By KAREN TEE
The lean, lanky model leaning against a column at looks as though she is staring down at the world from a pedestal. Emma Pei, 21, may not be quite at the pinnacle of success in the modelling world yet - but give it time, and she may well be.
She is one of the hottest Asian models around, in demand at home in China and on international catwalks, including Singapore, where she was in two shows at the Fashion Festival (SFF) last month. Pei leads a brigade of mainland-born bright young things - including Lili Shen, Kiki Kang and Zhang Xu Chao - causing a Chinese revolution on the catwalks. Thanks to these leggy specimens of genetic perfection, Asian models are being looked at with new regard. But it hasn't come without some obstacles.
Apart from the tendency for the West's catwalks and magazines to shun Asian beauties for blue-eyed blondes, there are difficulties closer to home.
Within China, the fashion industry has been tainted by tales of model mismanagement.
``Many agencies simply sign on the girls and then leave them to book jobs for themselves,’’ an insider to the Chinese modelling industry said.
He did not mince his words talking about the scene in China, saying that models are sometimes viewed as 'professional prostitutes' by the Chinese.
But still, countless young girls try their luck because 'they see how glamorous the models are and how much money they can earn'.
Chinese girls may dream of wealth, but wage disparity is one of the big issues for those who do make it out of China.
A top Chinese model can command about US$1,000 (RM3,200) per runway show in China.
In Europe, however, the same model will probably have to settle for about RM900 per show.
They are also sidelined by bookers overseas.
Shen, 20, who has been to Paris and Milan, said candidly: ``When it comes to casting, many designers go through our portfolios very quickly.
``Maybe they don't believe that Chinese models are as good as the European ones.’’
If the accolades that Pei is attracting are any guide, those designers are in for a wake-up call.
The willowy, delicate lass caused a sensation at the SFF. Designers and show organisers alike said she was the ultimate mannequin - polite, obliging and never one to throw a diva-esque tantrum.
Fellow models Shen, Kang and Zhang held their own against other foreign models with their distinctive Asian looks and graceful walk.
Fashion observers say this is no surprise.
After all, China has become the global force to be reckoned with. With the Beijing Olympics coming up in August, all eyes are naturally on China.
``China developing, the Olympics, movies like Memoirs Of A Geisha and Curse Of The Golden Flower, that was the revolution,' said Watson Tan, managing director of local modelling agency Upfront Models.
He said the China effect has spread to include Asian models in general. ``Paris, Milan and New York have requested Asian models from us,’’ he said.
Just a few years back, model Du Juan, now 25, was the only flag bearer for China in the international fashion scene.
The Miss China 2003 had her big break when she made the cover of the debut issue of Vogue China in September 2005. This catapulted her into the international runway scene and into the pages of foreign magazines like French Vogue.
Du has also appeared in print ads for fashion labels Benetton, Gap and Louis Vuitton.
Then last year, Pei grabbed the limelight, opening the Japanese-inspired Christian Dior spring haute couture show in Paris.
``I guess I stood out because I was a new face abroad and there were very few Asian models at casting sessions,’’ Pei said.
It also helps that overseas-based Asian designers who have made a name for themselves, like Anna Sui, Phillip Lim and Izumi Ogino of Anteprima, have been very supportive of Asian models.
Spotted in their shows are a who's who of the best that Asia has to offer, including Pei and Du; Japanese model Ai Tominaga and Koreans Hye Park and Han Jin.
It seems as if China has turned into one huge model-making factory to feed the demand for Chinese models.
There are more than 100 universities in China offering modelling degrees, said a source in China.
Besides the expected grooming, fitness and catwalking classes, students have to attend art and dance classes as well.
``Compared to models from other countries, these Chinese models are machines,’’ he said.
``These model production houses churn out model after model who are so beautiful and who float on stage.’’
Model Jerry Fu, 24, is one product of this system.
``Taking all those lessons in art and dance has helped me learn to express myself with just my face and eyes,’’ he said.
