HONG KONG — The confirmation of each year’s Victoria’s Secret lineup is always an eagerly anticipated event, and for young models, can be a make or break moment.
With the show traveling to Shanghai for the first time on Nov. 28, showering attention on a new and large market for the lingerie-maker, the participation of Chinese faces is attracting extra buzz. It was only in 2009 when Liu Wen became the first-ever Chinese model to walk for Victoria’s Secret. This year, the confirmed Chinese models so far are Sui He, Ming Xi, Ju Xiao Wen, and newcomers Xin Xie and Estelle Chen.
WWD spoke to the 19-year-old Chen, who was catapulted into high fashion via the Elite Model Look competition and whose past credits have included the recent Louis Vuitton cruise shows, about snagging the coveted role, navigating Chinese culture, and the realities of working as a model of color.
WWD: Can you tell us about yourself? Where are you from and what was your upbringing like?
Estelle Chen: I was born in China but I grew up in France. My dad was born and raised in Paris, even though he comes from a fully Chinese background so he taught me more of the French culture, and my mom taught me more of the Chinese culture because she was born in China and came to France when she was 22. I feel like I grew up with both cultures a lot because I still went to China every year. I would spend one to two months every year in China.
WWD: How many languages do you speak?
E.C.: French, English, [Mandarin] Chinese, and some Wenzhou dialect. I used to learn German at school but it’s not fluent.
WWD: How much do you spend time in China? Do you feel like you fit in there?
E.C.: I’m still living in Paris, but I go to New York a lot. Some people say no, she’s not really Chinese, she’s French. I don’t really know what to say as I feel close to China. My mom raised me the same way she would have raised me in China. My mom really taught me to stay close to my family. I feel really Chinese and French at the same time.
WWD: How did you get your start in modeling?
E.C.: I got scouted by my mother agent in Paris. He saw me with my parents. I was already thinking about becoming a model before so I was pretty happy. I was 14 years old. My parents own a clothing shop in Paris so I grew up with fashion and so that’s why I started thinking about it. I think my parents really helped me develop a love for fashion, and my mom wanted to be a model when she was younger though she’s not as tall as me — she’s 172 cm [5 feet, 7 inches].
WWD: What was it like getting the confirmation for this year’s Victoria’s Secret show?
E.C.: I’ve gained like probably 10,000 followers since last week. I was pretty shocked. I get a lot of messages from Chinese fans because they are so sweet, we’re so happy you’re coming back to China, but also from friends who knew me when I won the Elite Model Look in France, saying we’re so proud of you.
WWD: Gigi Hadid is walking in the show this year but didn’t get such a warm embrace from Chinese fans. There was backlash on social media from Chinese users because of a video of her doing something many found racially offensive. What do you think about all of that?
E.C.: I did see a few articles about it saying fans were unhappy but Gigi and Bella are usually grateful for what they get and seem so nice toward clients and models from what I can tell.
WWD: How difficult is it getting work as an Asian model?
E.C.: It’s hard because we usually have one or two slots for Asian girls and two or three slots for black girls; you’re always sad to see that. You have less chance to be in the show, but I think Victoria’s Secret is amazing because they have such a diverse cast. They have many white girls, black girls and Asian girls. It’s not only 90 percent white girls and 5 percent black girls and 5 percent Asian.
WWD: Do you think the visibility of Asian models is improving?
E.C.: I think it’s way easier than before because the Chinese market blew up a lot in the last [few] years, maybe instead of one Asian girl, now there’ll be about five.
WWD: What has been your favorite fashion moment so far? (Other than getting the VS show, if that’s the case.)
E.C.: I really like resort shows especially the Louis Vuitton ones. It’s always a pleasure because they take us to amazing places, for example, Brazil for the cruise show, and in May they took us to Kyoto as well. These are some of the most memorable moments in my modeling career. You don’t get to travel so far when you’re still at school.
WWD: What is on your career bucket list that you’d like to achieve?
E.C.: I think I would love to get a Vogue cover such as Vogue Paris or Vogue China…and maybe, I don’t know, a beauty contract. But I’m grateful for anything I get when it comes to jobs. It’s great.
WWD: When you’re not modeling, how do you spend your free time?
E.C.: I used to play piano a lot, but it’s really hard to practice because I can’t really bring the piano around with me. And drawing is a small hobby. I like Erik Satie, Yann Tiersen, classical stuff.