In a candid interview, the first Chinese male face of Valentino, model David Yang, talks casting, cultural appropriation and the little known realities of working in the fashion industry.
In a matter of hours, the racially derogatory rhetoric of Stefano Gabbana had erupted across global media channels and dominated fashion industry columns. Labelling China “ a Country of Shit” in posts directed at fashion journalist Michaela Phuong, this recent racial tirade is perhaps one of the most significant fashion controversies to date. With echoes of John Galliano’s anti-Semitic scandal in 2011, it has laid bare a deeply troubling frame of reference that contends with the cultural globalisation that defines our modern times. It at once, reflects an attitude of prejudice, married with a profound disconnect to a people beyond the mechanisms of commerce. “ This is what happens when you respect a culture for nothing but their money”, declared Diet Prada, the instagram account that exposed and initiated swift social justice in response to Stefano Gabbana’s escalating racist slurs.
Since the proverbial doors have been flung open to the established Italian fashion house, this has re-invigorated conversations concerning race, and the relationship between commerce and culture . In the cloistered world of fashion and luxury, rarely is there acknowledgement of the more unromantic aspect of money, and the individual experiences of the players involved in creating the fantasy of beauty. On this matter,we speak with Chinese model David Yang, the first Chinese male face of luxury label Valentino, and take a glimpse into the world of smoke and mirrors.
I stumbled onto the runway purely by chance. In retrospect, it was thanks to a series of rather fortunate events that I arrived at where I am now. When I signed on the dotted line of that very first modelling contract, I had some expectations of what might come my way. These expectations were few, and very much limited to what I understood of the fashion industry.
Growing up in Scotland, a country whose sensibilities and aesthetics are both so gloriously rustic that it still hasn’t moved on from the kilt after 300 years, fashion existed for me solely through film and music.
Not to mention, my teenage self was an overweight Asian nerd. The only things I wore religiously were my glasses, braces and a smile whose purpose was to (falsely) reassure my parents that I would graduate high school, and immediately hop on the train to law school, (the Asian parent definition of a job is something steady, practical and preferably, well-salaried).
Theirs is a generation who wished for their children to receive the education they weren’t fortunate to receive, so that they could secure steady jobs without the fear of starvation.
My parents’ youth played out in the long shadows cast by the Cultural Revolution. It was their generation, having lived through poverty and political turmoil, who felt the lasting aftermath of this turbulent period. Neither of them graduated high school, mainly because there were no schools for them to graduate from. Instead, at 16 years of age, they joined the army. Theirs is a generation who wished for their children to receive an education that they weren’t fortunate to receive, so that they could secure steady jobs without the fear of starvation. I eventually accepted an offer to study French Literature, a choice so magnificently impractical and left-field that my parents didn’t even know how to question it.
A NEW START
I spent two years at King’s College London wading through everything from medieval French verse to modern poetry, before arriving in Corsica to teach in English in a primary school. Although beautiful, the island’s barrenness only exacerbated the loneliness felt from a recent break-up. A few weeks in, I had reached my quota of melodramatic moping on a scenic island so I packed my bags, crossed my fingers and requested a transfer to Paris. By some stroke of luck, I was accepted to the Sorbonne for the spring semester. After a about month in Paris, it dawned on me that I could not afford to live there without working, so I looked for a part time job. In London, I had spent two years worth of weekends at a Burberry store convincing wealthy Chinese ladies to buy coats and handbags they didn’t need. So naturally, I ended up doing the same in Paris. It was in the Saint Laurent store on Rue Faubourg Saint-Honoré, dressed in that skinny black Hedi Slimane uniform, that I was first approached by a model agent.
I remember asking myself why this woman had spent more time looking at me than at the handbags. Before she left, she came over and slipped me her card. “Have you ever considered modeling?”, she asked,” if so, send me an e-mail.” The answer to that was a firm no. Never had the thought of modelling even vaguely crossed my mind. Truthfully, the me that I saw in the mirror was the still awkward, chubby teenager that I had left behind some years ago. A few months later, when I returned to London to begin my final year of study, several model scouts approached me again. Eventually, I accepted my fate and signed with Models 1, a wonderful agency who has looked after me till now.
