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When Du Juan entered a modeling contest in China in
2002, the 5- foot-11 Shanghai beauty wasn't favored to win. She looked too
"Nobody noticed Du Juan. Her look is just plain to most
Chinese people," says Zhang Guannan, an agent at China New Silk Road Model
Agency, which sponsors the annual contest.
An online vote held before the winner was announced,
conducted by Shanghai-based Web site Sina.com, ranked Ms. Du 11th among the 53
models with 811 votes, far behind the most popular model, Hu Jing, who won
23,267 votes. With her stereotypical Chinese looks -- almond- shaped eyes and
porcelain skin -- Ms. Du just didn't seem to stand out.
Still, she won. Ms. Zhang says the judges "believed she
would be accepted by the international fashion world." And they were right.
As New York fashion week gets under way today, no one is
contesting the 20-year-old Ms. Du's marketability. A host of New York
designers, including Oscar de la Renta, Proenza Schouler and Carolina Herrera,
have hired Ms. Du to show off their spring 2007 collections to influential
store buyers and fashion press. In addition to the runway shows in New York,
Milan and Paris this season, she is also appearing in splashy fall magazine ads
for Louis Vuitton, Yves Saint Laurent, Roberto Cavalli and the Gap.
Ms. Du is the face of a paradox in the fashion industry
as it expands its global reach. In China, where the luxury-goods market has
recently exploded, many consumers have come to associate Western fashion brands
with the European and American models -- Caucasian mainly -- who appear in
their ads and in fashion magazines. As a result, "Chinese people tend to like
models with Western-ish looks: wide eyes, high nose and slender figure," says
Su Mang, editor in chief of the Chinese edition of Harper's Bazaar. "The
Western look is rare and different from what we see every day."
That holds true for Chinese fashion companies, too.
"Consumer-goods brands prefer using the Western-looking models to meet the
taste of Chinese consumers," says Gu Lingyun, general manager of Super Model
Agency Co., Ltd., in Beijing.
In Europe and the U.S., by contrast, China, and all
things Chinese, have suddenly become fashionable. "China is a trend," says
David Wolfe, a creative director at the Doneger Group in New York. "We're on
the brink of seeing our fascination with China move mainstream." The buzz is
growing as fashion industry executives see China as not only intriguing and
mysterious to Westerners, but also a center of manufacturing and a promising
Already the world's third largest luxury-goods consumer,
after Japan and the U.S., China is likely to tie Japan as No. 1 in 2015,
accounting for about 29% of luxury-goods sales world-wide, according to
projections by Goldman Sachs.
Ms. Du's big break came last October, when she appeared
on the cover of French Vogue for a special issue on China.
"It was the first time we put an Asian on the cover, and
it was a special Shanghai issue, so I think we sent a message," says Carine
Roitfeld, editor-in-chief of French Vogue. "I think it's very fashionable to
use Asian girls. They are a particular beauty. Their skin is amazing, and they
are very delicate, and they are very graceful."
Ms. Du "is divine, very pretty, an ancient beauty," says
Patrick Demarchelier, the fashion photographer who shot the Vogue cover.
By spring, many fashion designers wanted to cast Ms. Du
in their runway shows. "There's a mystery behind her face," explains Thomas du
Pre de Saint Maur, a spokesman for Yves Saint Laurent, which cast Du Juan in
its March show in Paris. "It recalls an ancient beauty. And at the same time,
it is modern."
The discovery of Ms. Du spread fast. "We are always on
the hunt for the newest, the greatest, the freshest," says Darlys Michaelis,
director of fashion presentation for Neiman Marcus Direct, which cast Ms. Du in
its fall designer catalog this month.
Asian faces had been a rarity on Western runways, in
magazine features and ad campaigns. Earlier, there was Anna Bayle, a Filipina
who reached supermodel status in the 1980s, followed by Kimora Lee, a
mixed-race model (African-American, Korean and Japanese) who was chosen by Karl
Lagerfeld for Chanel's haute couture shows. In the early 1990s, Siberian model
Irina Pantaeva reached the peak of the modeling business, and became the first
consistent Asian face in mainstream American clothing ads from the Gap and
But Chinese models are rarer. "It's completely new
ground for Europeans and Americans to feature a Chinese woman so prominently in
fashion spreads and ads," says Pascal Dangin, who retouches photos for fashion
photographers, and who has worked on several of Ms. Du's ads and editorial
A former ballerina who was told that she was too tall to
dance in China, Ms. Du started modeling in 2002. "I went to a lot of interviews
and sometimes got kicked out," she says. She was posing all day long at the
Shanghai Auto Show just a few months before the Vogue cover appeared last fall.
A year later, she is getting $10,000 to $15,000 a day to appear in
Ms. Du's prospects are better back home, too, now that
she is doing so well in the U.S. and Europe. "A year ago, she was just one of
the many models around," says Angelica Cheung, editorial director of Vogue
China in Shanghai. "Today, if she wants to take jobs in China, there would be
loads of opportunities. It would be nonstop. But with limited time, she goes to
Paris and New York, and Milan, at the moment."