This article first appeared in Harper's Bazaar Singapore, the leading fashion glossy on the best of style, beauty, design, travel and the arts. Go to www.harpersbazaar.com.sg and follow @harpersbazaarsg on Instagram; harpersbazaarsingapore on Facebook. The August 2020 issue is out on newsstands now.
Fashion mythology is filled with tales of young models thrust into superstardom by chance – Kate Moss was discovered while transiting through JFK Airport and Naomi Campbell and Gisele Bundchen scouted while going about their teenage lives.
But as fashion itself has transformed from a secretive, insider world into a powerful driver of the global economy and a giant pillar of popular culture, so have the jobs populating that world been demystified; people no longer stumble into styling, creative directing or modelling.
They grow up with clear goals of catapulting into the industry, setting themselves on specific paths to get there.
It is this kind of ambition that has led these four Singapore models – Kaci Beh, Kaigin Yong, Layla Ong and Duan Mei Yue – to the big, bright lights of the world's fashion capitals.
Duan, 20, has been in love with fashion since she was a child, though she initially had another route in mind.
"I actually thought of being a designer. I love beautiful things, dressing up. I love how fashion can change the way you feel. When you wear something amazing, you feel it and you become it," she says.
Beh, too, thought about it for years before taking the plunge and "gathered my courage, worked hard to lose more than 10kg, then went to an open casting call", which has then led to an increasing number of opportunities.
Yong, 25, and Ong, 24, heeded the call of fashion only after trying their hand at several other endeavours that proved unfulfilling.
"I graduated from university in biology and business, and then I did sales in a few different industries, but nothing made me really happy," says Yong. "I wanted a different life experience and that led me to The New Paper New Face 2017 modelling competition."
Her win led to bigger platforms, such as opening Singapore Fashion Week 2017.
Ong did short-lived stints in various office jobs, the food and beverage industry, the beauty and cosmetics sector, and events planning, before a casting call on Instagram in 2016 made her take decisive action.
She never really saw herself as a model though she had been told that she had potential to be one given her height.
"In my mind, the models I know are not the kind of model I am. I thought you had to look like a bombshell, with small lips, big eyes and big hair," she says.
It was opportune then that Ong and this cohort of stunning but unconventionally pretty girls entered the industry just as it was being driven by intense discussions around diversity.
Everyone was hungry for new faces to expand the beauty ideal beyond skinny, white and blonde.
Ironically, Ong, who did not see herself as model material, found herself scoring the most coveted show at Milan fashion week in 2018: an exclusive contract and with one of the hottest brands in fashion, no less.
"I got a call from my agency in South Korea and they said Gucci wanted to see me. They flew me to Rome to meet the design team and then to Milan to see the casting team," recalls Ong about that fateful season in fall/winter 2018 when the Italian house signed her as a runway exclusive.
She has since walked six Gucci shows, in locales as far-flung as Paris, Arles and Rome; popped up in a Gucci Beauty campaign; and, since then, made catwalk turns at Dolce & Gabbana, Rodarte and MSGM.
An exclusive is not the only pathway to major fashion credibility – landing a spot in a buzzed-about show instantly earns eyeballs worldwide and Yong scored at what was arguably the buzziest show of spring/summer 2020: the Dries Van Noten spectacular designed in collaboration with Christian Lacroix.
Getting there was no walk in the park, though. As she recalls: "It was my last casting of the day, the 10th in fact. It was a rainy day so Paris was colder than usual. There were so many girls lined up that I didn't have any expectations whatsoever."
It all paid off, though, when she got to "walk in front of Dries himself, and Christian; and then they started discussing among themselves, put this blazer on me, took some photos and, at the callback, both designers fitted the clothes on my body and I got to talk to them. They were so sweet and it was such an amazing experience".
It certainly makes a model's fashion journey easier to have boldfaced designers in their corner.
For Beh, 21, it was Dolce & Gabbana that was her springboard onto the international stage.
"When I did my first Dolce show in February, people were like, 'oh my god', and that was when I started getting more attention from producers and casting directors," she says.
She followed up on that promising Milan debut with an even more impressive showing during the spring/summer 2020 season, proving her versatility by going from sensuous Dolce & Gabanna siren to Emporio Armani's cool minimalism and then closing the Stella Jean show looking like an ethereal pagan priestess.
She also jetted to Sicily last summer with Dolce & Gabbana to play an ancient Roman warrior in the brand's Alta Moda outing.
With less competition for attention, the rarified world of haute couture can be a great platform for nascent models to prove their mettle.
Case in point: When Riccardo Tisci handpicked a then-unknown Joan Smalls to walk his Givenchy haute couture show, a star was famously born.
Duan got a taste of this when she became the only Singaporean model chosen by Dior to walk in a special showing of its spring/summer 2018 haute couture collection in Shanghai.
"That was definitely one of the biggest highs of my career so far," she says.
At that show, she caught the eye of agents and casting directors, getting herself signed to Women In New York soon after, and parlayed that into a runway appearance at American designer Casey Cadwallader's much-praised debut at Mugler in September 2018.
"(Television personality and model) Violet Chachki was there; (rapper-actress) Cardi B wore 'my' outfit soon after – it was surreal," she adds.
NO BED OF ROSES[hhmc]
But as Duan would soon find out, the flip side of fashion's rush of highs is its gut punch of lows.
In an industry so driven by subjective notions of appearances, the rejection can take its toll.
"I started comparing myself with other girls thinking that I needed to be skinnier even though I was already thin. I started obsessively monitoring everything I ate. I wouldn't eat more than 1,200 calories a day and I went to the gym religiously – each time, I'd be there for more than two hours.
"If I failed, I would feel so much guilt. It got so bad that I had an eating disorder and had to go to therapy," she says of this dark point of her life.
Realising she needed to focus on her mental health before all else, she "decided to take a break and come home. Before this, I was living in Tokyo, South Korea, New York, PariRead More – Source[contf] [contfnew]