20080316-fendigw2qf2 shopdair.jpg
Fendi fashion show at the Great Wall
According to Bloomberg: An aspirational middle class, combined with a boom in e-commerce, has turned China into the world’s biggest fashion market, overtaking the U.S. in 2019. Greater China accounts for a fifth of Japanese retail giant Uniqlo’s global revenue and the company’s sales in the region rose almost 27 percent in the 2017-2018 fiscal year to more than $4 billion. Most of China’s purchases are fast fashion — mass produced, cheap, short-lived garments. [Source: Bloomberg News, October 19, 2020]

In the Mao era the whole idea of fashion was frowned upon. The fashion industry in China began in 1983, when women at a textile factory in Shanghai put on their favorite clothes and staged an amateur fashion show. A local garment maker was impressed and took them to a sales exhibit in Beijing, where a special private showing was staged for Communist officials. They liked what they saw and from then on gave tacit approval to fashion and modeling.

China’s fashion market was valued at around $300 billion in 2015, more than five-fold increase from 2005. Chinese women are influenced by French, Italian and American fashions and styles they see in magazines and newspapers. They have become more fashion conscious as more fashions have become available and people have more money to spend on them. Because women can’t afford as many clothes and women in Japan, Europe and the United States, accessories are important

Influential people in Chinese fashion include the stylist Zing, chief editor of Chinese Bazaar Su Mang and chief editor of iLook Hong Huang. “Fashion China”, a show on Guangxi TV which features highlights from fashion shows around the world, consistently ranks as one of the top 5 shows nationally in China. The Government welcomes international glamour, symbolized by Fendi's fashion catwalk on the Great Wall in October 2007.

Newsstands are filled with fashion magazines. Madame Figaro is one of China’s leading fashion magazines. There are glossy Chinese versions of Elle and Mademoiselle. The Chinese edition of Vogue was launched in August 2005. The first run of 300,000 copies sold out in five days, making China the second largest market for Vogue after the United States, where circulation is 1.2 million. Among those in attendance at the launch party was Mao’s daughter Li Min.

In the early 2000s, Beijing and Shanghai began hosting seasonal fashion shows rather than yearly ones and models began wearing see-through tops that exposed their breasts. These days many cities and shopping malls host fashion shows with their own models. More than 500 journalists cover fashion and big events are covered on the evening news.

“Communist cool” is a term that appeared in the mid 2000s to describe fashions and street clothes inspired by the Cultural Revolution, social realism and the Mao era that included running suits designed for “model workers” and T-shirts with heroic women marching off to factories. One designer who produced T-shirts with images inspired by social realism posters told Reuters the aim of the fashions was to capture contemporary China as a “hilarious mix of kitsch and modern wonder”.

Peng Liyuan — Xi Jinping’s Wife — Sparks a Fashion Frenzy in China

Peng Liyuan in Russia

Peng Liyuan is the wife of Chinese leader, Xi Jinping. In March 2013, shortly after Xi Jinping formally became president, Gillian Wong of Associated Press wrote: New Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan's choice of attire has sparked a flurry of excitement over an independent homegrown label, an unusual phenomenon in a country where political figures are more frumpy than fashionable and wives usually shy away from the spotlight. Images of Peng, 50, stepping off a plane arm-in-arm with her husband President Xi Jinping in Moscow have circulated widely on the Chinese Internet, prompting praise of her style as understated and sophisticated. Eagle-eyed fashion-savvy bloggers identified the leather handbag she carried and smart, double-breasted black trench coat she wore as items designed by Guangzhou-based label Exception. The brand has been described as one of China's leading independent labels whose simple but unique designs stand out in an industry dominated by Western copycats. [Source: Gillian Wong, Associated Press, March 25, 2013 ]

"First ladies are ambassadors of the culture and the design and of the soft power of a country. I'm glad that she chose to wear Chinese and take up that role of spokesperson for Chinese design here," said Hong Huang, publisher of the fashion magazine iLook and one of the most popular microbloggers in China. Hong said it was too early to tell if Peng's high-profile public appearance signaled that she would be playing a more significant role in Chinese politics than her predecessors, who — unlike many of their Western counterparts — have been largely unseen. "It's good that finally China has a very pretty, very beautiful first lady and she can hopefully speak up for a lot more and complement whatever Xi wants to say, in a way, like all first ladies do."

