SHANGHAI — If the name Elite Model Look was not attached to a modeling competition held in this metropolis on Tuesday night, the competition could have been mistaken as one that was more Chinese than international.
Sure, there were plenty of foreigners. Sixty-three models (two were Chinese), from countries ranging from Brazil to Belarus, competed in the 28th world final of the annual Elite Model Look competition, which is organized by the global modeling agency Elite Model Management.
Kylie Minogue was flown in to perform, while actress Nikki Reed hosted the event. Top models, including Nyasha Matonhodze and Magdalena Frackowiak, strutted onstage before the competition began in the Mercedes-Benz Arena, which is located in the outskirts of Shanghai. (The Scissor Sisters and former “Gossip Girl” actress Taylor Momsen were also slated to attend but canceled at the last minute, according to organizers.)
The Chinese characteristics were equally, if not more, apparent.
A Chinese TV presenter named Shao Hua co-hosted the competition in Mandarin. Yundi, a Chinese pianist, performed a solo and a duet with Minogue, which was followed by a performance by the Chinese boy band Lollipop F. Sun Zhe, editor in chief of the Chinese edition of Grazia magazine, was one of three judges. A video interlude highlighted the importance of showing the aspiring models “China and Chinese culture.” The event was promoted on Sina Weibo, the country’s most popular microblog, and will be rebroadcast on Youku.com, an online video portal, as well as the national TV network CNTV later this month.
The agency began holding its Elite Model Look competition in China in 2004, as part of an overall strategy to raise its brand awareness on the Mainland and to understand the market in order to gauge when, exactly, would be the right time to formally set up shop. It turns out that the right time is now.
Elite will open the doors of its first agency in Shanghai sometime in early 2012, and has plans to open additional agencies in Beijing and Guangzhou, a city in southern China, in the future, according to company executives. The agencies will be directly operated by the company.
“We always thought before that it [China] was an expansion market for model management in general,” Cristian D’Ippolito, chief executive officer of Elite World SA, said. “Now we are at the point where our awareness is at a certain level. The market is ready to justify the presence of an international modeling agency in China.”
D’Ippolito said Elite expects its new China business to make up 20 percent of the agency’s overall turnover within three to five years.
The Mainland agency will cater to two markets: foreign brands that are growing increasingly hungry for Chinese faces on catwalks, and in editorial campaigns to reach more Chinese consumers and Chinese brands seeking foreign models to convince Chinese consumers that they have international prestige.
Elite already has a smattering of Chinese in its coterie of models, including Fei Fei Sun and Ming Xi, both of whom placed third in the world finals of Elite Model Look in 2008 and 2009, respectively.
“The [Chinese] clients are ready to deal with an international agency like Elite,” D’Ippolito said. “I think now we are ready to be an agency that is powerful in China in the domestic market with Chinese girls, but also be able to represent international girls who are top models in New York, Paris, Milan and London in the Chinese market, because the money is there.”
“It is also like an evolution process of the client understanding they should pay ‘X’ amount of money to have these top girls,” he added. “It is obvious in the U.S. and Europe, but sometimes in developing countries it is more difficult. Especially in China, probably.”
The domestic modeling industry is one that is maturing yet still has many practices that would be characterized as immature. According to models who work within it, on the whole, the industry is chaotic and often unprofessional. Models are underpaid, working conditions are sometimes subpar and landing gigs depends on whether or not an agency has “guanxi,” a Chinese term that refers to having special relationships with the right players in the country’s burgeoning fashion world.
Many in the industry say that IMG Models attempted to enter China in the past but failed because the company could not conform to local practices. An employee in IMG’s model division who answered the phone Tuesday could not confirm whether there had been an attempt in the past to enter China. E-mails to the company were not answered.
As for all foreign companies entering the Chinese market, playing the Chinese game of business is a must in order to succeed. Elite executives said their Shanghai agency will be staffed only by Chinese. But they also said they hope to serve as a sort of teacher for the modeling industry by exemplifying international standards when it comes to how models should be treated and what they should be paid.
“They still do not get the education of how to deal with fashion models,” said Vick Mihaci, president of Elite Models. “The education. That is the thing we want to bring here, that we need to impose and say that there is a standard. Everything has to become like a profession. Modeling here is not a profession.”
Some have their doubts on whether it will all work. Ming Xi, the Chinese model, said so far there has been no demand from domestic brands for her face in their campaigns, which raises the question of whether cultivating a base of Chinese talent, which executives say will be a staple of the Mainland business, will lead to many local jobs for models who do not have a foreign face.
“More and more brands, they use white girls. There are so many white girls working in China,” Ming said. “I always work with international brands. They want Chinese girls, but Chinese local brands don’t really want that.
“Foreigners always say here in China, everything is possible,” she added. “I want to see how it is going to go [for Elite]. I am really looking forward to seeing it.”
As for non-Chinese models, Elite executives are confident their presence in China will now give top models more confidence to give the market a chance. The agency now has at least one foreign model willing to give China a try: a 15-year-old named Julia from Sweden, the winner of this year’s world final competition.
“Work here? Yeah, we will see,” she said. “Yeah.”