Foreign models flock to China, which embraces a Western vision of beauty

Brandon Waarbroek is a rarity: a foreign male model in China.
Brandon Waarbroek is a rarity: a foreign male model in China. (Skip Studio)
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By Keith B. Richburg
Saturday, December 26, 2009

BEIJING -- China's Next Top Model may well be a blue-eyed Canadian blonde named Nicole.

Nicole Vos, 19, has been modeling in Canada for four years and was doing runway shows for Toronto Fashion Week when "my agency one day just told me that I'm going to China." Now just halfway through her three-month contract in Beijing, Vos has been photographed for catalogues, magazines and commercials.

"I love it here!" Vos gushed, shouting over the blaring house music at Touch, a club at the Westin Beijing Chaoyang hotel, the models' watering hole. "I definitely want to come back!"

Vos isn't alone. Western models, it seems, are everywhere these days in the People's Republic of China: on department store display ads, in catalogues for clothing brands, on billboards, in commercials and on the runways at fashion shows. They are blue-eyed American and Canadian blondes like Vos, sultry Eastern European brunettes and hunky male bodybuilders with Los Angeles tans and six-pack abs selling products from jeans to underwear.

A walk through the Guiyou department store in central Beijing is instructive. On the third and fourth floors, where designer brands from Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou are showcased, there's a display of a blonde modeling over-the-knee boots and red-and-black pumps for Hongke shoes. A pouty brunette advertises Baykal, a local brand of wool products. Even the mannequins have Western features.

It may seem incongruous that a country of 1.3 billion people -- roughly half of them female -- would have to import models. Or that designers and clothing brands would want to use blondes and redheads to market to a nation of black-haired consumers.

But the use of foreign models has been growing in China's fashion industry, as brands jostle to be known as "yangqi," or trendy -- literally "foreign-style" in Mandarin Chinese. The alternative, using only Chinese models, is interpreted as making the brand come off as "tuqi," or countrified.

"It's all relatively new," much like China's fashion industry, said Angelica Cheung, editor of Vogue China.

"It just reflects the growth of the fashion industry. It needs a variety of girls now. If it's a local Chinese brand, they want to show their clothes look good on Westerners, especially brands that want to sell overseas."

Other factors, Cheung said, include the relative lack of professional training among Chinese models. "They are very wooden, or they don't have any experience responding to the camera," she said. The Western models, often with more years of professional training, come with a certain attitude and, in the end, it's all about selling attitude as much as clothes and watches.

Ou Haibin, head of the Yuanjin Modeling Agency in Shenzhen, said 20 to 30 modeling agencies in China use foreigners, and 300 to 500 Western models are here during any given month, almost always on short-term contracts of up to three months.

"My clients feel that their products will look international if they use foreign models," Ou said, and so they are willing to pay the higher fees, which are about a third to a half higher than those for Chinese models.

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