East, Southeast, and South Asian models have been leading the way and influencing the industry for decades, yet have in the past been seen as filling “casting quotas” or what’s worse, forgotten entirely. Continuing our Through The Decades series, we are spotlighting Asian model trailblazers from as early as the 50s who’ve displayed monumental milestones throughout the eras and may or may not be on your radar. Whether you’re on Fashion Spot pouring over model history or interested in learning something new, this continuous list highlights how these pillars of model history started in the industry, climbed to notoriety, and some of their major claims to fame.
Taiwanese-born Shu Qi started off acting before she joined the modeling world. Qi won Best Supporting Actress in 1997 at the 16th Hong Kong Film Awards, and soon after her acting career took off and she starred in “The Transporter” in 2002. The Taiwanese model eventually appeared in the famous Kenzo Flower fragrance ads and multiple magazine covers for Vogue China, Elle China, and Vogue Hong Kong.
Japanese Model Ai Tominaga got discovered by an agent in her hometown and was brought to Paris soon after. Tominaga’s first big debut was walking for Valentino and she was among the first Japanese models to pave the way for more talents from that region. The model eventually graced the runways of Dior, Louis Vuitton, and Gucci. Tominaga was also featured in a Saint Laurent campaign shot by Steven Meisel in 2002 and now is a global ambassador to NGO Joicfp, which “provides quality sexual and reproductive health/rights services for specifically women in developing countries.”
Malaysian-born, Ling Tan was discovered during a modeling competition in Kuala Lumpur, where she won first place. Tan got her big break when she was waiting in a hotel lobby and was approached by an advertising executive, which propelled her to move to NYC. She then went on to feature in a Pirelli calendar editorial shot by Richard Avedon and walked for Chanel, Alexander McQueen, and Thierry Mugler. Ling was amongst the top models of the mid-to-late 1990s, and one of very few Asian models working during that period.
Born Bhupinder Singh in Punjab, India, Bo Pinder moved to America with her family at the age of 10 and grew up on a peach farm in Northern California. It was while waitressing in New York in 1980 that Bo was discovered, and soon after she became one of the most sought-after catwalk models in Europe and the US. For the next 10 years Bo was a regular on the runways of Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Armani, Ferre and Bill Blass.
Born in Yokohama, Japan in 1949, Sayoko Yamaguchi got her start working with designers like Kansai Yamamoto, Kenzo Takaka and Issey Miyake before her debut in Paris in 1972. Yves Saint Laurent, Chanel, and Jean-Paul Gaultier called upon the Japanese muse to showcase their creations and she signed a contract with Shiseido in 1973. In 1977, Newsweek magazine named her as one of the top six models in the world. On August 14, 2007, she passed away from acute pneumonia at the age of 57.
Sin-May Zao is a French former model who worked closely with Pierre Cardin during his influential “cosmocorps” collections of the late 1960s. The daughter of Hong Kong Chinese actress and sculptor May Zao and acclaimed Chinese painter Zao Wou-ki, Sin-May turned to acting in the 1970s.
Noelie Dasouza Machado lived in Shanghai until the age of 16, before settling in Europe. Once discovered, she subsequently changed her name to China (pronounced “Cheena”) when she started modeling in Paris for Hubert de Givenchy, Balenciaga, and Oleg Cassini. In 1958 she was spotted at a Balenciaga runway show in New York by fashion photographer Richard Avedon and became the first non-Caucasian to appear on the cover of a major American fashion magazine when she posed for Harper’s Bazaar February 1959 issue. She worked for Avedon exclusively for three years before he got her a job as Harper’s Bazaar Senior Fashion Editor and eventually was promoted to Fashion Director.
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