Why would they use one of us in an advert? Would the local people accept that?
A handful of test shoots and editorials later, I had been confirmed for an Urban Outfitters campaign. The next month, my photo was hanging in shop windows up and down the country. On the first day of release, I remember receiving texts from friends saying they had seen the pictures. I relayed the news to my parents and within the hour, my mother had sent me a selfie she had taken with my ad. She called me chuckling, ‘I can’t believe you’re up there. The photo is so big! And it’s just a picture of your face, like that portrait of Chairman Mao hanging above Tiananmen Square.’ I think at that point my parents were mostly amused that their previously chubby son had, by some strange twist of fate, ended up in a national fashion campaign.
I remember hearing my dad over the phone murmuring to no one in particular, ‘Why would they use one of us in an advert? Would the local people accept that?’. Considering they live in Scotland where the population is overwhelmingly white both demographically (96%!) and physically, it was understandable that my dad found himself somewhere between wonder and puzzlement. I later found out that I was the first Chinese male to appear in one of their European campaigns. I was shocked.
THE REAL COST
A month later, I was sent to Paris for Fashion Week where I had signed with Elite Paris, an agency home to some of the biggest names working today. Fashion Week proved to be an eye opening experience. For me, this was the week where the curtains were raised on the harsh reality and unrelenting cruelty of the industry. There were upwards of 12 castings a day to frantically race through, where casting directors would reward your two hour wait with a ‘thank you, next!’. Out of 36 castings, I had booked exactly zero shows. A week of continual rejection had naturally made a dent on my self-confidence, but what struck was the effect it had on my self worth.
Sometimes you are left only in your underwear for extended periods of time in a large room of people.
Like any industry, fashion is dominated by power. This power is never more evident than during those weeks of the year when the whole industry descends to New York, London, Milan and Paris for show season. Most models during fashion week are very young. Many are barely 18, and treated like nameless cattle. This would not be acceptable in most industries, and even in fashion at any other time, but somehow Fashion Week is one where a mix of caffeine and power exaggerate egos to their zenith. You may come across reports of casting directors locking models in lightless corridors for hours without food or water before publicly humiliating their weight in front of others. Sometimes you are left only in your underwear for extended periods of time in a large room of people. It is no wonder that many girls and boys end their modelling days with deep insecurities in tow. Luckily the industry has made large strides in protecting models with laws implemented to monitor behaviour, but it shouldn’t have taken a public scandal (Weber, Richardson) for this to happen.
Much like the Olympics, only a handful of individuals are selected from a whole country, to compete on the world stage.
Fashion week can be a very costly endeavour. International flights, accommodation and everything in- between will be added to your bill. The cost of a month’s worth of travelling can quickly add up. Many models will end fashion week owing more money than they have made. In addition to the financial pressure, many of my Chinese peers confessed they faced incredible amounts of pressure from their agencies back home. This is due to the fact that, much like the Olympics, only a handful of individuals are selected from a whole country, to compete on the world stage. For them, there is also the added obstacle of the language barrier. During fashion week this becomes nothing more inconvenient or a source of annoyance for those who don’t think they have the time to communicate.
A Face in the crowd
I had repeated the word ‘Chinese’ so many times that I considered wearing it on a T shirt.
What struck me during my first Fashion Week was that my race had somehow come to define me. By the end of the week, I had repeated the word ‘Chinese’ so many times that I considered wearing it on a T shirt. Three years ago, the industry had still not made up its mind on the use of models of colour. Although more models of varying ethnicities were being included in runway line-ups, tokenism was still, very much at large. In a cast of 40, there would be perhaps five black models, and maybe an Asian model, or two, (if the creative team were feeling particularly inclusive). The rest were white.
A casting director friend recalled the ‘the Korean season’ when the agencies (who function on supply and demand), signed Korean models en masse and sent them to every casting director.
This ratio is slightly adjusted for campaigns, which feature much fewers faces, in order to tick that diversity box. Even more alarming, race itself had become a trend. I remember during that season, Korean models were all the rage. Every other casting director would ask if I was Korean, and before I could finish telling them that I was British-Chinese, their attention had moved on to the next person in line. A casting director friend recalled the ‘the Korean season’ when the agencies (who function on supply and demand), signed Korean models en masse and sent them to every casting director.