``This type of non-verbal communication is actually quite typically Chinese,’’ he added.
However, models - sometimes recruited from villages - are usually young teens aged 14 to 16 and so shy that nothing can be taken for granted.
``They have to learn to control their fingers and to look people in the eye,’’he said.
But in spite of all this training and preparation, the modelling industry is a tough nut to crack.
It can be difficult for Chinese models to get themselves booked for magazine editorials and ad campaigns, for example. However, this is sometimes a matter of logistics.
The creative director of Milan-based fashion label Anteprima, Izumi Ogino, explained that Asian models do not always stay in European cities long enough to lock down print jobs.
``If the client has to fly the model in from China, then they would rather not hire her,’’ she said.
But the rise of China is proving an incentive for designers to include Asian faces in shows.
Tan of Upfront Models agrees their increasing presence is in part a 'business-motivated decision'.
Ogino is realistic. She said: ``Yes, everyone likes Asian models. Asia is such an important market, so everybody likes to use Asian girls in their shows.’’
Tan noted: ``Chinese models add a touch of spice to runway shows with their distinctive looks. They are the pinch of salt and pepper. That's why you can't have shows with 100 per cent Chinese or Asian models.’’
But will there ever come a day when designers use a Chinese model not just for the sake of having that token exotic face?
Tan said: ``A lot of fashion brands are quite tired of the sick-looking European look and want to use somebody different. ‘’
'This is the moment Asian girls and boys should try their luck.'
Indeed, Chinese fashion designer Qiu Hao said: ``Being a supermodel like Kate Moss is not about how you look or walk but more about your personality.
``Young people in China are just learning how to express themselves and to develop their individual personalities. It may take time, but one day there will be a Chinese supermodel.’’
China’s next top model
Watching Emma Pei at work is a wonder.
She is perched on a tiny ledge while leaning against a giant wall column in spindly stilettos and a long flowing gown by London-based Singapore designer Ashley Isham.
There is barely any room to move but as the photographer snaps away, she arches her back, angles her arms and contorts her body to give him a different pose with each shutter click.
Did we mention that it is an unbelievably sweltering Sunday morning and Pei, 21, has not even had breakfast yet?
But she utters not a word of complaint as she keeps it cool for the camera.
This upbeat attitude is why the Anhui native has been able to advance so quickly up the modelling hierarchy.
In less than a year and a half since her international debut at Christian Dior's haute couture show in Paris last January, she has had many designers singing her praises.
'She's very cool. She is quite different from other Asian models. Sometimes, Asian faces are not strong enough but Emma is powerful looking,' Izumi Ogino, creative director of Anteprima, said.
Pei, who looks as if she was born ready to strut down the runway, actually began modelling on a whim.
``I decided I wanted to be a model at 14 because I thought I was tall enough for the job,’’ said the 1.8m-tall model with a laugh.
``So my parents allowed me to take part in a modelling competition, where I took the second place and won the Miss Photogenic award.’’
But she became a professional model only three years later, when she completed secondary school in 2006.
For now, she is enjoying being at the top of her game.
``Everybody has been very helpful to me. The designers and photographers I've met have all made this a positive experience for me,’’ she said.
She intends to stay on this ride for as long as she can. But when it ends, Pei knows exactly what she wants to do: ``I just bought an apartment in Shanghai and I realised I had a lot of fun decorating it. ``If I wasn't a model, I'd do what I am most interested in - interior design.’’
Girl next door
If you saw Kiki Kang on the runway you would probably think to yourself: ``Isn't she such a sweet, approachable girl-next-door?’’ You would be absolutely right, too.
In person, the 18-year-old from Sichuan province in western China is delightfully chatty and bubbly.
``I was ugly as a kid,’’ she told Urban matter-of-factly.
``I was too tall and awkward.’’
Undaunted, Kang - whose full name is Kang Qian Wen - registered in a modelling school in Dalian when she was 15.