“Online retailers have sought to associate their products with what news portals are terming the "Peng Liyuan style," with searches for those key words resulting in lists of handbags and trench coats, many of which did not even resemble the items she wore. Heavy online traffic to Exception's website has caused it to crash. The impact Peng, a celebrated performer on state television, is having on fashion bears some similarity to trends sparked by Britain's duchess of Cambridge, the former Kate Middleton, who helped bring Brazilian-born designer Issa to the world's attention before her marriage to Prince William. American first lady Michelle Obama has also lent cachet to designer Jason Wu by wearing a gown he custom-made to last month's inauguration.

For its part, Exception appears to be gauging its next move. Chinese politics is a traditionally secretive world and the company risks sparking a backlash by associating itself too publicly with the wife of the head of state. Some of the more conservative among the Communist Party might frown upon the commercialization of the first lady's image or criticize such attention as being reflective of an excessively materialistic society. Company spokeswoman Tan Yijia, reached in the company's Guangzhou headquarters, said she could not immediately confirm that the pieces Peng wore on the trip were made by the label. The city's quality supervision bureau, however, said on its official microblog site that it has confirmed that Peng's outfit was made by Exception. Ma Ke, Designer for Chinese First Lady Peng Liyuan

William Wan wrote in the Washington Post, “Jacqueline Kennedy had dressmaker Oleg Cassini. Michelle Obama has Jason Wu and a whole coterie of up-and-coming designers. China’s new first lady, Peng Liyuan? She has Ma Ke. For years, Ma has been one of China’s most successful and cutting-edge fashion designers, but also one of its most reclusive. She has served as a personal designer for Peng since 2003 — a time when Peng, a singer, was far more famous in China than her husband, Xi Jinping, who was then just a provincial party head who would later become president. [Source: William Wan, Washington Post, March 20, 2014 */]

Sexy Clothing and Bras in China

Up until the 1990s women's legs were rarely seen. Now miniskirts, frilly lace panties and push up bras are very popular. Often, supplies of the most blatantly sexual items are bought up as quickly as they appear. Women began snatching up nylons in the 1990s. Considered decadent in Mao's time, they now go for about a dollar, which is a day's wage.

Lingerie shops in Hong Kong sell $75 thong panties and $150 push-up bras. Department stores in Beijing and Shanghai have sections that sell teddies, garter belts and other kinds of sexy underwear. Wonder bra, Valentino and Calvin Klein have launched aggresive marketing campaigns in China. Valentino and Calvin Klein run underwear ads on Star television. Wonder-bar developed a special product line for slim Asian women. An accountant in Hong Kong told Newsweek, "There's a strong desire to be sexy. People want to marry a good husband, and a push-up bra is part of the package to achieve that goal."


Western-style bras are relatively new things in China. They were only introduced in the 1930s after women became exposed to them in Hollywood films. Before then women mostly concealed their curves. For a while bras were fashionable among the upper classes in Shanghai but that ended when the Communists came to power and banned bras along with silk stockings and lacey underwear.

Recalling the Mao era, One woman told the Los Angeles Times, “Our idea of a bra was a cotton tank top or something we would sew ourselves out of a piece of plain fabric. Some of us would try to cut a scoop or V-neck into it. That would be considered fancy.” Upon laying eyes on her first real bra in Shenzhen in 1993, she said, “I’d never seen anything like it before. I thought it had to be the most beautiful thing in the world. I just had to buy it.”

Today, the undergarment business is worth $6 billion and growing at a rate of 20 percent a year. More than 5,000 undergarment companies produce products, included Snoopy brand bras, for domestic consumption and export.

See Textiles, Industries.

Western Fashions in China

Western fashions that have caught on in China include sunglasses, curled hair, wigs, permanents, platform shoes, knee socks, flared trousers, blue jeans, boom boxes, heavy metal music and motorcycles. There are motorcycle gangs in Canton and hip hop dancers in Beijing. In the 1990s police shut down a business that was selling Nazi swastika medals, flags, gas masks, helmets, and other items linked with the Third Reich.

On the streets of Beijing you can see a few punks with dyed spiky hair and studded dog collars. Some women dye their hair blonde, have nose rings and wear blue contact lenses. For a while many young women favored black miniskirts, platform shoes, and tight T-shirts. Wigs and pony tail extensions were also every popular.

