30 years since the first international appearance of Chinese models
text by Jin Li Lim
22 July 2015 will mark the 30th anniversary of the first time (ever) that fashion models from the People’s Republic of China travelled overseas to walk in a show for a Western designer. Three decades ago, the designer Pierre Cardin brought nine models to Paris to walk in his 1985 couture show, and in so doing, announced the arrival of China’s (still) nascent fashion industry onto the international stage.
Today of course, fast-forward a generation or so from 1985, Chinese models (both men and women) have become a regular sight in global fashion, paralleling the rise also of the inordinate importance of the Chinese fashion market to the fashion industry. Chinese supermodels adorn pages of glossy, authoritative and prestigious publications, walk on the hallowed runways of Paris, London, Milan and New York, and exert significant influence in all aspects of marketing. At the same time, China’s contribution to fashion has evolved beyond mere supply economics as it exerts a greater and greater pre-eminence in the strategic planning of fashion brands and retail conglomerates. Equally, recent years have seen also the emergence of distinctly Chinese designers making their own mark on the fashion world. Clearly, much has changed in the last thirty years.
That Chinese fashion (writ large) today is near unrecognisable from its 1985 iteration has as much to do with economic changes and circumstances as it does with the story of Pierre Cardin’s nine Chinese models. It was Pierre Cardin, after all, who was first into China in 1979 as the latent giant of the Far East roused itself into gradual economic opening-up. Cardin saw immense potential for fashion in China, and he was determined to be first in. March 1979 therefore saw the first ever fashion show by a Western designer in the PRC. This was quickly followed by more Cardin shows—including one in the heart of Zhongnanhai in 1983, and most memorably, one in front of a crowd of 15000 in the Workers’ Stadium in Beijing. At the same time, Cardin had also, since 1979, pushed for the employment of local Chinese models, and the first Chinese ‘modelling team’ (as they were known) was formed in 1980.
Modelling, as a profession, is probably not an easy occupation in the best of circumstances. It was even worse in the 1980s in China as not only did models have to contend with the physical demands of their job, but also immensely negative perceptions from large segments of society who considered such work immoral, if not evidence of Western corruption. Chinese society, only recently out of the isolation of the Cultural Revolution and grappling to deal with the intense socio-political changes that accompanied economic reform, was vey often unfriendly to these young girls who led the way for Chinese modelling as a profession.
Thankfully for posterity, the first Chinese models persisted and their legacy has played a profound role in what has become Chinese fashion. As the first representatives of Chinese fashion (and culture, as Cardin himself believed) to step onto an international stage, the nine Chinese models in Paris in 1985 were not merely embarking on an adventure of a lifetime, but were also announcing China’s re-entry into global cultural consciousness. Long before Olympic Games Beijing, supernormal economic growth, and even Panda Diplomacy, it was nine young Chinese girls who were (literally) carrying the Chinese flag overseas. They were the literal faces of New China, and their achievement is worth remembering. Fashion may have forgotten this moment, but in speaking to two stellar representatives of the latest generation of Chinese models, it seems clear that the legacy of Cardin and the nine young Chinese girls of 1985 is well and truly alive.
Cici Xiang （項偞婧）— 20 years old, exploded onto the international fashion stage in September 2013, walking in shows in New York, London, Milan and Paris in her debut runway season. Today, in as much as she can count (among other things), a Vogue China cover, and an & Other Stories campaign to her list of achievements, she is also—most remarkably—reading for a degree in Art History in London.
Dylan Xue （薛冬琪）— 21 years old, was anointed by Style.com as one of the ‘Top 10 new models of Spring 2015’ and has not turned back since. Dylan has gone on to claim legions of admirers, shooting campaigns for Coach and Alexander Wang, and adorning editorials in major publications.
[Translated from the original Chinese interview]
Jin: Were you aware of the story of Pierre Cardin and the ‘1985 generation’ of Chinese models when you were growing up, or is it something that has been forgotten by most people?
Cici: I had heard something about it, but I didn’t really understand it. When I was growing up, the older generation of my family had little knowledge of the fashion world; I only started to learn more about fashion when I was in junior high when I began to read fashion magazines. Perhaps the majority of younger people have similar stories.
Dylan: I had heard of it actually—a teacher had mentioned it when I was still in school.
J: How much of an influence would you say previous generations of Chinese models have had on you, not only as you were growing up, but also when you were first starting your careers?
C: There is absolutely no doubt about it—they are my role models. They were the ones who told me what modelling was all about, what I needed to do, and what it could offer.
D: I feel that there definitely has been an influence. The fact is that it is only because of the international success of previous generations of Chinese models that new talents from China can have the opportunity for greater recognition in international fashion.
J: When the ‘1985 generation’ was first coming up, it was not easy to be a model in China. Some people thought it was scandalous, or not proper for girls to be using their bodies in such a way. Did you encounter any resistance when you first decided to be a model? Is it easier to be a model in China today? What has changed?
C: Yes—I mean, even though China is increasingly more open, the models that came before me were all bound by traditional perspectives that often saw overexposed or even so-called scantily clad women as indecent. When I first wanted to pursue this career, my father thought I should prioritise my studies first. Today, many people still have certain misconceptions about models, but I also have to say that over time, people have become more able to see the bigger picture, more open-minded, and there certainly more parents who are willing to support their child if she has what it takes to become a model.
