Kaigin Yong, Supermodel
IN SEPTEMBER 2019, The New York Times published a review of the much-anticipated collaboration between European fashion doyens Dries Van Noten and Christian Lacroix. The main picture it picked was of Kaigin Yong on the Paris runway, wearing a purple ruche top over floral shorts. It was a moment of pride for the Singapore modelling industry - when was the last time a Singapore girl or boy led the Style pages of the august newspaper?
But Yong didn't know about the photo until much later, when a makeup artist-friend texted her. The 26-year-old says: "I read The New York Times frequently. But I never imagined that my photo would appear on the front page of its fashion news segment…Also, I tend to read the politics section of the paper first because I'm interested in current affairs."
Yong isn't trying to insert a boast in that statement - no, really - she's much too modest and unassuming for that. In fact, her lack of pretension is one reason why so many editors, designers and stylists enjoy working with her. ("No ego, no drama," as one stylist put it.) Another reason is her ability to change chameleon-like from one persona to another, nailing the look the photographer or designer is after.
Yong is a 1.79 metre-tall waif, with soft elfin features prized in high fashion. The Dries Van Noten x Christian Lacroix show was just one of several triumphs in the 2019/2020 season; she also walked or shot for Lemaire, Burberry, Viktor & Rolf, Ralph & Russo, Erdem and others. She is arguably Singapore's most successful model right now.
But when asked which of these accomplishments she's proudest of, she says: "It's the fact that I get to stand on an international catwalk and represent my country… There aren't many Singaporean girls there, and it's a proud moment for me to be on that global stage and fly the Singapore flag.
"In fact, whenever casting directors ask me where I'm from, it gives me a lot of pride to say: 'Singapore.' There's always a feeling that I have a unique point of difference."
FROM BIOLOGY TO BOTTEGA
Yong came into modelling when she decided to join The New Paper New Face 2017 contest on a whim. Back then, she was working as a part-time research assistant at the National University Health System. She had recently graduated with a degree in biological sciences from top science university Imperial College London.
The night before the TNP New Face finals, she took the risk of chopping her long locks for a chic pixie cut. The gambit worked. The judges were impressed. And Yong beat 19 other girls to take the crown. One of the judges, actress-influencer Nadiah M Din, raved: "The moment she came out, she had that X-factor. And that was what we were looking out for."
But while the victory came almost fortuitously, the subsequent years were somewhat of a struggle. Yong says: "People assume that when I won TNP New Face, the gigs in Europe followed right after. But that's not true at all. After I was signed to NOW Model Management in Singapore, I decided to go to Europe on my own and knock on the doors of various modelling agencies - only to get rejected in the face. Some would redirect me, saying that I'd fit this other agency better. But when I'd go to that agency, they'd redirect me back to the previous agency. It was tough."
The big break came in 2018 when she was spotted on a catwalk in China by the talent scouts of the storied New York agency Ford Models. Ford's legendary girls include Candice Bergen, Lauren Hutton, Jerry Hall, Brooke Shields, Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington. To be represented by Ford is an honour in itself. But Ford crucially helped open doors once closed to Yong. She says: "Ford gave me a strong support system. And, with my US Visa recently approved, I can go to New York and have the option of staying there if I want to."
CHINA'S RISING TIDE
The rapid growth of China's luxury market has also made a difference. According to a Bain report, the country is on track to become the biggest luxury market by 2025. From fashion to fine wine, every luxe brand is actively pursuing the high-end Chinese consumer and picking East Asian faces to front some of its campaigns.
Yong says China's rise has boosted her catwalk career, as have broader social movements towards diversity and inclusion. "In the past, it was more like: 'Oh, we already have an Asian girl on board, so we don't need another one.' But the industry is slowly changing for the better - not just on issues of race, but also size and age.
"People always say to me: 'How long can you model for?' But when I walked for Lemaire, they had older models who were beautiful and elegant, and who fit into the show so well. So, all in all, I'm actually optimistic about the future of the industry."
Yong feels certain that whatever challenge comes her way, she can rise to it: "I've always been a risk-taker: I studied biology but decided to become a model. I had long hair but radically cut it for the TNP New Face contest. I came to Europe on my own, hunted for work, had my wallet stolen in Milan, got an eye infection from a makeup product just before my first European show… and I survived.
"At the end of the day, I always embrace change and challenges. I'm competitive, not so much with others, but with myself. I want to continuously see progress in my career."
This year, that desire for progress means not being home for Chinese New Year. Yong is currently in Paris and will likely stay there through the festive season. Though she'll miss her mother's cooking ("My mother makes the best Hakka dishes!"), she'll get to do what she loves best - strutting the runways in the world's most luxurious clothes.
Or, as she likes to put it, "flying the Singapore flag on an international stage."