Pioneer Chinese supermodel Lu Yan on her label Comme Moi and her catwalk career
Lu Yan became a supermodel before the China story had started to unfold. Now she has her sights set on fresh challenges
Long before the likes of Liu Wen and Sun Fei Fei strutted the world's catwalks, Lu Yan was out there flying the flag for her country. As one of China's first-generation supermodels, Lu's was a rare Chinese face at a time when diverse racial representation on the catwalk was virtually unheard of. Today, at just 34 years old, she is considered a veteran of the modelling world.
By conventional Chinese beauty standards, Lu might almost have been considered the proverbial ugly duckling when she started out, yet the international fashion world quickly embraced her unusual look. Speaking to her in person, it's easy to understand how she has risen to the top. Lu is charismatic and quick-witted, with a vibrant energy and an infectious smile accentuated by those famously high cheek bones.
This aura translates onto the camera - Lu's commanding presence has seen her grace the runways of Lanvin and Hermès as well as the pages of top fashion magazines. Today she's considered one of China's fashion veterans and style icons.
Lu started very much at the bottom. She came from a humble family background: her father was a miner and home was a rural village in Jiangxi province.
"My childhood was very happy because, in the village, everything is simple and you don't have anything to compare your life to," she says. "It was only later when I grew up and went to the city that I realised how many hardships we had. But as a child, I didn't have any cares or worries."
Her life was so simple that the very thought of being a model seemed ludicrous. "When my parents heard that model agents were interested in me, they thought I was being cheated by a con man. They didn't think it was possible, and neither did I. But I figured I would just go for it anyway."
Those first few years were tough. When Lu first started modelling, it was much harder for Chinese models not only to get booked for work, but also to leave the country and organise passports and visas.
"Also, there was a lot less scope to do meaningful work. Back then, only three out of 10 designers would use an Asian model, with those three designers working with that one model," she recalls. "Now, although there are more Chinese models and competition is higher, there is also a lot more opportunities for us. The Chinese economy has really developed over the years, and this has created greater demand for models like us."
Culture shock and language barriers were central to her formative modelling years.
"My father or mother had never been in my situation before, so it was hard for them to comfort me or understand what I was going through. At the beginning I also couldn't speak English, so being in Europe alone was quite difficult."
There were, of course, some memorable moments in Lu's career. One of her favourite was at a Lanvin show, where she wore a Chinese qipao and a fur coat. Then there was that time at London charity event Fashion Rocks, where she sat with the likes of Giorgio Armani, Richard Gere and Björk.
Although Lu claims she's rarely star-struck, she admits being completely taken aback that night by fashion designer Tom Ford. "Tom was the only person I didn't talk to that night. He was so handsome. My heart was beating so fast, and his eyes were so mesmerising," she says, laughing.
Nowadays, Lu is taking on a range of projects. Most recently, she was one of the esteemed judges in the International Woolmark Asia regional final, where she had the opportunity to critique the work of young and promising designers from around the region.
Most notably, she is now working on her own label, Comme Moi, meaning "like me" in French - which featured earlier this year in the South China Morning Post. "As a model, you sometimes have to wait a long time for work to come to you," Lu says. "I'm also someone who likes to learn and keep myself busy, so I saw this project as an opportunity to stave off my boredom.
"The biggest challenge I have is dealing with fabric. As a small brand, it's hard for me to secure supply for 50 to 70 metres of fabric. My scope is far smaller than many other brands, which have a large operational base. And even then when I can find those kinds of materials, they come at a hefty surcharge."
In contrast, Lu finds the design aspect of Comme Moi to be the easiest. Not having a formal design background is not an issue, she says. "I know exactly what I want, so it's really just a matter of communicating with my pattern-maker. She has been with me for the past two years, so it's easy for me to pinpoint areas that aren't right."
Lu's hands-on approach to the business has also seen her (naturally) model for Comme Moi's campaign images. "Why not, if I can save some money," she says, joking. "Ultimately, I'd love Comme Moi to become a global brand, but I'm in no rush to achieve this. The key thing is to make sure that customers like what our team produces, and to keep true to my instincts.
"This has always been who I am: someone who believes in myself, and someone who grabs hold of chances before they slip away. Everything in life depends on being at the right place at the right time with the right people. I saw that opportunity when I started modelling and I just went for it."