After 1920 and winning the right to vote, the average woman’s hemline went up a good 6 inches and made way for a host of scantily clad knee-showing flappers. It’s no coincidence just a short decade later, during The Great Depression, (fiscal) conservatism was back in full swing, skirt lengths dropped to the ankle and industrial influence from the war introduced us to zippers. Fashion has always been a yardstick for political trends and national moods.
With so much buzz on Asia these days, and a growing fear of China as a global economic superpower, it makes perfect sense for Ralph Lauren’s Fall 2011 collection to be inspired by 1930’s Shanghai attire and for Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci to create an exquisite presentation influenced by Japanese robot toys and dancer Kazuo Ohno. The trend is clear, and with everyone drinking the Kool-aid, it seems top designers have indirectly named a new It Girl: The Asian Model.
While I couldn’t have been more excited to see Asian faces starring in the last two NYC Fashion Weeks, I also couldn’t help but notice the specifically international profile of these rising supermodels. That is to say, as our culture and history are being mined for creative source material, why are Asian-American female models still relegated to commercial work and high-fashion margins???
Ralph Lauren featured seven Asian models in his runway and had one of them (Sui He) walk first, making her the first Asian face ever to open a RL show. As for Givenchy’s Spring 2011 couture presentation,Riccardo Tisci put together an all-Asian model cast, apparently “pushing boundaries,” as worded by the press. To make the It Girl even more sought after, fashion bible (and historically exclusionary) Vogue Magazine published a two-page spread Asia Minor in their December 2010 issue, recognizing eight rising Asian supermodels in the high-fashion industry: Liu Wen, Tao Okamoto, Fei Fei Sun, Du Juan, Shu-Pei Qin, Hyoni Kang, Lee Hyun Yi, and Lily Zhi. These women have been seen on the runways of Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacbos, Zac Posen, Oscar de la Renta, Catherine Malandrino, Alexander McQueen, Vivienne Westwood, 3.1 Phillip Lim, and Yves St. Laurent…just to name a few. Some of them also landed high-status campaigns from Maybelline Cosmetics to Victoria’s Secret to Vera Wang. As an AA myself, scanning magazine pages for and applauding commercials with non-stereotypical Asian people is something of a pastime, so I was thrilled to see Ms. Wintour making way for my fellow golden children.
What’s interesting is, all of these currently working Asian models were born and raised abroad, and scouted internationally by American modeling agencies as recently as 2008. Now that Vogue has reaffirmed they are here and ready to represent, I can’t help but wonder why go overseas? Where is the Asian-American representation in the high-fashion modeling industry? Why do we always have to outsource?!
Let’s rewind: We know that Asian supermodels aren’t that groundbreaking. There have been a handful of them who graced us with their talent in the past: Anna Bayle (1970s), Irina Pantaeva (1990s) and even past Asian American models such as Marie Helvin (1970s), Tina Chow (1980s) Kimora Lee Simmons and Jenny Shimizu (1990s).
I know, the list is a little skimp considering that it’s 2011. It just goes to show that there has been a noticeable spike in the amount of Asian models being signed to American modeling agencies since 2008, and the influx of their careers by 2010.
When you Google, “Asian Models,” you’ll see high-fashion modeling articles and blogs. When you type, “Asian American Models,” you’ll get articles about the Model Minority (nice one), and a “Top 10 Asian Hotties” list on mademen.com. It seems as though more Asian-American female models are finding a comfortable niche with work in the nude/porn/import modeling scene, playing up to their sex appeal by appearing in magazines like FHM, Playboy, and Maxim. Top names here are Tracy Nova, Natasha Yi, and Tila Tequila. With the import scene specifically, Asian-Americans largely created this subculture, perhaps explaining why the ladies turn out in overwhelming numbers here. Still, exoticizing Asian roots is nothing new in the breadth of American stereotypes (peep Miss Tila holding a samurai sword for Maxim).
There are, of course, exceptions to the rule and a number of notably successful AA models in the fashion industry such as Jenny Shimizu, Jarah Mariano, and Devon Aoki. And yet, in terms of representation, their race has been a distant second to other qualifiers and unique stories. For instance, androgynous icon of the 90s, Jenny Shimizu soared to supermodel fame from her talent in Calvin Klein’s cK1 unisex fragrance campaign. Though she’s Asian-American, her voice was mainly heard through the gay community, making her an edgy fashion shero at that time. Jarah Mariano would most likely be the poster child of having a successful modeling career through an AA lens. She has booked numerous campaigns with Pac Sun, Roxy, Old Navy, Abercrombie and Fitch, and has made leaps for her career by appearing in Victoria’s Secret catalogs and a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. While her achievement is highly regarded as a professional model, I wonder why she has yet to be allowed the versatility, for example, to walk on a runway for Proenza Schouler. Why is Jarah only booking jobs for mall stores…and why is international model Liu Wen stealing her thunder on the actual Victoria’s Secret runway show?!
From racy Asian lingerie models to webcam sex kittens, a theme I am finding for today’s AA models is that there is always some type of irreverence anchoring their work. Even sweet newcomer Levy Tran, an alternative AA model, is rapidly gaining attention for her ink obsession, embalming studies, and quirky untraditional poses. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with being a hottie or having tattoos, in the fashion world, this type of work is afforded less credibility and remains stuck on the periphery. In many ways, high-fashion is about travel — the glamour of moving between unknown and exotic spaces. International Asian models are perhaps seen as more “authentically” exotic (however ironic and offensive that may be), as opposed to Asian-Americans who are sometimes ascribed a relative flatness (however crude and offensive that may be).
So what does this mean for Asian American models, and Asian American women? The current influx of Asian models serves as a prelude to the direction of traditional American concepts of beauty. The real hope is for longevity; that having this “It Girl” title is neither a craze nor flop, paving the way for Asian American ladies to represent. I walk away remaining hopeful that Asian American models will be strutting down the many aisles at the Lincoln Center sooner than later. The time will come when this whole “Model Minority” non-news shall bust, tiger moms will consent for their daughters at Wilhelmena, and Vogue will feature a spread on the rise of Import Tuner Models. We just have to make sure there will be plenty of that Kool-aid to go around.