updated 28 May 2012, 16:34
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Sun, Jan 10, 2010
Urban, The Straits Times
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Beijing Beauty
by Hong Xinyi

With her strong brows and full pout, Beijing-born model Liu Dan does the smouldering look particularly well - and fashion photographers have noticed.

Since embarking on a modelling career nine years ago, she has been photographed doing her signature intense gaze, lips-parted thing in the pages of top fashion titles such as Vogue (the Chinese, Italian and French editions, no less), as well as gracing the ad campaigns of brands like Guess and Shanghai Tang.

Her latest gig, as the face of Ion Orchard, is what brought her to town last October.

Outside the pages of glossy fashion spreads, however, Liu is more an approachable girl-next-door than a haughty clotheshorse - very softspoken and mild-mannered.

At the age of 24, this only child of an accountant mother and a travel industry executive father is considered one of the most high-profile Chinese models working in the international fashion industry today, a cohort that includes established names like Shirley Gao, Emma Pei, Danni Li and Shu Pei.

'I think Westerners still think of my look, especially my almond-shaped eyes, as exotic,' she muses, when asked about the secret to her success.

'And the opportunities for Asian models are getting even better as the world starts to understand China more. When I started out in Paris, there were not many Asian models. Now, there is a lot more competition.'

She started modelling part-time at the age of 15, after becoming one of the top 10 finalists of a modelling contest she entered during a school holiday. Finding the whole experience 'quite interesting', she took off for Paris two years later to find more work, despite parental reservations about the world of modelling.

Her father, especially, 'was a bit worried because he thought I might be exposed to bad influences', she says.

Not knowing a word of French or English, she found the initial months tough-going.

'Out of 10 auditions, I managed to go to only three or four because I kept getting lost,' she recalls.

'My agency then arranged for a car service to chauffeur me around, but it didn't tell me I had to pay for the service. It charged me quite a lot of money for it afterwards.'

Thankfully, as she puts it, 'in my line of work, communicating through facial expressions is more important than language'.

Today, she is based in New York and returns to Beijing regularly for work and play.

Despite having strutted the runways of the world's top fashion capitals, she is still very fond of her hometown.

'Shanghai is more fashion-forward than Beijing, which can be quite conservative when it comes to style,' she concedes.

'But Beijing people have more substance,' she adds cheekily.

Hometown loyalties aside, Liu believes that China's fashion industry, like its powerhouse economy, is developing rapidly.

'There have been many improvements in recent years. Not only are there more outstanding models now, make-up artists and stylists have also become more professional because many of them have gained more international exposure and experience.'

She also points to the rise of Chinese designers like Guo Pei and Qi Gang, both known for flamboyant, theatrical creations, as a sign that China is coming into its own as a major force in fashion.

As for life as a top model, Liu views her nearly decade-long stint in the fashion world with a simple philosophy: 'I want to look forward to each assignment I get and be satisfied with how I perform.'

In the meantime, she is doing her own bit to move Beijing in a fashion-forward direction: She recently opened a boutique there that stocks clothes and accessories she brings in from New York.

'I would love to design my own clothes in the future,' she said.

This article was first published in Urban, The Straits Times.

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