Elite Models Faces Chinese Challenges

The agency opened a Shanghai branch this month.

SHANGHAI — Elite World, which opened an agency here this month, is struggling to find its feet amid a nascent Chinese modeling industry that many observers characterize as lacking professional norms found in mature markets in the West.

This story first appeared in the December 3, 2012 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

The agency’s executives were in town last week ahead of the agency’s annual Elite World competition, which took place Saturday. The competition brings in aspiring models scouted worldwide who compete for a spot on Elite’s roster. Stefania Valenti, Elite’s chief executive officer, said the agency has faced significant challenges here.

Elite originally planned to open the office early this year but ran into delays. There were initial problems with finding qualified staff to run the local business as well as to gauge the demands of domestic brands, which the executive said she believes are starting to seek more Chinese faces instead of foreign models to sell their products.

“It was difficult you could say,” Valenti said. “For the business to go in the right direction, to select the appropriate team. This took time. Also the other issue was to scout the right girls. You have to do this properly. There is not a culture for this profession in China, so for sure this is hard work.”

A year ago, Elite executives said they anticipated that China would make up 20 percent of their global turnover within several years. Valenti said the agency still expects to reach that target but she could not give a time frame as progress has been slower than anticipated.

The executive said Elite teams have been “going deep” into Chinese cities to look for new talent. Ten Chinese models have been signed by Elite and are being trained to work in international markets. Elite already has several Chinese models, including Ming Xi and Fei Fei Sun. The agency has a list of about 50 international models it has made available to domestic brands.

It is unclear how much demand Elite has had for its foreign roster in China. Valenti said there are more requests for top models, but she also said that it is important for Elite to continue to hold its annual competition in China to further expand efforts to educate the market about the agency and the work that goes into creating talent.

Convincing Chinese brands to pay a premium for foreign models has also been an issue. Local modeling agencies don’t charge as much — for either domestic or foreign models — and many inexperienced models are already present in China.

“This is an interesting question for sure,” she said. “But we realized more and more that in particular Chinese brands are very keen to spend more in order to get professional models. They want to grow, and they perceive that to grow, they need professional ambassadors who will add value to their products.”

Valenti said Elite hired the head of its new Shanghai office because of her “strong relationships” with Chinese fashion players. “She will bring exactly the capability to get relationships with the Chinese brands and start to propose our services to them.”

Elite plans to expand its services beyond offering modeling talent to China. Valenti said the agency is developing a strategy to also offer event planning for brands hoping to enter the mainland market by helping them organize fashion shows and other campaigns to raise their awareness among Chinese consumers. “After consolidating our model management in China, we will also move into this business,” she said.

There are also plans to open offices in Beijing and Guangzhou.

“We think we need one or two years in order to create this profession in the right way in order to deliver to the market the value that we want to bring,” Valenti said. “But in reality the desire of Elite is to contribute in some way to the growth of the fashion culture in China. We don’t approach this market for the short-term. We believe to grow properly, we need to grow step-by-step.”