Du Juan in editorial from Numero magazine
This past year we have seen the fashion world embrace more Asian models, as China becomes one of the largest consumers of luxury. While the list of Chinese models breaking onto the international fashion scene grows daily, no one can quite match the elegance of Du Juan, China’s first supermodel. I have seen Du Juan many times at events, but had the opportunity to interview her for the first time during New York Fashion Week earlier this year.
I was surprised to find that she was incredibly shy, quiet and fragile (although she loves to eat!). Once she warmed up, she had fun telling me about her close relationship with her parents and love for China (she now spends most of her time back in her native Shanghai). Watching her on the catwalk, you forget about the not-so-glamourous side of her life – the back-to-back shows, constant travelling and appearances. I found interviewing her more enjoyable than Kate Moss – while she doesn’t quite have Moss’ enigma, her strong work ethic, modesty and drive was admirable.
Read on for the interview and quotes that didn’t make it in…
Myself, my friend Sean and Du Juan at a Van Cleef & Arpels event in New York
Du Juan is in the lobby of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in New York. She’s wearing an understated navy sweater and grey trousers, a silver Louis Vuitton scarf the only model-esque thing about her. With her doll-like features, innocent eyes and creamy skin, she is more school girl than high-fashion model.
“I hate wearing make-up when I’m not working,” she says.
The scene is very different to the spread in December’s US Vogue which was like something out of the film Marie Antoinette – eight beautiful women splashed across the pages wearing couture confections in shades of pink, peach and mint matched with spiky punk mohawks. “Redefining the traditional concepts of beauty,” exclaims the headline, as almond-shaped eyes stare out from the glossy pages. It was the first time in the magazine’s history that it featured so many Asian models in one spread and judging from the buzz it received, it’s unlikely to be the last.
While editorials such as the Steven Meisel shoot in Vogue will soon be one of many, there was a time when Asian models barely existed in the fashion sphere.
“I remember my first couture show in 2006 for Chanel,” says China’s first supermodel. “I went backstage and I realised I was the only Asian model. Many of the press were asking me if I was from Japan because they had no idea where I was from. It made me so proud when I told them I was from China. It was such a new thing for them back then,” she says.
It’s the middle of fashion week and instead of rushing between shows like most models, Du is calm. She is not here to walk the catwalk for designers like Marc Jacobs or Phillip Lim. Instead she is making a personal appearance at the opening of Van Cleef & Arpels’ “Set in Style” exhibition before heading home to Shanghai.
“I’m not stepping away from modelling,” she says. “Sometimes I don’t take part in fashion weeks because I may have other projects or appearances. I try to keep it balanced, and prioritize.”
From countless advertising campaigns with high profile names such as H&M, to editorials in magazines ranging from Vogue (US, France and China) to Numero, Du has come a long way from the modelling contest she joined in her native Shanghai at the age of 19.
As a young girl she trained to be a ballet dancer at the Shanghai Dance Academy, but was forced to abandon her dream when she reached the height of 179cm. It was only at the encouragement of her dance teacher and her architect parents that she thought about pursuing modelling. “From the beginning my parents have been supportive of what I have wanted to do, whether it was a dancer or a model. They have always been very open. I am their only child too, which I think helped. When I first took part in a [modelling] competition, I had no idea how to walk the runway. It was my parents who actually taught me how to walk,” she says .
Her trajectory to success was fast and after she won the Ford Supermodel Contest, she booked her first Vogue China cover, since appearing in almost every issue of the magazine. The next step was going global as she landed jobs with fashion’s heavyweights including Roberto Cavalli, Louis Vuitton, Armani and Yves Saint Laurent. At the time, working in glamorous cities such as Paris and Milan was a wake-up call for a young Chinese girl who barely spoke English.
“It was 2006 and I was shooting my first spread for Vogue China and the photographer was Karl Lagerfeld. It was winter but we were wearing summer clothes on the rooftop of a building. It got too cold and everyone moved indoors, but I didn’t know what was going on because I spoke no English. That was probably the hardest part of the job and I wasn’t used to it. You have to get accustomed to certain things and just roll with the punches.”
In the five years since then, Du has learnt many things, including English. However the biggest change she’s witnessed has been the growing importance of China in the fashion industry, as the West becomes fascinated with the country’s culture, history and, thanks due in part to her, its women. This in turn has spurned a trend for luxury brands to use Asian faces that their new customers can relate to.
“China has been a focus around the world right now, which is so different to before. Back in those days, Asian models didn’t exist. Now when you look at the shows you see many Asian faces which makes me happy. All my hard work and determination makes the world realise that there are good models in China,” she says proudly.
“The change of the economy and environment has also meant people’s perception of beauty has changed – not only in China but the rest of the world. It’s different now. Even for me personally, I’m able to accept or acknowledge different types of beauty. Over the years I’ve done so many campaigns and the different styling shows so many different sides of beauty, and what is perceived as beautiful.”
Nowhere does this ring truer than in her native China, where Du has seen the greatest change. “The younger generation of women in China are so much more exposed than I was to international influences in terms of fashion and style. They are able to project different characters now. In the past, beauty in China was just about a pretty face, but now it’s changing. Women find their own style.”
Later that night, we’re at the exhibition opening on the glamorous Upper East Side and Du makes an entrance like a debutante. Wearing a long chic gown by French designer Giambattista Valli and draped in millions of dollars worth of jewels, you suddenly get what all the fuss is about.
As published in the SCMP, April 1, 2011
And the outtakes
On her favourite photographer, Wing Shya:
“Wing and I have a special relationship because we worked together on my first commercial with Shanghai Tang. At the time I described myself as a little bud and it was then that I realised I could blossom into a flower. I was so nervous, and Wing gave me the best advice – he told me to be myself and I have stuck to that since then. We have continued to work together throughout the years.”
On the pressure to stay thin:
“Everyone has a different body type and it really varies. It depends on the person’s frame but being skinny shouldn’t be a benchmark for the industry. In my career I have not seen anyone that is too skinny. Of course there’s a lot of pressure to be thin but that’s something else altogether. I eat as much as I want and it’s never been a problem.”
On her next career move:
“I love photography, I have a lot of photographer friends. It’s something I would love to pursue later down the line. I don’t want to plan my future, whatever happens along the way, I am open to it.”
If she wasn’t a model, she would be…:
“A ballet teacher. I could never be a ballerina so I would love to teach kids one day.”