Shanghai surprise: Face of the new China

Clifford Coonan reports from Beijing on the supermodel who has managed to bridge the fashion gap between East and West
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The Independent Online

There is a world of difference between what is bewitching to Western eyes and what Chinese people consider beautiful. As Chinese spending power grows, the task of appealing to consumers in both Beijing and Birmingham has become something that fashion houses and magazine editors are being forced to address. But Chinese supermodel Du Juan's pouting features and willowy figure have managed to bridge that chasm.

Sitting in the lobby of Beijing's Grand Hyatt hotel, Du Juan is every centimetre a supermodel, but she is most definitely a supermodel from Shanghai. She is extremely polite in the traditional Chinese style with a playful sense of humour and a great line in casual understatement.

She wears no discernible make-up, Birkenstock sandals dangle from her perfectly formed feet and she's thrown on a polka-dot vest... and yet the whole room is drawn to her. Beijing businessmen glance up from their laptops, Korean women visiting the Chinese capital give her the once-over, and hush descends on a group of American PC salesmen gathered around beers in the corner of the café section.

The face that earns this reaction is stunningly beautiful. While she is slim (though not skinny), she has the balanced proportions that have won her global kudos, whether she's walking the ramp for the world's hottest designers - names such as Roberto Cavalli, Bottega Veneta and Emmanuel Ungaro - or doing high-profile advertisement campaigns for the leading brands such as Louis Vuitton, Yves Saint Laurent, Hermes or Kenzo.

Asian faces have yet to make a big impact on Western catwalks, magazine features or ad campaigns. But Du Juan is set to change that. She is the first Asian model to adorn the cover of French Vogue, she's done Italian and Chinese Vogue; the leading American fashion magazines Allure and W and the spring 2006 haute couture fashion shows in Paris. Her star has risen at incredible speed. She has graced the catwalks for Chanel, Valentino, Givenchy, Jean Paul Gaultier and Oscar de la Renta.

There are gorgeous Asian models such as China's Lu Yan or Korea's Hye Park in the glossy magazines, portrayed by European and American photographers. But in the growing Asian consumer market, these women are plain - in Beijing, Lu Yan is known, not unaffectionately, as the Ugly Duckling.

Angelica Cheung, editor of Chinese Vogue, explained: "At Vogue I meet this every day and it's normally a question of either/or -- Western photographers look for character but with the Chinese it's different. The Chinese consider Du Juan pretty - not stunning, but pretty."

Joanne Ooi is creative director of the upmarket Hong Kong fashion label Shanghai Tang and she was one of the first to spot that Du had something special."She's unspoiled, modest, thoroughly professional, never a complaint. She's classically beautiful, but very sensual as well. I chose her because her beauty is unique but also universally appealing."

The cliché about China is that people work hard to achieve success. Look at Du Juan's tear sheets and you realise it's probably true. Her work ethic has taken her a long way.

Hong Kong photographer Wing Shya said: "Her poses are unique and she's got great flexibility. There have been previous Chinese models that have made it onto the runway but Du portrays a very modern Chinese image." The world-famous photographer Patrick Demarchelier, who first shot Du for the cover of Chinese Vogue, said: "She is just so gorgeous. She looks like she should be in the movies".

Other top photographers she has worked with during her stellar rise include Peter Lindberg, Mario Testino, Mert and Marcus, David Sims, Paolo Roversi, Mario Sorrenti, Juergen Teller, and Craig McDean. Her resumé reads like a fashionista's Most Wanted list.

In October 2005, Paris Vogue's editor Carine Roitfeld put Du Juan on the cover beside the Australian supermodel Gemma Ward. That resulted in a rare triple-booking for campaigns by top-end fashion houses Yves St Laurent, Roberto Cavalli and Louis Vuitton.

The online fashion arbiter Style.com, the website for American Vogue and W, named her one of its top 10 models of the season. Models.com, a website that specialises in the latest modelling industry news, raved: "Beauty is one thing but to move in the spirit of elegance, whether on camera or on the runway is a blessed ideal in a model. Du Juan proves that elegance is indeed the ultimate sell in modelling, right this minute."

