Putting Asia's elite on the supermodel map
Michel Lu, owner of Hong Kong Elite, is giving the local modelling scene a shot
WANTED: International modelling agency requires executive director to head Far East division. Must be creative, talented, willing to take risks and be constantly surrounded by young, beautiful women at all times. Generous package. No experience necessary.
Sound like a cool job? You bet it is. Alas, the position is already filled. As the young owner of the Asian branch of Elite Models, arguably the biggest and best-known modelling agency in the world, Michel Lu bears the enviable responsibility of recruiting, managing and promoting young, beautiful girls.
Michel (pronounced Michael), 27, was born in Hong Kong, raised in Singapore and educated in New York, where he studied 'general business courses like economics and political science' at Rochester University.
After a few brief stints working for advertising agencies in Singapore and Hong Kong, he came back to work for his family's business, but always felt a strong desire to break away and 'do his own thing'.
'My family is very low profile, they're not into this high profile, glamour thing,' he said. 'At first, they were a bit apprehensive.' 'But when they saw us [Elite Hong Kong] starting to get editorial coverage in the Asian Wall Street Journal, they began to take it more seriously.' Business journals aside, the modelling industry, like anything in the fickle business of fashion, is notorious for being high-risk, especially for the uninitiated.
'A relationship with Elite began through social connections,' he said. 'I had met [Elite's London head] Chris Owen through mutual friends. While I was still working for my family, I began helping out booking girls for special events like Hong Kong Fashion Week from Elite, Lon-don.' His moonlighting as a booker for Elite London eventually led to a greater desire to get into the business full-time, and in September last year Lu took the plunge and bought the rights to open his own division of Elite in Hong Kong.
His decision had a lot to do with his confidence in the drawing power of the Elite moniker. 'If I had decided to open 'Michel's Models' for instance, we would be just one more Hong Kong modelling agency,' he said.
'By choosing to go with Elite, we are buying into a network of Elite models worldwide, which immediately makes us the only truly international modelling agency in Asia.' One of the most unusual aspects of agencies in Hong Kong is that they are not exclusive. A Hong Kong-based model will usually be on the books of several local agencies simultaneously, theoretically to improve her chances of getting work.
Unfortunately, this lack of 'monogamy' leads to double-bookings, hugely inconsistent modelling fees, and a general lack of organisation.
'That was one of the first things we set out to change,' said Lu. 'All of the girls that we represent are exclusive to Elite. The only exception to that rule is if there is a client that is looking for a specific type of girl and we haven't got her, we will go out and 'source her' from another agency, and split the commission 50-50.' The 'commitment problem' between Hong Kong models and their respective agencies was dramatically illustrated last month when one of the most prolific agencies, Models 4, closed down close on the heels of Elite's opening. The word in the fashion community is that this town wasn't big enough for the both of them, and that Models 4 was doomed to wither in the shadow of Elite.
'It's the market here. It takes a lot of capital to keep a business going. The overheads are huge. Rents for office space alone are incredible, and we pay our girls immediately after they do a job, even before we are paid by the client, so we have to keep constantly on our toes.' 'Keeping on your toes' in the modelling industry can be directly translated by saying 'being able to supply a constant stream of fresh faces to bored editors and exacting advertising clients'.
That is no small task in Hong Kong, which is still just outside the normal migration circuit of most high-calibre models currently circling the globe.
Still, Lu remains undaunted. 'We plan to bring in top-quality Asian and Western girls. We're currently looking at bringing in girls from Brazil and all over South America.' And how does he plan to lure these Latin beauties to the territory? I suggested he might be offering models the kind of set-in-stone-whether-you-work-or-not-six-figure-contracts that were rife in the salad days of the mid-80s in Japan.
'No, no, no! We're not quite there yet,' he laughed. 'In particular cases, we will advance air fare and help with accommodation.' Michel Lu's fresh naivete towards the business may serve to be his most valuable asset. It also means his approach is not burdened by tradition.
With his Hong Kong office just up and running, he's already looking at expanding in other parts of Asia.
'We will be opening in Singapore this year and hopefully open offices in China and Taiwan as well.
'Basically I want Elite to establish a presence in Asia in order to lay the groundwork for creating a market for the first Asian supermodels.' A lofty ambition, but not an unrealistic one. With fashion's recent 'discovery' of Japanese superbabe Jenny Shimazu, there has been an increasingly heightened interest in Asian models, and Lu is in a good position to supply them. He also stands to make a substantial profit doing it.
'I'm not interested in pulling some girl off the beach in Sydney to come and do catalogue work in Hong Kong,' he said. 'I'm trying to promote all of my top girls in international markets.' So he's really in it for the money? 'Of course,' he smiles knowingly. 'This is a business, like any other. I think as Asia becomes more of an economic force, society will become more affluent, and certainly fashion will always be a part of all that. There's a long way to go and we have our problems but we're in it for the long haul . . . we're here to stay.'