This was because during the previous season, one or two top shows had used Korean models. Another casting director noted the trends changing from darker skinned girls to caramel in recent seasons. A similar casting would then be reflected in magazines and in the ad campaigns you see plastered up and down the high street. It does seem absurd that the decisions of a few during the frenzy of fashion week is enough to directly dictate what is considered beautiful, and consequently affect how we measure ourselves up to that notion of beauty every couple of seasons.
‘David’, I replied, to which he chortled ‘That’s not a very Asian name.’
Towards the end of my first year of modelling, I had booked the Valentino campaign, huge by any means,especially as I was the first Chinese male to be featured in any of their advertising. The photographer that day was David Bailey, an undisputed industry legend who for the past fifty years had shot everyone from Twiggy and Kate Moss to Her Royal Majesty herself. The campaign would be a series of 10 portraits of 10 boys.
When it was my turn, I stepped into the large studio space occupied only by Mr Bailey and his two assistants. He lifted his head, asking for my name. ‘David’, I replied, to which he chortled ‘That’s not a very Asian name.’ Perhaps it was out of nerves, out of respect for his legacy, or simply out of surprise that I joined in with the laughter. Considering the power imbalance there, I would probably have laughed even if he had insulted my ancestors.
I was just so grateful to be there that the occasional, ‘that’s great, China’ was all that was necessary to coax my annoyance into bemusement.
He was shooting on a vintage large-format Hasselblad, which needed much longer for each picture to take. I was wearing a cape that needed momentum to billow out, so I began doing a little half-run back and forth. Between every shot I would hear ‘China, go again.’ At the time, I didn’t know what to make of this. I was just so grateful to be there that the occasional, ‘that’s great, China’ was all that was necessary to coax my annoyance into bemusement.
His assistants, not much older than myself, and of a generation who has more respect for political correctness, (or even just more respect for another human being), seemed uncomfortable, but evidently couldn’t say a word. Not wanting to cause a scene, I, China, just went again. After we got the shot, he walked up to me and patted me on the back, saying ‘Thank god someone knew what they were fucking doing. You Chinese are hard workers.’
Over the years, moments like those have been few and far between. They have been outweighed by some truly wonderful experiences and opportunities for which I count my blessings. I’ve travelled to Yosemite National Park, Hawaii, Iceland, Tokyo, Seoul and many more incredible locations working with clients including Balenciaga, Vivienne Westwood, Bottega Veneta, GQ, Vogue, W, Interview among others. Along the way, I have met true artists who approach their work, and the people who make their work possible, with dignity and respect.
A major turning point was when I made the move to New York and the H&M campaign that got me there. I remember passing the sky-high H&M billboard that towered over Times Square the year before, saying to my friend, ‘wouldn’t it be insane be up there?’. A year later, I found myself on that exact same billboard, sharing it with Eric Underwood, a ballet dancer and model of African-American descent. Eric and I discussed how amazing it was that H&M, the brand with possibly the widest reach in the world, had chosen a black model and an Asian model to front their campaign.
New York is a city where everyone can find home in. It belongs to everyone, precisely because it belongs to no one in particular. This is a city well aware that its magic comes from a history of immigration. Upon my arrival in New York, I was lucky enough to be involved in a project with W Magazine. It was a video masterminded by Edward Enninful featuring notable members of the industry who united to take stand against Trump’s new immigration policy. In a clean, black and white crop of our faces, we each stated our names and repeated the sentence in our own mother tongues. Grace Coddington, declared, “‘My name is Grace Coddington, and I am an immigrant.” I made my statement in Chinese.
David Yang is a twenty-four year old Glasgow born model of Chinese ethnicity. After being scouted in Paris, he has become the first Chinese male face of Valentino as well as the first to appear in an Urban Outfitters European campaign. He is represented by HEROES Model Management in New York, Elite Paris, Models 1 in London, Why Not Model Management in Milan, and Longteng Management in Beijing.
Follow David on social media here.
Banner Photography by : Yarden Lawson