Gisele, Naomi, Liu Wen? Asian Models All the Rage in Fashion World

Companies hiring them driven by greed and exoticism, critics say.

October 14, 2011, 4:59 PM

Oct. 14, 2011 — -- From the top designer shows in New York to ads for the all-American brand J. Crew, a new group of supermodels is taking center stage. Move over, Heidi, Gisele and Naomi, and make way for Du Juan, Shu Pei and rising star Liu Wen.

Wen was a ubiquitous presence at New York Fashion Week this fall and was the most-booked model of color at this year's Mercedes Benz Fashion Week.

She was the first Chinese model to walk a Victoria's Secret runway show, which is usually dominated by blond bombshells.

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Wen, 23, was among a group of models recently featured in a Vogue article heralding the rise of Asian models. The headline -- "Redefining Traditional Concepts of Beauty" -- quickly spawned controversy.

"They said a new crop of Asian models from China, South Korea and Japan is redefining traditional concepts of beauty," said blogger Jen Wang. "That's a little bit like Vogue saying, 'It's 2011 and we finally think Asian women are beautiful.'"

Wang is cynical about the trend and said it is driven not by a new appreciation of Asian beauty, but by a pure profit motive -- the booming buying power of the Chinese consumer.

"I think the fashion industry is starting to take note and starting to put people who represent that market into their pages," she said.

In cosmetics alone, the Asian market is poised to become the world's largest, growing to $85 billion a year.

Estee Lauder recently jumped on the bandwagon, signing Wen as its first Asian "brand ambassador," joining the ranks of Elizabeth Hurley and Gwyneth Paltrow. A native daughter like Wen might unlock the door to China's enormous market.

"I think Estee Lauder should be celebrated for signing someone like Liu Wen to be their first Asian spokes model," said Joe Zee, creative director of Elle magazine. "A modeling contract is a holy grail for any model. To have an Asian face represent that, a whole 100 percent Asian born and bred face represent that, that's amazing."

Liu Wen has come a long way from her home village in China's Hunan Province. After winning a modeling contest, she was discovered by French stylist Joseph Carle.

"When I saw her I thought she's a Chinese Evangelista," said Carle. "She can do so much with such excellence and she can create an intimacy with the readers, too, because the readers want to identify with the girls."

Wen demurred when asked if she thought she had ever been passed over for work because she was Asian, and the barriers loom large. Critics say all-Asian castings -- as in Givenchy's haute couture show last fall -- reek of exoticism. It was the same criticism leveled at Vogue Italia for its so-called "all-black" issue.

"Unfortunately, it plays into the stereotypes that Asians all look alike," Jen Wang said of the Vogue spread. "Because the models did all kind of look alike."

Indeed, British Vogue's recent article about the rise of Asian models misidentified Liu Wen as a different Chinese model.

Joe Zee said this line of criticism was justified.

"There's something to be said about grouping a bunch of Asian models together," Zee said. "I think that it feels almost like a fad or a trend, versus something that just feels like a melting pot of beauty."

Wen thinks the widening len of beauty is more than an "it bag," and added that she doesn't care whether the trend was about diversity or the market.

"I feel the world is smaller, and the fashion world is getting bigger for any girl," she said. "Before you have black girl, white girl. Now you have kind of yellow-skinned girl. So it's Western meets Eastern."

Watch the full story on "Nightline" tonight at 11:35 p.m. ET.

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