Meet the pink-haired, Chinese Australian model taking the fashion industry by storm
Fernanda Ly has arrived on a wave of Asian models who are increasingly making their mark on Western fashion and beauty. With four, soon to be five, covers of Vogue under her belt, she is fast becoming an industry favourite
A teenager 1.7 metres (5 feet 7 inches) tall with a mane of My Little Pony hair doesn’t automatically scream “future superstar”. Yet an equally petite – for a model – London waif by the name of Kate Moss caught the eye of Storm Models’ Sarah Doukas at New York’s JFK Airport in 1988. And in the same way, there was something about 17-year-old, pink-haired Chinese Australian Fernanda Ly that immediately grabbed Doll Wright, director of Priscillas Model Management, in Sydney in 2013.
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Ly, now 22, is now one of the biggest international success stories in Australian modelling over the past three years. She has campaigns for Louis Vuitton, Dior and Kate Spade under her belt and has been featured on four, soon to be five, Vogue covers.
Her modelling career began after she was spotted in The Galeries shopping centre on Sydney’s George Street by a stylist, who asked if she’d ever considered modelling. The then 17-year-old high school student from Sydney’s western suburbs sent in some images to Priscillas and was signed on the spot – much to the horror of her parents.
“They’re happy for me now because obviously I’ve made it, but in the beginning it was [considered] an unacceptable sort of thing. They’re very traditional,” says Ly of her parents, who migrated to Australia from Vietnam in the 1980s.
Wright had just returned home from a four-and-a-half year stint in New York working for Ford Models and Elite Model Management, and was on the lookout for the Australian industry’s next big thing. “I thought, ‘wow’ – I loved everything about her, her clothes, her look,” she says.
Until mid-2013, top Australian models tended to be in the mould of either blue-eyed blonde beach babes such as Gemma Ward, Abbey Lee Kershaw and Julia Nobis, or sultry, porcelain-skinned brunettes such as Catherine McNeil and Miranda Kerr.
Coming up quietly behind them on the books of Australia’s biggest agencies, however, was a new generation of ethnically diverse girls who were more reflective of Australia’s multicultural melting pot. According to the 2016 Census, nearly half of all Australians were either born overseas or have at least one parent who was.
Four members of this new, diverse Australian model pack are about to be celebrated on the April 2018 cover of Vogue Australia. Alongside Ly will be Sudanese Australian Achol “Akiima” Ajak, Serbian Australian transgender superstar Andreja Pejic, and indigenous Australian Charlee Fraser.
While any Vogue cover is a tremendous honour, so far only Vogue Japan and Teen Vogue in the US have dedicated their front covers to a solo Ly – a point not lost on Ly vis-à-vis the Chinese edition.
“Vogue Japan put me on their cover solo much faster than Vogue China did [at all], despite me actually being Chinese,” she said. “The Japanese people are much more welcoming to me, rather than my own Chinese people. It’s quite funny.”
After booking some initial modelling work in Australia, Ly took a leave of absence in 2014 from her interior architecture and spatial design studies at the University of Technology Sydney to focus on modelling full-time, moving to New York in early 2015.
Her big break came in March 2015 via a worldwide exclusive Wright brokered with Louis Vuitton’s casting director, Ashley Brokaw, for the brand’s autumn/winter 2015/2016 womenswear show in Paris.
Ly walked out third after industry icons Freja Beha Erichsen and Liya Kebede in a knee-length white fur coat and the industry did an instant double take.
A catwalk image of Ly from the show appeared on page one of fashion journal WWD the next morning, while Vogue.com ran a “Who’s that girl?” profile on her within days. Meanwhile, i-D dubbed her “the model with the mostest at autumn/winter 15 fashion month”.
It was the start of a multi-season Ly love fest at Louis Vuitton, with Ly booking the brand’s autumn/winter 2015/2016 campaign, closing its cruise 2016 show, opening the spring 2016 show and booking the accompanying spring 2016 campaign. She has since become a regular at Louis Vuitton shows in Paris and around the world.
By June 2016, after four Vogue covers and editorial shots with top photographers such as Patrick Demarchelier, Mikael Jansson, Mario Sorrenti and Steven Klein for titles including Vogue US, CR Fashion Book and Love Magazine, Ly had landed a coveted spot on the “Top 50” models list on models.com.
“Ashley Brokaw is the reason why I have a career now, along with Doll – and of course Louis Vuitton,” Ly says. She has since walked for many other luxury brands, notably Dior, which booked Ly for its autumn 2017 and spring 2018 shows last year, and for its autumn 2017/2018 campaign.
Ly currently lives in New York with her best friend, Japanese model Yuka Mannami. Flame-haired Korean Ho-yeon Jung is another model mate.
Having lots of Korean friends has inspired Ly to study Korean, after learning Japanese at school. She speaks Cantonese with her parents, but can’t write it, hence is not on Weibo. Instagram is Ly’s social media platform of choice, using the “@warukatta” handle, a Japanese phrase meaning “it was bad”. She has 188,000 followers.
Ly has arrived on a wave of Asian models who are increasingly making their mark on the Western fashion and beauty industries. She is one of three Asians on models.com’s Top 50 list, alongside Jing Wen and Sora Choi (Liu Wen and Fei Fei Sun have since graduated to models.com’s even hotter “New Supers” and “The Money Girls” lists, joined on the latter by Soo Joo Park and Sui He).
“I think it’s interesting that it took fashion so long to actually put Asian girls into their shows. Their shows weren’t actually reflecting their consumers,” Ly says. “Wouldn’t you want to see so many more Asians? Because I’m pretty sure they spend the most money. It’s a weird thing. It’s changing very, very slowly. But it’s happening, which is good.”