Describing a young couple he saw in a park in Chengdu in the 1980s, when China was beginning to open up more, Theroux wrote: "He is smoking a king-size cigarette — it dangles from his lips — and in his hand he has a suitcase-style cassette and radio, and the screechy music (probably a Hong Kong tape) thumps against it and drowns conversation and frightens the dusty starlings...The fellow wears a T-shirt saying Cowboy, and the motif on the shirt is a long-nosed man in a ten-gallon hat. He also wears tight jeans and platform shoes with womanish high heels. His hair has been professionally curled....His girlfriend...wears a pink dress. It is light and fluttery. She might have made it herself. She also wears nylon knee socks that younger women favor, and high-heeled shoes, and sunglasses with rhinestones on the frames."

In October 2009, authorities broke up a smuggling ring that brought 140 metric tons of used clothing, mostly from Japan and South Korea, into China through Guangdong Province to the town of Lufeng, where 500 warehouses and sweatshops reprocessed it to be sold in China. Germans are upset about the presence of cheap Chinese-produced lederhosen worn at Oktoberfest.

Brand Names in China

leftSome urban Chinese have become crazy about designer labels and names. On the streets in fashionable districts in Beijing and Shanghai men wear Zegna suits and women carry Louis Vuitton bags. Burberry is a particularly valued name among the counterfeit makers. Gucci has stores in China. Armani plans 30 stores by 2006. Marketing expert Tom Doctoroff told U.S. News and World Report: “Brands are fueling the rise of the middle class in China. The Chinese have an aching ambition to climb up the ladder of success, and brands are the mark of people who have made it.”

China has become the world's second-largest consumer of luxury goods. According to the 2011 World Luxury Association Blue Book survey, China's total consumption of luxury goods had reached $10.7 billion as of the end of March this year, accounting for a quarter of global consumption. [Source: Haze Fan, Reuters October 27, 2011]

Tommy Hilfiger opened its first store in 2002 and had 40 stores in 23 Chinese cites in 2005. Business for Adidas doubled in 2004 and almost doubled again in 2005. One university students told U.S. News and World Report he was given $62 a month for expenses school and ate nothing but instant noodles all month and used the left money to buy Nike basketball shoes.

Many buyers are chuppies and people in their 20s and 30s that live at home and have large disposable incomes. Western companies are trying very hard to establish brand loyalty at a time when many Chinese are just developing their sense of taste. A 32-year-old Chinese woman told U.S. News and World Report, “In the U.S. kids know what they like. But in China, no one in the past thought that way — what do I prefer? What do I like to do? I am just starting to figure that out now.”

At the Silk Market in Beijing, police routinely check for Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Burberry bags because those companies have issued protest but do not check for Dolce & Gabbana and Ralph Lauren because they haven’t issued protests. People who want Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Burberry items pick out what they want from a catalog and have it delivered in a few minutes.

See Luxury Goods, Economics

Western Designers in China

Pierre Cardin was the first western brand to hire Chinese models in the Eighties, ” Andrew Zhao, author of “The Chinese Fashion Industry: An Ethnographic Approach. Significantly”, said. “Cardin was also the first western designer to break into the Chinese market.”

Christian Dior used Shanghai as the backdrop for a show and an ad campaign starring French actress Marion Cotillard, and Phillip Lim staged a show at Beijing's Forbidden City in 2010. "China has become a place where not only luxury brands do local brand-building events; China is now front and center in luxury brands' global marketing campaigns," Bruno Lannes, a Shanghai-based partner at Bain, told AFP. [Source: Susan Stumme, AFP, January 22, 2011]

Other more subtle labels such as Balenciaga and Balmain have recently set up shop at a new luxury mall in central Beijing. Lanvin, a brand synonymous with understated elegance, is soon to open its doors in the same complex.

The influential editor of American Vogue, Anna Wintour, visited Beijing in December 2010, telling local media that she wanted to experience China for herself so she could encourage US labels to boost their presence in the country. “This is about business,” said Angelica Cheung, the editor in chief of Vogue China. “For a lot of big brands, China has become the No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3 market.”

