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Diya Prabhakar at New York Fashion Week (left), Layla Ong in Gucci at Milan Fashion Week (centre) and Jean Yong in Antonio Marras at Milan Fashion Week (right).

A strong champion of local talents, NOW Model Management owner Addie Low (centre, in black) surrounded by his talents (clockwise from top left) Etienne Kugler, Shikin Gomez, Valerie Lim, Matthew Ta, Alzbeta C, Gabriel Yap, Jasmine Sim and Gernice Lee.

Nora Ariffin.

Ethel Fong.

Hanis Hussey ruled in the 1980s, appearing in numerous international campaigns. In the 1990s, the spotlight shone on:

Celia Teh.

(Clockwise from left to right) Junita Simon, Lum May Yee, Serena Adsit, Nadya Hutagalung, Wendy Jacobs, Gina Tan and Huda Ali.

SPH Magazines inaugurated Project M to find new local model.

Singapore Models Redux

Sidelined by foreign faces for almost a decade, Singapore models are finding the spotlight again
09/03/2018 - 05:50

TEN years ago, Singapore fashion models were not in high demand. Most labels and show producers were booking foreign models, and the only name laypeople could come up with when asked about local models was "Sheila Sim". Many reasons were cited for the scarcity of local faces - unstable wages, impractical career option, disruption of studies, National Service taking away the boys, and so on.

The tide now seems to be turning. At the recent Milan Fashion Week, no less than three Singapore models appeared in various shows. NOW Model Management star Jean Yong strutted in the much-adored Antonio Marras show. Basic Models Management's Layla Ong was in Gucci's "is this a fashion show or a mental hospital" spectacle. And Basic's Ashley Soo walked in Sartorial Monk.

Meanwhile, The New Paper New Face 2014 winner Diya Prabhakar turned heads at New York Fashion Week wearing Christian Siriano and other labels. The New Paper New Face 2010 winner Vivien Ong has a career in New York, having walked for brands such as Sophie Theallet, Moncler and Vivienne Westwood. Other girls drawing buzz include Fiona Fussi, Aimee Cheng-Bradshaw, Jasmine Sim and Iman Fandi.

The wave of new girls working globally come on the back of concerted efforts to recognise local beauty. NOW Model Management owner Addie Low says: "When I started the agency six years ago to champion local models, about 98 percent of the models I'd see in magazines and fashion shows were foreign models. Now, I see about 10 to 15 percent local presence in those magazines and catwalks."

Basic Models Management owner Bonita Ma agrees: "There's a stronger presence of local models nowadays, and the hype for local talent is definitely building up." Nuyou editor-in-chief Terence Lee echoes the opinions of several fashion editors when he declares: "There's been a re-emergence of local models since its last boom in the 1990s… And I think this is going to be a sustained wave."

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The renewed currency of local faces evolves from several factors - one of them being the strong push by fashion leaders to champion local talents. Creative director Daniel Boey, who frequently insists on using local models for his shows, says: "I've stopped counting the number of time naysayers tell me the girls or boys I picked weren't good enough to be models, and these include the likes of Layla (Ong), Jean (Yong) and Ashley (Soo). Once, a fashion student cried because I used Vivien (Ong) for her graduation show. But when Vivien did Vivienne Westwood in Paris, she boasted that Vivien walked in her show. Many people b*tched about local models and said they'd never touch them. But now they're coming out of the woodwork to celebrate their success."

In 2005, fashion writer Dhylan Boey - no relation to Daniel Boey - bemoaned the lack of local modelling talent in a piece titled Desperately Seeking Supermodels published in The Straits Times. Like other fashion writers before and after him, he harks back to the era in the 1980s and 1990s when local girls ruled covers and catwalks.


Ethel Fong was signed on to Ford Agency and appeared in Giorgio Armani ads across the world. Nora Ariffin was the face of a Chanel global perfume ad campaign, and appeared in Cover Girl ads alongside Tyra Banks and Niki Taylor in the early 1990s. Hanis Hussey closed the Yves Saint Laurent show in Paris in 1983 and was on the cover of Time. It was the "Golden Age" of local fashion and models.

The 1990s saw other names rise in popularity, such as Junita Simon, Charmaine Harn, Huda Ali and Lum May Yee. But the 2000s was punishing for the modelling scene. According to Dhylan Boey, who's now the Group Editor of SPH Magazines, it could be traced to the rise of behind-the-scenes talents like stylist Johnny Khoo and photographers Chuando, John Clang and Leslie Kee. They came onto the scene in early 2000s and attracted a flood of young foreign models into Singapore, hoping to build their still-bare portfolios here.

"Somewhere along the way, that sad colonial mentality that 'white is right' returned and brands started to choose white models over local girls," says Daniel Boey. "Meanwhile, local designers were forgotten as people started preferring more international labels - labels that also had the savvy to create cheaper lines for those with not-so-deep pockets. Then fast fashion came, effectively killing the local scene."

But concerted efforts by various members of the fashion industry and global changes in beauty ideals are slowly bringing back the Singapore face. SPH magazines Nuyou, Female and Her World recently inaugurated Project M, a country-wide search for fresh local models in collaboration with Bugis Junction and Bugis+, with casting calls initiated entirely on digital and social media platforms. SPH Magazines' Dhylan Boey says: "The response has been exhilarating: We have already hit way above target at above 1,300 sign-ups. Who can say now that Singapore is a famine of modelling talent? I may have to take back what I wrote 13 years ago."

Noelle Loh, editor of Female magazine which gave Layla Ong her first cover, says that changing aesthetics and social media have been a major force of change: "Disruptive leaders like Balenciaga creative director Demna Gvasalia and Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele have helped glamourise individuality and diversity. Audiences are more open to editorial models who could have once been perceived as 'edgy' or 'odd-looking'.

"Meanwhile social media plays an immense role not only in diffusing such cultural movements but also providing a platform for anyone to showcase themselves. This opens up opportunities for non-traditionally beautiful faces to be scouted; and has become an incredible resource for brands, modelling scouts and publications like Female to discover new faces."

SPH Magazines' Dhylan Boey agrees: "Social media has transformed Singaporeans from camera-shy wallflowers to dauntless creatures."

But Her World creative editor Jeanette Ejlersen is cautious about hailing the new wave of local models as a trend that's here to stay. She says: "Singapore - by way of agencies such as Now and Basic - is indeed growing its pool of Singapore faces. But the bulk of the Asian faces are still from China, Australia or Hong Kong. Honestly, everything is cyclical and I'm not sure if this is a sustained wave. The good thing is, we now have more new local faces - though what the industry needs is quality editorial models and not just new local faces."

Creating quality editorial models is, of course, what agencies like NOW Model Management and Basic Models Management strive to do. Mr Low of NOW Model Management says: "We always pay attention to what the fashion world wants and adjust our strategies accordingly. We started six years ago with just four models. Now I have 40 models and one of them, Jean (Yong), has made it on an international catwalk. In five years' time, I hope to double those numbers, with at least three to five appearing on international catwalks. I believe it can be done."