Asia's first male supermodel, Godfrey Gao, stands head and shoulders above most of the crew that is dressing, styling and photographing him in a studio not far from downtown Taipei, buffing his famous cheekbones and making him point his penetrating stare in the right direction. His physical presence dominates a room made gloomy by the rain outside the window, but it is starkly illuminated every couple of seconds by the photographer's flash.
This spring, for the first time in 157 years, the epitome of French luxury, Louis Vuitton, has used an Asian man to promote its products. It is a timely and prudent bow to its fastest-growing demographic – the Asian consumer, and especially the Chinese consumer.
Today, the Taiwanese-Canadian actor and model Gao is closely shaven, because he is shooting a commercial for Philips. While others have complimented him on the clean-shaven look, one of the qualities which made Gao the face of Louis Vuitton earlier this year was the fact that he generally sports a beard.
As the poster boy for the spring/summer 2011 campaign, he can be seen carrying the newest Louis Vuitton Damier Graphite Elvis messenger bag. It's a man bag, that fashion item with which Western men still struggle, but of which Chinese men cannot get enough. For the record, Gao appears to use the product he endorses – a (definitely) used man bag is stashed away in his dressing room.
This all goes to show that Louis Vuitton has done its homework. China is poised to become the biggest luxury goods consumer within five years, and buyers from mainland and greater China, when counting those at home and abroad, are already the world's number two luxury customers behind those from the United States.
"Sometimes I read that I'm not 100 per cent Chinese, because I don't look all that Chinese," says Gao, taking time out from the shoot to talk in perfect English. "That's a strange one – I am Chinese."
He is the only person in the studio wearing shoes, everyone being obliged to exchange theirs for slippers, so as to not dirty the set. This adds to his slightly overpowering physical presence. At nearly six feet five inches, he is so tall that he doesn't often do catwalk modelling, as many of the clothes don't fit.
Gao was born in Taiwan in 1984 to a Taiwanese father and a Malaysian mother. He moved to Vancouver when he was nine years old, coming back periodically to visit his father, a prominent businessman in Taiwan, before moving back permanently in 2006.
"I think it's great that they're using the first Asian male in all those years. It blew my mind, to be honest. I never thought I'd get this opportunity to be an Asian representative at this level. When I heard Louis Vuitton were thinking about using an Asian male, I decided to go for it," he tells me.
Taiwan has been self-ruled since 1949, when Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang (KMT) fled to the island after they lost the civil war with Chairman Mao Zedong's Communists. Since then, Taiwan and mainland China have been bitter rivals, but recent years have seen a closeness develop across the Strait of Taiwan. Gao spends a lot of his time working in Beijing and Shanghai, as well as Taipei.
The choice of an Asian figure for the Louis Vuitton campaign shows that its parent company, LVMH, is in tune with current consumer patterns. Of course, the girls have been doing it for a while. Liu Wen is the face of Estée Lauder and the first Chinese model to take part in a Victoria's Secret show. Du Juan is almost a veteran, as the first Chinese model to be photographed for the cover of French Vogue by Mario Testino back in 2005.
But since rich men apparently spend more than women in China, a demand for Chinese male models has grown. Claudia D'Arpizio, a Milan-based partner at the consultancy Bain & Co, believes the luxury consumer of the future is more likely to be Chinese than any other nationality.
"It's a big market, where you need to be sophisticated in your approaches," she said at the launch of Bain's report for this year, which forecast that sales of luxury goods will rise 8 per cent, with much of that growth fuelled by Chinese consumption.
For Chinese shoppers, who are spending a lot of money abroad these days, seeing a familiar cultural signpost like an ethnically Chinese model can encourage the consumption process. This is a market worth cultivating carefully – there are around 875,000 multimillionaires and 55,000 billionaires in China.
According to data compiled by the Hurun Report, Louis Vuitton was again number one in the top 10 overall most popular luxury brands among China's super-rich. Hermès rose to second place from fourth last year, and Chanel stayed in third place. Cartier was fourth and Gucci remained in fifth.
Gao, meanwhile, is also pursuing work as a TV actor, appearing in five or six TV dramas and, in 2008, he starred in a movie. When the Louis Vuitton job began to look likely, he had to wrangle a few days off filming to go to take part in the shoot.
What does he think that the people from Louis Vuitton liked about his look?
"They liked the beard. I like the beard – I usually have one, but this is for an electric shaver," he says as he rubs his clean-shaven jaw. "Louis Vuitton and the whole fashion industry is using more Asian faces. It's now worldwide and it's a great opportunity to step up."
Gao defies the traditional image of the short Chinese male, though this stereotype has been undermined by the success of China's Yao Ming, at seven feet and six inches, the tallest man in the US National Basketball Association.
"My childhood dream was to play basketball, actually," says Gao. "I wanted to be in the Super Basketball League here in Taiwan, and then it turned out I got into the entertainment business anyway. I was average height until Grade Eight. Then in the summer of 1999, I shot up by around 20 centimetres. Everybody was shocked, and suddenly I could play as a big guy," he says.
"I kind of got into TV when I went to visit a show my brother was working on. Soon I got the second lead in a TV show. There was lots of pressure. My Chinese wasn't that good – I grew up speaking Chinese but I was living in Canada so I had to catch up. It was pretty challenging. I had to learn as I went."
Get him on to the subject of food, and the Chinese man is most in evidence. Taiwanese food is spectacular, since the KMT brought food from all over China to the island when they fled to Taiwan.
"I like a lot of food," he enthuses. "I like Taiwanese food, of course. I like baguettes, especially the o nes that my dad buys. Vancouver has a lot of variety, with pizza, hot dogs, Italian, Indian, seafood – a great combination of culture," says Gao.
"It's the nutrition that made me so tall," he insists, unfolding his enormous frame to resume the photo-shoot, before disappearing in a barrage of flashbulbs.
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