Prada in Beijing

As a sign that the world fashion houses are taking the China fashion market very seriously Miuccia Prada did her first fashion show outside of Italy in Beijing. Susan Stumme of AFP wrote: “Miuccia Prada has already won plaudits for her spring/summer 2011 collection — simply-cut dresses and suits in a quirky mix of stripes and solids, with bold splashes of orange, violet and electric blue. But by displaying the clothes on a runway in Beijing... her first catwalk show outside Europe, and adding a few looks from her spring menswear line, the Italian designer signalled her focus on China's huge market. Actresses Gong Li and Maggie Cheung added a bit of high-wattage star power to the show at the Central Academy of Fine Arts museum — a surefire way to maximise local media coverage and get the Prada message to the masses.[Source: Susan Stumme, AFP, January 22, 2011]

Like many Western fashion brands, Prada is already established in China, with at least 15 stores in operation and plans for nearly 30 more by the end of 2012. It has also announced it will open a design studio in Hong Kong in 2011. The Milan-based family-owned company is rumored to be considering a market listing in Hong Kong.

According to research by Bain and Company Prada is the ninth most desired brand in China. "Prada stands for good taste and individuality. That shows that Chinese consumers are becoming more sophisticated," said Zhou Ting, a professor at the University of International Business and Economics of China.

Chinese Version of the Devil Wears Prada

“Color Me Love”, a Chinese version of “The Devil Wears Prada” was released in China late 2010. Directed by Chen Yili, Color Me Love follows the journey of fashion magazine intern Wang Xiaofei (Yao Chen) and her involvement with artist Luan Yihong (Liu Ye) and his ex-girlfriend actress Ke Min (Mo Xiaoqi). Actress Joan Chen plays Zoe, chief editor of the magazine, in a role that is hard to differentiate between Meryl Streep's Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada. [Source: Leng Mo, Global Times, November 4, 2010]

Leng Mo wrote in the Global Times, “With a plot that almost mirrors The Devil Wears Prada, the film focuses on Wang's internship at a major fashion magazine in a big city and her struggle to survive the high-maintenance and snobbish fashion world and her relationship. Heavily sponsored by more than 20 top international fashion houses, the film saw leading actress Yao Chen enjoy her role, with many of her outfits delivered straight from the runways of Paris, including a $400,000 Versace haute-couture dress.

"I absolutely loved the amazing clothes. Everyday during shooting, I was in girly-heaven with different outfits the stylist has chosen for me," Yao laughed. "I loved the role," she added. "A regular girl who knew nothing about fashion accidentally enters the biggest fashion magazine while she is being criticized and also tutored by the chief editor; she becomes a fashion expert in the end, with the same happening in her love life. It is a beautiful modern fairy tale."

Color Me Love was originally scheduled be released a month earlier than it was. h. According to media reports, the film was delayed due to a sex scene. "We are cutting some kissing scenes as well as a few last minute post-production changes, finally it is qualified to show on cinema," Chen said.

Diane von Furstenberg in China

American designer Diane Von Furstenberg has ventured into China with shops in Beijing and Shanghai, and a retrospective featuring her sketches, designs and prints in Beijing's trendy 798 art district. "I've always had this fantasy. I'd like to sell every Chinese a t-shirt," she told the New York Times. In Shanghai she said she was astonished at how fashionable people were. “I come here every three months, and it’s amazing how much more sophisticated the people are looking on the streets.” [Source: David Barboza, New York Times, December 17, 2010]

When Von Furstenberg came to Beijing promote her 2011 show she was filmed in a meeting at of an art gallery in the 798 Arts District standing in front of cowhide imprinted with a reverential image of Chairman Mao — a new work by the Chinese artist Zhang Huan promising an outrageous “Red Ball” — an evening gala that would dazzle the Chinese. David Barboza wrote in the New York Times, “Her husband, the media tycoon Barry Diller, would come, along with “lots of celebrities,” she said. Wendi Murdoch, the wife of the media magnate Rupert Murdoch, might host a private party at the Murdochs’ courtyard home in Beijing... And getting around China won’t be a problem, she said at one point, because “we’ll have Barry’s jet.”...Someone at the conference table shouted, “Every artist in China will come!”

Von Furstenberg’s 1998 autobiography, “Diane: A Signature Life,” is being translated into Chinese by her close friend Hong Huang, who’s been dubbed China’s Oprah. She’s even contemplating studying Mandarin. “I woke up in January of this year,” she said, “and my New Year’s resolution was to get known in China.”

