You may not be familiar with the 17-year-old Chen's name, but odds are you've already seen her face. The Paris-bred Chinese model (her parents are from the city of Wenzhou) was cast in a handful of haute couture shows recently, including holy-grail houses like Chanel (she also just finished high school via online courses in the same week, NBD). She's walked for the likes of Louis Vuitton, Dior, Kenzo, Oscar de la Renta, and Michael Kors since starting her career four years ago, and she's done mass work as well, appearing in ads and lookbooks for brands including Zara, H&M, and Uniqlo.
“When I started to gain interest in the modeling industry, a few Asian models, like Liu Wen and Fei Fei Sun, were already becoming notable," Chen wrote in her #RunwayForAll post. "I was happy about this, because before them, Asian models weren’t featured as much. It was difficult at times to relate to who I was seeing in magazines or on the runway." Once Chen got into modeling, the relative scarcity of Asian representation had an even larger impact: "It always seemed like there were only ‘select’ slots available in the shows for models of color, so that was really hard to understand at the beginning," she writes. "It kind of still is, even if the industry is more open now to diversity.”
Last season's shows were slightly less homogenous than the previous season's, per The Fashion Spot's biannual diversity reports. The fall '16 shows included 24.75% models of color (compared to 22.4% models of color in the spring '16 shows). Fall '16, which is the most recent season that the publication has crunched the numbers on, featured 7.48% Asian castings across all four major show cities (by comparison, Black models constituted 9.22% of castings; Latina models made up 2.46%; Middle Eastern models accounted for .28%; and 5.31% of catwalk lineups were classified as 'Other').
Below, Chen filled us in on her experiences with diversity (or lack thereof) in the industry.
“#RunwayForAll should be a rainbow of different people who complement one another,” says model Estelle Chen (@chen_estelle), who walked in the Chanel (@chanelofficial) haute couture show in Paris this week. “When I started to gain interest in the modeling industry, a few Asian models, like @liuwenlw and @feifeisun, were already becoming notable. I was happy about this, because before them, Asian models weren’t featured as much,” Estelle says. “It was difficult at times to relate to who I was seeing in magazines or on the runway.” Even so, it hasn’t been entirely easy for Estelle, whose background is Chinese and whose hometown is Paris. “It always seemed like there were only ‘select’ slots available in the shows for models of color, so that was really hard to understand at the beginning,” she says. “It kind of still is, even if the industry is more open now to diversity.” This story is part of an ongoing series featuring models who are redefining industry standards and making sure there’s room on the #RunwayForAll. Photo by @chen_estelle
What compelled you to be part of #RunwayForAll?
"It was a really great opportunity to express how every model of color kind of feels. Instagram is one of the biggest social-media platforms, so of course I took the chance to share my thoughts so that everyone sees how the fight for diversity continues in 2016."
How should casting practices continue to evolve, in order to have more diverse runways?
"I really hope that casting directors and stylists don't think, 'We already have one Asian girl, two Black girls...it's enough, we don't need more.' People shouldn't still think this way; [that doesn't fully] appreciate the modeling skills of each girl, regardless of background! For my ethnicity, I know we have already made huge progress. But part of it seems to be because Asian markets have expanded this last decade; I hope it's also because people genuinely like who we are as well... I would say models of color still only represent about 20% of the lineup, and sometimes 0%."
What does it feel like when you're the only Asian model, or one of very few models of color?
"It's funny because it's almost like a game, or the lottery: You 'win' if you get booked as the only Asian model or the only model of color. At first you feel very happy, for sure, since it seems like you were the 'chosen one.' But afterwards when you think about it, it's quite frustrating: It means others lost their chance [to be cast in a particular show].
"Looking forward, you might not get [cast in] the show next season if a particular brand continues to use so few models of color. At one show, I was the only Asian girl, alongside one Black girl, in the lineup, and I couldn't help but feel all those things."
There's been a lot of talk about the lack of diversity on runways, particularly in terms of Black models. Do you think there should be more conversations about Asian models' experiences?
"I think there is definitely room for discussion about every ethnicity. Brands have diverse customers, but it doesn't always feel like so when we look at the shows' lineup or [ad] photo shoots. Every girl should be able to find a person she can identify with; that's why every skin color should be represented on the catwalk and beyond. It may seem like such a small difference, but when I was growing up and saw Asian models working in the industry, it made a huge impact on my own views of diversity and beauty. I'm sure others from different backgrounds feel the same way."