Liu Wen and the Changing Face of Beauty

By Chiu-Ti Jansen

Liu Wen on a catwalk for Proenza Schouler during the CFDA/Vogue Americans in China runway show in Beijing in June 2013. Photo courtesy of Vogue China.

NEW YORK - Liu Wen, one of China’s most recognizable faces on international runways, recently became the first Asian model to land on Forbes’ list of the world’s 10 highest paid models. Reportedly having earned $4.3 million in 2012 (through her Chinese manager, Liu declined to comment), Liu is now the world’s No. 5 most bankable model, following the lead of Gisele Bündchen, Miranda Kerr, Adriana Lima and Kate Moss. Nearly all of the Chinese media reports attributed this to China’s rise as the world’s largest luxury market. So, why do you care? Will the splash made by the Chinese supermodels usher in a meaningful shift in how Westerners and Chinese rethink the idea of ideal beauty?

Already, many more young Chinese women and men are pursuing fashion and modeling as their careers. In July this year, a delegation of four models, accompanied by designers and sponsors, traveled from China to New York to compete with 900 models from all over the world at the International Modeling and Talent Association (IMTA) Convention.

Myself with Liu Wen, at the back stage before Jason Wu’s Spring/Summer 2013 collection show. Photo: Haiyin Lin.

Interestingly enough, while Western designers and agents are vying for the models with stereotypical Chinese characteristics: monolid eyes, flat face, low nasal bridge and a less chiseled look, Chinese designers and their compatriots are looking for large eyes with double eyelids, high nasal bones with a peaked angle and more pronounced facial features. Many of China’s netizens asked: why are so many of the Chinese models favored by the Westerners so “ugly”?

Liu Wen, as a New York Times story goes, represented a dual appeal to both the Western and Chinese tastes when Joseph Carle, then a creative director at Marie Claire International, discovered her during a fitting in Beijing in 2007. With her “Asian eyes,” intoxicating dimples (jiuwo, the Chinese phrase for dimples, literally means “wine holes”) and outgoing personality, Liu projects the winsome charm of the girl next door (nicknamed “Little Mosquito” by her fans in China) with bold, confident footsteps. She is the first model of Asian descent to walk the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show. In 2010, she became the first spokesmodel of Asian descent for Estée Lauder.

Liu Wen, getting ready before she walked the runway at the CFDA/Vogue Americans in China show. Photo: Chiu-Ti Jansen.

I have interviewed Liu Wen many times in New York and in China, usually at a moment of frenzy before a runway show. She struck me as incredibly down-to-earth. I have seen her munching on a Chinese steamed bun for a quick bite, wearing no make-up or just sitting on the floor and chatting with a friend.  A self-styled “every girl,” Liu described herself in her Weibo (Chinese Twitter) account this way: “I was an insignificant nobody who stumbled onto the big stage of fashion by accident. I am still an insignificant nobody, carrying so much tender, love and care from you.”

I saw similar humility at the first Phoenix Fashion Awards in Beijing last year, when supermodel Shu Pei told the audience that she was accepting the award “on behalf of all of the Chinese models that were striving to make it on the international stage.”

Shu Pei accepted a fashion award at the inaugural Phoenix Fashion Awards in Beijing last year. Photo: Courtesy of Phoenix Fashion.

In December 2010 when American Vogue featured eight Asian models (Liu being one of them) who were “redefining traditional concepts of beauty” in a lavishly orchestrated spread shot by Steven Meisel, it ignited a heated debate about whether the exercise was merely a token nod to the prowess of their home countries’ economies. One commentator questioned why Vogue lumped together these girls in one photo shoot, using their ethnicity as a common thread, while in fact each one of them told a different story and deserved her own editorial. Then there was a question about whether the use of “traditional concepts of beauty” in this context was a Western-centric reference as if the Asians had not had their own traditions of ideal beauty.

Tang Qiaoyi (left) and Wang Weilin were among the four Chinese models competing at the 2013 International Modeling and Talent Association Convention. Photo: Guan Liming.

One should remember that until a few years ago, contemporary Chinese artists were typically lumped together in group shows that highlighted their common exotic backgrounds. With time, some of them started breaking out, being featured in solo exhibitions where their Chinese origin served only as a passing reference. China will truly redefine beauty when it does not only produce walking human hangers of beautiful clothes, but also produces engaging designs and styles of amazing craftsmanship and a community of critical voices. The ultimate test is not whether China is reshaping the ideal Chinese beauty. The real test is whether China will be also redefining how Westerners think about Western beauty.

Chiu-Ti Jansen is a TV presenter, a publisher and a writer based in New York City with a pulse on China. 

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