Han Clothing Movement

The Han Clothing Movement is a youth-based grassroots nationalist movement built around China’s majority Han ethnic group that emerged in the early 2000s and has gained momentum since Xi Jinping came to power. Kevin Carrico wrote in Quartz: “It imagines the numerically and culturally dominant Han — nearly 92 percent of China’s population — as the target of oppression by both China’s minorities and “the West, ” in need of revitalization to save China. Hoping to make the Han great again, movement participants promote the public wearing of an ethnic outfit that purports to revive a clothing style that is millennia old. [Source:Kevin Carrico, Quartz, August 29, 2017]

“According to enthusiasts of the Han Clothing Movement, the dilemma of today’s China was on full display in the fall of 2001, when leaders from across the Asia-Pacific Region gathered in Shanghai for an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Ministerial Meeting. Just a month after the attacks of September 11, this event’s theme was, appropriately, “meeting new challenges in the new century.” Unbeknownst to organizers and participants, however, one photo opportunity at this meeting was soon to produce a movement that would meet the new challenges of this new century by seeking answers from past centuries.

“At each APEC meeting throughout the years, attendees have been given “local dress” from the host region, in a well-documented and cringe-worthy tradition that begin in 1993 when Bill Clinton handed out “bomber jackets” during a summit in Seattle. Accordingly, at the 2001 meeting, leaders gathered for a photo opportunity in a traditional-looking outfit referred to as “the outfit of the Tang” (tangzhuang). Curious photos of the leaders collectively smiling in their newly acquired outfits, and of George W. Bush, Jiang Zemin, and Vladimir Putin chatting earnestly in the “outfit of the Tang, ” quickly spread across official media, the Sinophone Internet, and around the world as representations of China and Chinese tradition.

“One problem, however, emerged within this representation: the outfit of the Tang was not in fact a product of the august Tang Dynasty (618-907A.D.). Despite the seeming precision of this name, the “outfit of the Tang” is in fact a vague term used to refer to a variety of Chinese-style clothing, a concept first constructed by Chinese overseas during the late Qing Dynasty in relation to “Western clothing” (xizhuang). The outfit on display at APEC was in fact known as the magua, an originally Manchu style of clothing that spread throughout broader Chinese society during the Manchu-dominated Qing Dynasty (1644-1911A.D.). Ninety years after the fall of the Qing, Chineseness was thus being represented on a global stage through what could be viewed, in a nationalist and essentialist lens, as the clothing of a peripheral or “barbarian” people at best, or even for some, the imposition of an external conquering power.

“Manfu, or Manchu clothing, thus provided a spark, to borrow Maoist terminology, which started a Han prairie fire. The answer to Manfu was found in Hanfu, or Han Clothing. According to movement histories, a now untraceable post was distributed on a number of Chinese web forums criticizing the APEC photo-op. This post reportedly declared that the most outrageous aspect of this sartorial slight was the simple fact that there was a far more suitable choice for representing China: a traditional style of clothing, purportedly first created at the time of the mythical figure the Yellow Emperor and worn for millennia by the Han, the core of Chinese civilization.

“This clothing, portrayed in sketches attached to the post, was characterized by broad sleeves and flowing robes decorated with brilliant colors and elaborate designs, and was known simply as “Han Clothing, ” or the traditional clothing of the Han. There is in fact no clear history indicating that there was any such apparel in existence under the name Han Clothing, but as an imaginary tradition envisioned as having been present at and thus providing links to the many celebrated moments in Chinese history, Han Clothing thus becomes a tradition inextricably intertwined with greatness.

“The suggestion that the Han, China’s previously unmarked majority, also had “traditional clothing” created a sensation online. Soon online discussion boards appeared focused on this new yet ancient idea. The best known of these forums in which interested parties gathered is Hanwang, or the Han Network, located at the easy-to-remember address hanminzu here refers to Han minzu, the pinyin for “Han nationality” or “Han race.” For full dramatic effect, the site renders the date in years since the birth of the mythical Yellow Emperor, representing 2017 as the 4, 728th year of the Yellow Emperor.

“Such online forums, as virtual gathering points for like-minded individuals, gradually became the platform for Han Clothing’s transition from virtual sketches to material reality, as well as for the movement’s attempted social reconstruction of reality toward its imagining of the real China. Some enthusiasts began using these sites to exchange ideas on how to make one’s own Han Clothing, and to share personal photos of actual pieces of Han Clothing sewn in accordance with online sketches, externalizing what had previously only been an illustrated mode of fantasy. Then, these forums were also the sites on which enthusiasts first posted photos of themselves wearing Han Clothing in public spaces.

