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Is This the Time of the Asian Model?

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Are we at the dawning of the Asian model? Are Liu Wen and Shu Pei on their way to Naomi Campbell or Kate Moss's iconic status? Judging from the kind of work the two models are getting, it seems that fashion has found new leading ladies in these Chinese beauties.

Wen is the first Asian face of cosmetics giant Estee Lauder. She also appears in the new Gap ads. Pei, while being the face of Maybelline, also appears in almost every leading magazine this month as the face of Vera Wang. They joined Du Juan as China's best-known model exports.

For its December 2010 issue, U.S. Vogue had a spread featuring eight Asian models, namely, Juan, Tao Okamoto, Lee Hyun, Hyoni Kang, Liu Wen, Bonnie Chen, So Young Kang, and Lily Zhi. It was a move that was, like most things in fashion, met with applause and criticism. There were those who approved of Anna Wintour's effort to be inclusionary in the pages of her magazine, which is almost always completely white-washed, and there were those who viewed the gesture as an act of tokenism, a way to appease those who clamor for diversity. Vogue has featured Asian models in every issue since.

For his spring couture show for Givenchy, Riccardo Tisci, one up majority of the fashion designers by having an all-Asian lineup. Before Tisci, this move was unheard in the international fashion arena where Asian models were limited to one or two at most shows, with the exception of Prada, which had not cast an Asian model for its runway show until recently. Prada is a late adapter when it comes to diversity. It had its first black model only a couple of years ago, in 2008 to be exact, after decades of runway shows.

Asian male models too are on the rise. Louis Vuitton cast its very first Asian model Godfrey Gao for its spring campaigns, following similar castings from Prada, Ermenegildo Zegna and Giorgio Armani. In fact, before everyone jumped on the Asian bandwagon, Giorgio Armani was one of the firsts, if not the first, big-name contemporary designer to appoint an Asian model as the star of his ads. In 2008, Japanese-Chinese actor Takeshi Kaneshiro fronted the Emporio Armani campaigns. Louis Vuitton, Prada, Zegna and Armani all have significant presence in Asia and consider China one of their biggest markets worldwide.

It's hard not to take notice of the Asian fever that's gripping the market. All that's missing is a Vogue Italia All Asian issue similar to their best-selling Black Issue. Is Franca Sozzani working on one?

There have been models of Asian descent in the past. Perhaps the most popular is Filipina Anna Bayle who has been dubbed the first Asian supermodel. Of course, the incomparable China Machado ranks up there too. There's also Tina Chow and Devon Aoki. But never has there been such a resounding Asian force in the international fashion scene as there is now, which begs the questions: Are brands signing up Asian faces to gain a better hold of the growing Chinese consumer market? Is this their way of relating to their new consumers who lapped up luxury goods on a daily basis?

If so, how come Louis Vuitton decided to have Caucasian models in its seemingly 1920s Shanghai-inspired ad campaign for its women's clothes and not three of the eight models Wintour chose to feature in her magazine? Or is Louis Vuitton still banking on Asia's colonial mentality and Asians' aspiration for white skin and blond hair to sell its cheongsam heavy and panda printed collection? Who would sell more Louis Vuitton cheongsams? Wen and Pei or the Mandarin collar garbed trifecta of white models (Freja Beha Erichsen, Kristen McMenamy and Raquel Zimmermann) in Louis Vuitton's campaign?