To Paris Match, she is the "Lady of Shanghai", an icon who embodies the magazine's formula for the model of 2006: "Self-confidence, perseverance, cheek, seduction, fatal charm, plus good timing and of course, luck is hardly negligible." Luck, indeed. Never underestimate the role fortune can play in deciding success, says Angelica Cheung, who ran her on the inaugural Chinese issue of Vogue last year.

"We had her on the Chinese cover - that launched her. We put her in touch with all the top photographers, the top stylists. She really stood out so it's a combination of luck and talent."

Meanwhile, back at the Beijing Hyatt, Du Juan stands up to say hello, revealing her full height of 180 centimetres (5ft 9ins). Even in this hotel lobby, where the stars come out at all times of day, necks are craned.

Her height,ironically, put paid to her childhood dream of becoming a dancer. "I originally wanted to be a ballerina, and I studied dance and traditional opera at the Shanghai Dance School as a little girl," she said. "I lived in a dormitory at dance school, I only came home once a week. But then I just kept getting taller. So my family and friends said why not be a model?"

Du took their advice, strutting her way to win a national modelling contest in 2003 and winning Model of Year at the 2004 China Fashion Awards. To all intents and purposes, she comes across as a typical 20-year old mainland Chinese woman, albeit one who spends considerably less time fiddling with her cellphone.

Juggling her diary is more of a hassle -- she's featured in at least one major fashion editorial in every single issue of Chinese Vogue since it hit the newsstands in September, and that's not counting any of her other commitments. "She has this unique and innate quality that allows her to know how best to showcase the fashion or look that she is modelling. That is what makes a great model," commented her manager, Melvin Chua.

"Chinese models have a grace that makes them stand out compared to Western models. Armani was so impressed with the quality of the Chinese models at a recent show in Shanghai he decided to fly 10 to Paris to model in his recent couture show."

Endearingly, there's still a bit of the starstruck girl in the way Du talks about the fashion designers she works with. They all have different personalities, she said, but are totally focused on what they do."Karl Lagerfeld is a really cool guy, he takes photos of you in the different clothes and has a great sense of what looks good. All the designers have one thing in common - attention to detail," she said.

For Du, the highlights of her career so far have included featuring on the cover of the first Vogue China, then French Vogue in October 2005.Most of her time these days is spent between New York and Paris but she tries to make it home every two months. When we meet, she's back in China because her passport ran out of pages. She's in Beijing en route for Shanghai, then it's Paris for Mango and Romania for Bergdorf Goodman.

Haute couture- the very top end of the fashion market - is described by some people as distilled fashion excellence. It's not much in evidence in Shanghai or Beijing yet but is clearly something that will be more in evidence in booming China.

Du Juan gets very excited as she recalls the 43 times she walked down the runways for her first international show season. But while it's wonderful to be so famous, it's no picnic. Indeed, picnics are out. "There are very high requirements for the couture shows," she said. "You need to be skinny, you don't dare to gain a single pound during the fitting. If you don't fit into the clothes, you miss your chance."

That's a difficult proposition for a Chinese woman. Like many Chinese people, food is something she really misses when abroad, especially her mother's soup (she says the soup is too thick in Europe and the US). "Compared to other models I guess I eat a lot. But I don't eat rice or noodles, and prefer vegetable dishes and fruit. As a dancer, you use up a lot of calories, so I have to watch what I eat. Health is the most important thing," she said.

When she's not working she likes to sleep, spend time with her parents and eat with them, family style. Her Mini iPod travels everywhere with her and a popular Chinese novel but she sees herself primarily as a homebody. Her own favourite designers are Prada and Chloe but when it comes to accessories she loves to wear necklaces and crystals made by her mother.

Her parents, though very much in the traditional Chinese mould, are very supportive - even her proud father keeps tabs on her exploits by visiting models.com. The fact that many of her friends are dancers means they are less jealous than they might have been.

As one of the first Chinese models to make it on the international catwalks, Du Juan is a pioneer and has found there is a lot of curiosity about Shanghai and Beijing in the West. "A lot of people thought I was Japanese. When I told them I was from China, they were very interested. The whole world wants to find out what China is like."

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