Men’s Cosmetics and Hand Bags in China

Pascale Trouillaud of AFP wrote: “More and more Chinese men are looking to the power of skin creams and anti-age serums to help them get ahead professionally, sparking a booming new market that has major cosmetics firms salivating. Chinese men have fewer hang-ups than Western men about using skin care products — and keen customers, especially in urban areas, are even snapping up pots of foundation, toners and whitening creams traditionally bought by women.” [Source:Pascale Trouillaud, AFP, March 4, 2011]

The typical customer is an urban professional living not just in the capital Beijing or cosmopolitan Shanghai, but also in smaller cities nationwide. “When Chinese men’s income rises, in the beginning, they buy a good watch, then they move on to electronics” then they move to clothes, buy famous brands and finally they move to personal care products,” Zhang explained. “Men believe that using skin care products can give them a better competitive edge for their jobs, or for girls.”

In 2010, sales of men’s skin care products soared 30 percent to $280 million in China — ahead of North America, Euromonitor said, noting that the market had evolved in a few years to include “more sophisticated product lines offering anti-ageing, exfoliating and energy-boosting properties”. “Our customers are mainly white-collar workers, entrepreneurs, people whose salaries are above average,” Ouyang Jiale, the young manager of a men’s beauty salon in Beijing, told AFP. “As the Chinese say, the better the image you project, the more money you will earn!”

Many men carry purse-like handbags. Some regard them as symbols of their success and spend quite a bit of money on them. Gucci, Burberry, Louis Vuitton and other companies have introduced men’s handbags aimed specifically for the Chinese market. For Dunhill, the English menswear company with 70 outlets in China, a bag selling for around $500 is its best-selling product in China.

Models in China

The modeling business took off in China in the early 2000s. Models have been used to hawk everything from condominiums to soft drinks, from computers to cars.. Even towns and cities have hired models to represent them.

To be a model in China a woman needs to be tall and beautiful. Some who are simply tall think they have what it takes to be a model. A teacher at a modeling school told the Los Angeles Times, “Every year, I see at least 200 candidates from all over the country dying to be models. Their only qualification is height.”

One of the hottest models in the world in the early 2000s was Lu Yan, a 5-foot-10 small town Chinese girl regarded as exotic-looking in the West but considered ugly by many Chinese. She has appeared on the covers of Elle and Paris Match and modeled clothes for Dior, Gucci and Christian Lacroix. She told the Los Angeles Times, “I hated being tall as a kid. No one wanted to walk with me. They saw me as a weirdo.”

Lu Yan’s break came when she enrolled in a class to improve her posture. Her teacher was asked to put together a group for a modeling competition in Beijing. The teacher picked her because the group was one person short and they needed someone tall. Her team didn’t win but here usual look caught they eye of a fashion editor who introduced her to a French agent, who made her sensation within weeks.

Liu Wen: the First Asian Supermodel

Liu Wen is described by some as “ the first Asian supermodel”. She became the face for Estée Lauder, not just for Asia in 2010- Anna Murphy wrote in The Times: “It all began with her mother’s six-hour journey to buy Liu Wen a pair of heels. Mrs Liu, an office worker, had decided that her 17-year-old daughter should enter a local modelling competition to help build her confidence (“I was very shy”) and improve her posture (“I had a bad slouch”). But there was a problem. “We knew I had to wear heels, ” recalls Liu Wen, now 28, and, according to Forbes, the 12th highest paid model in the world in 2014. “But I had really big feet and I couldn’t find any heels my size in my home town.” So Liu mère, a tiger mother if ever there was one, set off to the capital of Hunan province, in the south of China, to procure a pair of stilettos in a (not spectacular by western standards) size 40. [Source: Anna Murphy, The Times, February 27 2016]

“Liu Wen won the competition, and the rest is history, if what happens in model land can ever be classed as such. In fact, in the case of Liu — the first Asian supermodel, the first Asian face of Estée Lauder — it can be. Hers is a rise that is linked to bigger things, huge things in fact: nothing less than China’s most recent revolution, not a cultural one this time, but a consumer one.

