The Wall Street Journal Online
Model's Chinese Looks Were an Instant Hit Everywhere but China
Du Juan's Star Rises at Home After She Wins the West
A Face of Things to Come
By Vanessa O'Connell and Cui Rong, The Wall Street Journal, 963 words
Sep 8, 2006
 Document Text
(c) 2005Dow Jones & Company, Inc.Reproduced with permission of copyright owner.Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.

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 traditionally Chinese.

"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 market.

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 Levi's.

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 shots.

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 catalogs.

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."