The Blog

Asian Fashion Advertising's Unfamiliar Face

Asian models are generally absent in Western magazines. Fact. The excuse constantly given by the fashion industry is the need to reflect the racial demographic, where Asians are minorities compared to their Caucasian counterparts. Okay, so maybe there might be truth in that, but what's the excuse for the absence of Asian models in campaigns in Asia?

Asian models are generally absent in Western magazines. Fact. The excuse constantly given by the fashion industry is the need to reflect the racial demographic, where Asians are minorities compared to their Caucasian counterparts. Okay, so maybe there might be truth in that, but what's the excuse for the absence of Asian models in campaigns in Asia?

The issue was brought to my attention a few weeks back when I was on an advertising job for a client based on the continent. Not one of the models used over the course of the three-day shoot was of Asian heritage. You can guess what I was told when I challenged the casting, can't you? "To the client, Asian models aren't aspirational," a member of the team said despite the fact that they are the people the campaign was targeted at. Am I surprised by that response? Well, no but the issue is definitely worth tackling.

At the height of the interest in Vogue Italia's 'All Black Issue' in 2008 Nick Knight explained that many people in the industry deem black models as non-aspirational, which appears to be the same attitude adopted in Asian markets. "I guess these companies are being told what sells and what doesn't sell," he explained. "And I think within those marketing strategies are assumed racisms." But how does that work? Don't Asian women want to see themselves reflected in advertising or does this trend for all things Caucasian reflect some deep problems?

It's no secret that agencies often send models over to East Asian countries like China and Japan during the slow months to make money in advertising, as clients have a propensity to favor Western over native models. "I don't think this is hard-core racism. I think it's more inertia and stupidity on the part of the fashion industry. It's a lack of imagination," Simon Doonan said when asked about his general view on the issue. "There's a collective responsibility the fashion industry has to get their ass into gear, come into the 21st century, open the windows and doors and see all the beautiful girls that are out there and not have preconceived ideas about it. This is reprehensible and it needs to change."

But it's not all bad, though. Although Asian models aren't doing to well regionally, they are slowly getting more face time in international magazines. Does the name Liu Wen ring a bell? She's bagged countless editorials, has walked for everyone from Jean Paul Gaultier to Chanel and was crowned the 10th highest paid model last year after being named as the first Asian face to secure a contract with beauty giant, Estée Lauder. There growing presence was even noted by American Vogue in 'Asia Major' dedicated to East Asia's top eight models. But before you applaud, have a think about it. Any person that has paid the slightest bit of attention to the luxury market since the 2008 credit crunch will have noticed that the Chinese market has been the only shining spot for the luxury goods industry making it no longer economically viable for Chinese models to be ignored. Estée Lauder's decision to hire Liu Wen and Louis Vuitton casting of Godfrey Gao is less likely to be as a result of their chiseled cheekbones, and that's not just me just be cynical. According to a TNS Retail Forward study, by 2015 China is expected to have passed the US and equaled Japan as the world's biggest market for luxury goods. In the said Vogue article, make-up artist Dick Page himself acknowledged that "Everybody in the in fashion/beauty industry recognizes the importance of global markets, and currently China, Taiwan and South Korea are at the forefront." As one writer aptly put it, "are Chinese advertisers living in a bubble and alienated from the consumers they are talking to?"

As with everything, there isn't an easy answer to this one. It's the prime chicken and the egg scenario. Without getting too heavy the following question needs to be asked: what needs to change first - the attitudes of brands and advertisers or the outlook of society? If recent research is anything to go by 'women respond favorably to a brand if the models it uses somehow mirror their own identities' so fashion brands, take note. You still have a lot of work to do.