Why Louis Vuitton’s all-Asian cast was so important
Virgil Abloh's SS21 show for the House took place in Shanghai, and set a new standard.
As the fashion industry’s ship slowly sets sail into the ‘new normal’, Virgil Abloh’s Louis Vuitton Men’s SS21 show served as a timely reminder of how far we’ve come over the last five or so years when it comes to diversity in casting. Specifically that diversity is no longer just about inclusivity solely in terms of race; it’s more interesting now. It’s about refusing to appease Western beauty standards, saying no to the monopoly of chiselled jaws, Bambi eyes, rippling abs and bulging biceps. The fashion industry is realising that this over-sexualised vision of the male model is outdated, swapping it out for a focus on unique individuals who are relatable but extraordinary in their own right.
On August 6th, when the world watched Louis Vuitton’s SS21 Men’s show in Shanghai, we saw an amazing array of solely Asian male models walking the runway, cast by i-D’s Samuel Ellis Scheinman. What’s more, each model represented beauty beyond those tired, outdated Western beauty ideals, it was a cast, viewed as a whole, who made us stop and question the male beauty norms we had been indoctrinated with over the years.
Through the 90s and the 00s, we were inundated with gorgeous, beautiful, chiselled models who all performed for and were ultimately seen by the Western gaze. However, recently we have seen a huge change in the definition of what a model is and what clients want from them. Now there is a stronger demand for authenticity and relatability — no longer is it casting god-like supermodels the main goal. When I worked as the head model booker for Campbell Addy’s casting and modelling agency, Nii Agency, I saw a rise in requests for ‘real-looking people’. They soon became requests for models who looked street cast, who didn’t look too ‘model-y’, or did something else besides modelling. People are trying to find the ‘relatable thing in the fashion industry, something that consumers can resonate with, but which still feels elevated.
Looking at the internet rankings of Asian male supermodels from 2010 to 2014, their successes almost always relied on their looks assimilating to a Western gaze. All the models included were mixed race, or ‘not too’ Asian in appearance, or were playing to the successes of their predecessors who were incredibly masculine in a most traditional sense, a standard that the industry once eagerly upheld.
This stemmed from the stereotype that Asian men aren’t appropriately masculine. But as the fashion industry and wider world moves past the notion that men have to demonstrate emotional stoicism and physical alpha-ism, we find ourselves in the process of reimagining what it means to be a man, and thus a male model, too.
My earliest memory of seeing an Asian male model who didn’t appease Western beauty expectations on a main stage runway or campaign was Sang Woo Kim. More recently, we’ve also seen the rise of Xu Meen. As an artist and model, Sang embodied the concept that models could be more than just that. Similarly, Xu has shown the world that diversity didn’t have any one particular look, opening the door for many other Asian male models.
We’re also seeing a change in how South and Central Asian models are being represented in the industry. Though colourism is still prominent, specific agencies and major industry clients are changing course towards more consistent and authentic representation for South and Central Asian models, including them in more high fashion productions on world stages. Again, we are no longer just seeing them through a Western lens conditioned by outdated stereotypes. Instead, we now see them as dynamic, exceptional individuals with supermodel potential. Be it that quirkier models will always have a spot in artistically experimentative shoots, they’re now truly making their mark in mainstream high fashion jobs.
So why is the Louis Vuitton SS21 men’s show casting so significant? It’s been discussed thoroughly that an abundance of representation in media is important — for mental health and self-esteem, it sets the tone for how young people develop in relation to how they see themselves and feel seen. Louis Vuitton’s SS21 show revitalised the idea that dynamic casting doesn’t have to be tokenistic, nor something that aims to shock or reach for publicity.
For Louis Vuitton’s SS21 show in Shanghai, models such as Ding Qiang, Xinze Man, Ni Haoran, and Meng Yu Qi all set the stage for brilliance through their unwavering and extraordinary looks. They were a collection of individuals showcasing the diversity of beauty found across East Asia, and this new wave of Asian male models are totally rewriting what it means to be successful in the industry.
A select few agencies in Asia that are creating a significant standpoint against the industry’s beauty standard are GOST Agency in South Korea, ETC Mgmt in South Korea, Longteng Agency in China, Tigers by Matt in Hong Kong, and Anima Creative Management in India. What sets these agencies and major industry changers apart from the rest is their ability to see an individual beyond commercial currency. Something authentic, something striking, something very new.