Changing faces

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More foreign faces have started to appear in magazines and on billboards throughout Asia. Could an influx of overseas models be what the Vietnamese fashion industry needs?

A foreign model performs at Dep Fashion Show
in Ho Chi Minh City last year

It's no secret that the Vietnamese modeling industry lags behind that of other countries in the region and further afield.

Tommy Tran, owner of model agency Tsquared recognizes, "China and Singapore have fashion shows every day but Vietnam only has one every few months. The Vietnamese market seems to have potential but it doesn't present many opportunities for the professional."

Despite this, the country still attracts a large number foreign models.

A new face

These foreign models usually start a career in modeling at age 13 to 14. They come to work in Asian modeling agencies through connections with "˜mother agencies' in their home country.

Once they have arrived in Vietnam, they are put up for free in rented apartments that usually go for US$1,000-1,200 a month. They are not required to pay water and electricity bills. They are paid for the work they do. As a promotions girl, they can get $100 an hour and for a catwalk show, they will receive $350.

According to many foreign models, this is not good pay. Instead, they see Vietnam as a stepping stone in their career, a place to get experience before they enter the major fashion centers in the region like Shanghai in China or the Philippines.

In Taiwan, Hong Kong or China, a professional model can earn $800- 1,000 from an appearance in a catwalk show, $15,000-25,000 for starring in a televised advertisement and around $1,200 for appearing in a catalogue.

Amanda Delepine Scott, winner of France's Elite Model Look in 1998 and former model for Ford Models, told The Thao Van Hoa (Culture and Sports) she had been invited to Hong Kong, Singapore and Thailand in recent years and came to the region "for fun" and to discover new cultures.

The pay was definitely not as good as in developed countries, Scott said. She added, however, that developing countries are good places for an international model to start a career.

She said young models come to Asian countries to build up a portfolio and to gain experience on the catwalk.

In Asia, Scott said the fashion industry is easier to enter than those in places like Paris or New York, and that here, foreign models are respected.

The models that come to Asia are usually just starting out or past their prime.

Work ethic

According to fashion industry insiders in Vietnam, foreign models in Vietnam have a better attitude towards their work.

"Foreign models see casting as a normal requirement of the job. They don't care whether their clients are famous or not and are ready, with a prepared portfolio, to meet at any time. Vietnamese models always ask why they have to be cast," said former Vietnamese model Thuy Hanh.

Scott, one of the judges of Vietnam Supermodel 2009, said the fashion industry in Vietnam has a lot of potential but the problem is that there are "so many" models who consider themselves "stars".

"If only they had the chance to go to Paris and New York where thousands of models measuring at least 5"10 (1m78) and weighing just 101 pounds rush to ten casting sessions a day. Sometimes, they won't win a single contract. If Vietnamese models could experience this, they would have a more accurate view of what the career entails," said the model who has worked in Paris, Milan, New York, London, Tokyo and in smaller fashion industries in South Africa and Greece.

Meanwhile, Ivy Tran, a manager at Tsquared Models, said they have never had any trouble working with foreign models.

"When we present an idea to foreign models, most of them will adhere to it 100 percent. Vietnamese models are different. They want to make themselves the focus and not the product."

Tommy Tran, owner of Tsquared, said Vietnamese models are more than happy for the media to publish their photos because they want to be famous and be able to switch careers to related fields like singing or acting.

Professional models focus on their job and work for money, Tran said.

Time for change

Tran modeled in 19 countries before he saw a potential market in Vietnam and returned to open his own modeling agency.

Tsquared Models opened in 2007 and was the first modeling agency in Vietnam. Along with Elite Model Management, it is a major supplier of foreign models to the Vietnamese fashion industry. Most foreign models working with the firm come from the Czech Republic, Russia, Romania, Brazil and Africa. They stay for one or three months on a tourist visa and move around to other Asian countries.

Tran's investment is yet to really pay off. What's more, his vision of building an industry that is diversified, professional and competitive is still a pipe dream.

Tran struggles with brand owners in Vietnam, who, unlike other countries in the region, have not thought about promoting their products using foreign models. He cites the example of China, a country of 1.3 billion people with females accounting for roughly half of the population that imports a great deal of models from overseas.

Western models are everywhere these days in China, a report published in the Washington Post said, "...on department store display ads, in catalogues for clothing brands, on billboards, in commercials and on the runways at fashion shows. They are blue-eyed American and Canadian blondes, sultry Eastern European brunettes and hunky male bodybuilders with Los Angeles tans and six-pack abs selling products from jeans to underwear."

The country seems "to embrace a western vision of beauty."

Angelica Cheung, editor of Vogue China, said "[The fashion industry] needs a variety of girls now. Local Chinese brands want to show their clothes look good on Westerners, especially brands that want to sell overseas."

Similar to the case of Vietnam, Cheung cited foreign models' professionalism, experience and work ethic as reasons for hiring them.

Tran thinks Vietnam should follow China's example.

The country has started to go the way of its northern neighbor. Though, whether the Vietnamese fashion industry fully embraces the idea of using foreign models so that it can compete on the world stage remains to be seen.

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