D: To be honest, I never did experience such criticisms. My family was very supportive of me becoming a model. Initially, I wanted to be a model simply because it offered me a chance to explore myself. I had done some modelling while still in school in China, but I certainly did not expect to be recognised so soon after arriving in New York. Society in China is more open-minded than before, people are not the same—I don’t think they view models through the same tinted glasses. Instead, I only have the greatest of respect for my fellow models; everyone has gotten to where they are because they have been willing to work hard to fulfil their dreams even though they know that this industry can be a particularly difficult one to succeed in.
J: 20 years from now—perhaps at the 50th anniversary of the ‘1985 Generation—when a later generation of Chinese models looks back at 2015, what do you hope they will say of your generation?
C: I hope they will see us in a similar way to how we view the generations of Chinese models who have preceded us—as positive examples to learn from. I hope also that they will climb even greater heights and expand the influence of Chinese fashion.
D: I think the ‘2015 generation’ will have become another legendary generation by that time—perhaps some magazine will interview these models and ask them to reflect on us.
J: Both of you have achieved so much in a relatively short period of time—what is next in line for you?
C: I hope to keep doing the things that I love.
D: This past year has given me the confidence and inspiration to persevere in the modelling industry. I definitely will continue to work hard and strive to reach the heights of a supermodel one day.
J:在1985 年的中國，要成為一名模特並不容易。當時很多人認為女性利用自己的身體是傷風敗俗，不合體統的一種表現。當你決定當模特的時候，你有受過同樣的壓力和批評嗎？以你的看法，如今模特這個職業會不會比較容易受到社會認可？和1985 年相比，現在發生了什麽變化？
J:想象一下20 年以後，你希望那些後輩新生力量將會如何看待你們的時代“2015 一代”？
J: Cici, as someone who is well versed in Art History, how would you describe current developments in the Chinese fashion industry? Is there a distinctive Chinese identity in fashion these days—or is fashion too international for localised identity?
C: Actually, contemporary Chinese fashion and the new generation of the Chinese art scene are slowly becoming intertwined; people from the fashion world are becoming involved in art, and artists are also appearing in fashion magazines. China has a rich and profoundly deep cultural heritage—perhaps on a scale that is not replicated elsewhere—and so Chinese fashion certainly has its own distinctive elements. But at the same time, because fashion is so globalised, designers increasingly borrow and draw on myriad cultural ideas from across the world, so fashion is not really something you can demarcate with national boundaries.
J: In 1985, when Pierre Cardin was trying to seek approval from the Chinese government to bring the Chinese models to Paris, he told a Minister that: ‘they [the models] are going to France not only to show how beautiful Chinese girls are, but to also display Chinese culture.’ Do you think this is true? Do Chinese models have a responsibility beyond being just a model, but as cultural ambassadors for China as well?
C: I very much agree. I think a good model in the fashion world has a sort of dual, if not ‘win-win,’ role—on the one hand for herself, but also on the other hand, for her country. When a model’s individual career reaches a certain level of success in the industry, that success brings with it legitimate influence within that industry. Symbiotically, this also causes the fashion world to pay more attention to the country where the model has come from, and to pay more attention also to what is distinctive, unique and resonant about that country. Just look at the rise of contemporary Chinese fashion, and not forgetting this year’s Met Gala theme [‘China: Through the Looking Glass’]—these developments owe much to the Chinese who have carved out niches for themselves in fashion, and certainly to Chinese models as well.
J: In the view of an Art Historian, are there other moments, personalities or events in the larger story of Chinese fashion that should be commemorated?
C: To be fair, and on a personal note, my interests tend towards studying pure art, so the only qualification I have to comment on fashion is as an amateur. But from an amateur’s point of view, another historical event worthy of note would be Du Juan’s invitation to the Met Gala all those years ago—yet another first for Chinese models and fashion.
J: Dylan, in 1985, having Chinese models on a runway would have been seen as an unprecedented step by a Western designer. Today, Chinese models like yourself are a regular sight in the world’s fashion capitals, there are Chinese supermodels, Chinese models fronting campaigns (like you) and magazine covers; what do you think is the next frontier for Chinese models?
D: Perhaps it used to be the case that the fashion world (in the West) was not used to Asian models, so when the first few generations of Asian models initially emerged, it might have been refreshingly novel then. But now, Asian models are not so rare in fashion any longer; the challenge now is for Asian models to deal with the demands of staying relevant.
J: You have worked with Western designers and Chinese designers; what do you think are the differences between them, and are there things that they can learn from each other?
D: I feel that although there are obviously differences in the working styles and methods between Western and Asian designers, what they share is a common dedication to their work and the way in which they demand the highest standards—not only of their own craft, but also in the way they want models to fully display their designs. This is something I admire very much.
J: When the ‘1985 Generation’ started out, there were only so few of them; today, there must be thousands, if not more, models in China. In a country of a billion people, how does a model stand out?
D: A model must have unique, distinctive features, so that designers, show directors and editors will remember you and offer you more opportunities—only then will you achieve greater public recognition. Having a good personality is also something of a magic weapon for survival in this industry—after all, this career ultimately comes down to a process of selection, and if you have a good personality, people are more willing to work with you.
J:Dylan，1985 年的西方時尚界裏中國模特走秀是史無前例的；今天，在世界時尚之都見到中國模特是司空見慣的事，也出現了中國超模以及中國模特引領國際舞臺［例如：各種有國際性的brand campaign, endorsement, etc.］並且登上了最出名的時尚雜誌封面。在這樣的趨勢下，你對中國模特未來的發展前景有何看法？
J:在1985 年，中國女模還是非常罕見的；如今在國內已有了成千上萬的模特。在總人口超過13 億的國家裏，你覺得一名模特如何才能出類撥萃呢？