She made the decision to try her hand at modelling because she wanted to help support her parents. She graduated from the programme about a year ago and has been modelling since.
If her candid thoughts on her younger self are to be believed, then she must have blossomed while being put through the rigours of modelling school.
Indeed, designer Karl Lagerfeld picked her to walk for his Fendi fall/winter 2007 runway show held at the Great Wall of China last October.
It was the first time in China's history that a fashion show was held on the Great Wall.
``I kept telling myself to walk carefully. It was so cold and I was wearing a tiny dress and high heels,’’ Kang recalled.
She made it to the end of the runway and back safely.
Today, the 1.8m-tall model, who looks like a cross between Shu Qi and Zhang Ziyi, still registers wonder that she has been able to carve out a niche for herself in the industry.
``It was not easy getting jobs initially because my image is neither fashionable nor am I very pretty,’’ she said.
She was also China's representative in this year's Elite Model Look competition.
She did not win the contest - the crown went to Jennifer Messelier of France - but with her shining personality and bright smile, she is already a winner in our eyes.
If you subscribed to the classical Chinese ideal of beauty, then you would probably find Lili Shen ugly.
To the Chinese, big round eyes, a button nose and rosebud-shaped lips are beautiful.
Shen, with her narrow slanting eyes, prominent nose bridge and luscious pouty lips, is the exact antithesis of this ideal.
But luckily for her, and the rest of the world, the definition of beauty is no longer restricted to such strict boundaries.
Designer Giorgio Armani reportedly told her: ``You are the most beautiful woman in the world’’, after she walked in one of his shows.
Since the 20-year-old began modelling about a year ago after winning one of those ubiquitous modelling competitions in China, she has already travelled to Milan and Paris twice.
Besides walking for Giorgio Armani and Emporio Armani, she has also appeared on the runway for Vivienne Westwood, Martin Margiela and Gianfranco Ferre.
Cynics may argue that she has been well-received in Europe because her looks are what Westerners consider to be exotic Asian. And the 1.8m-tall model does not mind playing up her unconventional appearance to her advantage. ``Fierce is fashion,’’ she says in conversational English.
``On stage I am cool. I am different offstage but I don't like to talk about that,’’ she says with a coy smile.
The Shanghai native is going places in her home country too.
She commands about US$1,000 for a runway show in China, about triple her rate for a similar runway show in Singapore.
Singapore saw him first. And one day, fashionistas here may recount the day they saw the guy who went on to become China's first male supermodel.
Jerry Fu did his first overseas posting when he took part in the Singapore Fashion Festival.
The 24-year-old, who hails from Zhejiang province in eastern China, was in nine shows including Robinsons and Tangs'.
He was part of a line-up of models from the mainland who turned heads with their striking looks and cool attitude.
The world has not yet seen a Chinese male supermodel, but the talk is that this may change as he makes his rounds on the international circuit.
The 1.87m-tall model with razor-sharp cheekbones has that sort of effortless, commanding presence on the runway that other models spend years perfecting.
Maybe it is his piercing stare, or those unforgettable cheekbones, but once he's walking, the audience stops and stares.
He began modelling at 21 while he was studying at the Hainan Technical Institute.
The double major in fashion design and modelling decided to focus on the latter as he 'didn't do too well' in fashion design.
Don't be too quick to label him as a cop-out though.
``People think modelling seems simple, you just have to look good while walking,’’ says Fu, who is now based in Beijing.
``But you have to convey the designer's intentions. On the runway, you can't talk. Instead, you have to express your emotions through your face and eyes.’’
And to learn how to communicate wordlessly, he took dance and art classes at school besides the expected fitness and grooming lessons. His efforts have paid off. He is already a well-known face in China, where he has walked for Dior Homme, Dunhill, Givenchy and Gucci. He made waves here with his ability to pull off kitschy chic and high-fashion glamour with equal ease. He leaves for Paris, Milan and New York in May. – Straits Times/ANN News Network