Vogue China.
Chinese Model Liu Wen
The following year, she was discovered at a fitting by a casting director, and by 2008 she had won her first major catwalk appearance, for Burberry in Milan. Within a year she had moved to New York, speaking just a few words of English – she taught herself by watching Gossip Girl and comparing Harry Potter books in Chinese and English. Two years later, when American Vogue was charting the rise of the Asian supermodel, Liu Wen played the starring role.
Her rapid rise – along with fellow models Fei Fei Sun and Sui He – is in sync with the emergence of China as the biggest growth market for luxury products. The country’s exploding fashion industry is expected to triple in size to £128 billion by 2020.
Top Model at Fashion Week Fall/Winter 2012-13 – Sui He
Fei Fei Sun Interview and Runway Highlights
Currently half of all global luxury purchases are being made by label-loving shoppers from China, Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia. The power of China’s affluent consumers is apparent at international collections where, in five years, the Chinese sections have swelled exponentially. It’s also why brands such as Fendi and Louis Vuitton have staged fashion extravaganzas in China – the latter even shipped an entire train from Paris to Shanghai to recreate its autumn/winter 2012 fashion show.
British department stores such as Harrods and Selfridges have installed UnionPay terminals -China’s only bank card organisation – in their shops. The Chinese visitor to Britain spends an average of £1,700, three times more than the typical overseas visitor. Bicester Village, the designer outlet centre, is the most visited tourist attraction for Chinese visitors outside London.
British publications are wooing the Chinese, too. Elle has just published its biannual Elle Collections magazine, with a shopping guide in Mandarin. The magazine’s bookings editor, Rosie Bendandi, has closely followed the rise of the Chinese supermodel. “In the past you would have been hard pressed to find just one show using a Chinese girl, but this season 18 oriental girls walked in Milan, and over 30 in Paris.” The huge purchasing power of the Far East, says Bendandi, is responsible for the growth. “It’s the major drive for the change in catwalk and advertising casting. In an effort to reach the Asian audience, the industry is employing girls who the customer can identify with.”
Five years ago, international catwalks were marked in their resolute “whiteness”. According to Women’s Wear Daily , in 2007 every third show in New York used exclusively “white” models. While designers are rushing to discover Asians, it doesn’t mean more diverse runways. Earlier this year, Prada cast a black model for the first time in two decades.
Perhaps the real signifier of the rise of the Chinese supermodel is in the beauty industry. “The beauty world is in love with Asian girls,” says Bendandi.
The Estée Lauder contracts with Liu Wen – and Joan Smalls – are ground-breaking and crucial to the firm, estimated to sell £192 million worth of face creams and cosmetics each year. But China’s fashion and beauty shoppers still need to be wooed by the West, which can only mean more good news for Liu Wen.