“Now Liu is seen by brands such as Mango as someone who can make us part with our pounds, too. “Liu Wen’s great achievement is that she has transcended the label ‘Chinese model’, ” says Angelica Cheung, editor of Vogue China. “Being a supermodel is about more than just having the right measurements. She has a spirit, a spark, a vivaciousness that is rare among Chinese girls, who tend to be more reserved. This is what makes A-list photographers and top brands want to work with her.” Or as Liu herself puts it, “I’m an international model.”

“But Liu Wen’s significance for Chinese women is not to be underestimated. First she challenged their traditional beauty aesthetic, which was, as she puts it, “bigger eyes, a smaller face, full lips. Beautiful and sweet, not mean and cool.” Then came her groundbreaking hiring by Estée Lauder. “The Chinese people were so excited. They had never seen an Asian model in a Caucasian beauty campaign. It was a really big deal.” Liu says this, rightly, without a trace of arrogance. “I think I am learning how to show people Chinese beauty. It used to be about heavy black eyeliner, red lips. Right now everything’s more simple, and that’s great for Asian women. To just be natural.”

After winning that competition she took a train for 20 hours on her own to Beijing to try her hand at modelling for real. A couple of years later she was on the move again, to New York, where she lived in another flat with fellow models, taught herself to speak that “Chinglish” of hers (by reading Harry Potter), and started on the road to being the phenomenon she is today. I ask her about the rejection that every model goes through in the early stages of her career. She claims never to have experienced it: “I got a little bit lucky, ” she beams. I ask her about the jostling with other girls. After all, she entered that first competition with friends, and lived in Beijing and later New York with other aspiring models who are not sitting here today. Liu isn’t having any of it, in the nicest possible, twinkly-faced way. “I focus on good energy. I don’t want to be in competition with someone because I do the same job as them and I know how hard it is. If you are not successful as a model you can always do another job.”

Seventy-Two-Year-Old Chinese Male Model

Laurie Burkitt and Josh Chin wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “While other 72-year-old Chinese men spend their days practicing tai chi and playing mah-jongg, Liu Qianping is enjoying a twilight career modeling clothes. Women's clothes. At a fall fashion shoot, the 5-foot-8 former rice farmer from central Hunan vamped for the camera in lacy green tights and white fur-lined pink dresses. Online and on TV, he has become a meme, with his image circulated by millions on Chinese social media sites and talk shows. [Source: Laurie Burkitt and Josh Chin, Wall Street Journal, January 19, 2013 /]

“He owes his star turn to his granddaughter, Lu Ting, a clothier who struggled for months to find a model who could boost her online store without breaking the bank. "He's just so slender," Ms. Lu says of her 110-pound grandfather. She notes that he looks great in crimson dresses and credits him for more than quadrupling her sales in recent weeks. /

“Mr. Liu's ascent in the modeling realm speaks volumes about shifting cultural mores in a fast-aging society. The waif of a man, who goes about in a three-piece suit and a bow-tie when he isn't clad in pink satin, is among a cadre of Chinese seniors who are all too familiar with cultural upheaval. Their lives have been marked by unimaginable change—from surviving famine to the advent of fast food. Along the way, many have adopted a devil-may-care approach that flies in the face of stereotypes about conservative Asian elders. /

“Mr. Liu was a natural fit for the job, says his granddaughter. After 40 years of wading through rice fields, Mr. Liu is more than happy to help his family bring in a little extra cash—even if it means slipping into a pearl-decorated jumper or sporting a blonde wig. And he isn't in the least worried what people might say. "This one time she got a big shipment of clothes. I took a few pieces out, thought they were nice looking and threw them on," he says. "I looked good," he adds. /

“After rocketing to fame on the Internet in November, Mr. Liu has also started doing the television rounds, receiving a roaring ovation from the studio audience during a recent taping of Henan Satellite TVs "Know Your Roots" in Beijing when he strutted out on stage doing his own version of Korean rapper Psy's "Gangnam Style" dance. Mr. Liu, who is also a fan of online videogames, relishes his experimentations. "In the past, we didn't have these things, the country wasn't developed," he says, describing his years as a farmer in the 1950s and '60s as full of bitterness and hunger. "There's no comparison with the way things are now. Life now is so rich." /

Image Sources: University of Washington except men's clothing, Columbia University; Imperial clothing, Toranhouse, Mao-era posters, Landberger, and Western fashions, Perrechon.

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2021

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.