In less than a decade, vietnamese models have gone from small-time photo shoots to voguing on international catwalks. Dana Filek-Gibson rubs elbows with some of the industry’s movers and shakers and finds out what’s next for vietnamese supermodels. Photos courtesy of BeU Models.

In a black dress and a pair of stilettos, Kha Van stands head and shoulders above us all. It’s lunchtime in the dimmed offices of Multimedia JSC, a local television production company, where a few particularly enterprising workers are still buzzing around, making photocopies and phone calls. No one looks up as Van enters the office – as the company behind Vietnam’s Next Top Model (VNTM), Multimedia and its staff are used to exceptionally tall, long-legged supermodel types walking around – but her height alone would earn Van a double-take on the streets of Saigon. Side by side with Cung Xuong Le Vu, PR manager of BeU Models, the agency which represents many of VNTM‘s former contestants, Van’s shoulder comes just about level with the top of Vu’s head.

Still a novice to the industry, Van’s modeling career is on an upward climb. The Saigon native, who managed to take the runner-up spot in VNTM‘s 2012 cycle, is settling into her new home in Milan, where she’s just signed with an Italian agency, and learning the ropes of international casting calls. There’s a lot of public transportation involved, racing from one end of the city to the other to meet with designers. The way she describes it, casting isn’t necessarily the most glamourous part of life as a model but, according to Van, the work pays off.

“I had just arrived in Milan and everything was very new,” she says in Vietnamese, remembering the first international job she ever booked. “If you’re a model in Vietnam, you don’t have go to castings: someone calls you up for a job and you do it. But in other countries, it’s different. One day, I started around seven in the morning and get home around 10 at night. Castings mean you have to go all over town: [you] walk everywhere, get on a train, get on a boat. At the end of the day when I got home, I was exhausted but when I walked in the door I got a message from my agency saying I’d gotten my first job doing a lookbook for Elisabetta Franchi. I remember feeling all the exhaustion go away.”

While there are sure to be more modeling jobs in Van’s future, her story is still a rare one in Vietnam. With a fashion industry very much in development, local models are lucky to find success at home, let alone on the pages of an international magazine. Despite its longstanding appreciation for fashion, Vietnam is new to the concept of fashion as a business: only in the last few years have designers and models alike begun to make a name for themselves abroad. But with hard work, dedication and a bit of good fortune, Van is likely the first of many Vietnamese models to represent the country’s fashion industry on an international stage.

Vietnam Modeling Industry. In less than a decade, vietnamese models have gone from small-time photo shoots to voguing on international catwalks.The start of an empire
For this reason, Trang Le, president of Multimedia JSC, is extremely proud. In little more than five years, the media magnate has almost singlehandedly introduced Vietnamese fashion to the world. Trang, who used to work in television rights acquisitions, purchased the license for VNTM in 2010 and, with the belief that it would be a wise investment, decided to produce the show herself.

“I’m from zero to fashion,” she jokes.

Though the project got off to a rocky start – this was her first-ever television production – its first season was a hit and, since then, VNTM‘s success has only grown. The program, now beginning its sixth season, plays on TV stations across the country and has amassed a sizable audience. And thanks to Vietnam’s small but growing fashion industry, many former VNTM contestants are finding work.

However, this was not always the case. When Huyen Trang was crowned VNTM‘s first-ever winner, Trang knew she had a successful show on her hands but didn’t realise the potential talent which could be developed beyond television.

“The first runner-up was very upset,” Trang explains. “She came to see me, crying, and said: ‘Ms Trang, can you help me do something? I’m so sad and I don’t know what to do.’ I decided to help her…even I did not think we would open an agency.”

Yet, a few years later, VNTM has several cross-platform businesses, including BeU, one of the country’s top modeling agencies, whose talent includes many of VNTM‘s former contestants, as well as Vietnam’s own version of Project Runway. Last year, with five seasons of VNTM under her belt and an ever-growing web of industry connections, Trang and Multimedia took on the country’s first-ever International Fashion Week. What began as a single reality show has now announced to the world Vietnam’s presence in the fashion world.

“For the international [market], it’s not easy for us but we’ve already got a good start and then [we’ll go] slowly,” says Trang. “The point of international work is to help [Vietnamese models] to open their eyes and have more opportunities.”

Changing Minds
Like many Vietnamese models, Van got her start working independently, a practice which is less common in other countries. Where international models are typically signed to an agency and then sent to casting calls, there are seldom such opportunities in Vietnam. Because of this, success is often a catch-22: models must be well-known in order to get work but cannot get work without being well-known.

“For every international fashion week, models from many different countries will go to one country for casting,” Van explains. “After that fashion week has finished, they’ll go somewhere else for casting in a different country for another fashion week. For most Vietnamese models, they only work in Vietnam and work independently. There are very few models in Vietnam who work through an agency.”

While this alone poses a great hurdle for many young models, misconceptions about the industry itself don’t help, either. Trang describes this prejudice as learning to differentiate between the ‘miss’ – akin to a beauty queen – and the ‘model’.

“Before, even myself, I cannot distinguish the beauty between the miss and the model,” she says. “People can say [any beautiful girl] is a model; it’s not like that. Miss is a title and a responsibility as well. But a model is different. Models are beautiful but beautiful here is more [about] character, more personality, and the look. Maybe you are not a really beautiful girl but you’ve got strong personality, you’ve got a different look. You can still become a successful model.”

However, attitudes have shifted in recent years and Van credits VNTM in large part for this change.

“Before I joined VNTM, my father really didn’t support my decision to become a model,” explains Van. “At the time, modeling still had a lot of misconceptions. My father really didn’t like it…I was in a few small fashion shows but every time I was in a show I had to find a way to hide it from my family so my parents didn’t know.”

However, as the weeks passed and Van remained a contender on the show, her father came around to the idea that modeling could be a legitimate profession.

“When VNTM came to Vietnam, my father still didn’t support me at first,” she says. “I got on the program and he thought: ‘If she wants to go, let her go and try it out. She’ll get eliminated and come home early.’ In the end, when I made it to the finals, my father came to the show. He saw that, over time, I’d improved day by day. Now my father supports me and is very proud of me.”

Making Waves
If the change has been markedly noticeable within Vietnam, its effects are beginning to show abroad, too. Thanks to professional training and a strong work ethic, local models are beginning to break into the international scene, a trend which Trang is pleased to see.

“I have a positive feeling that Vietnamese models will be more competitive in the international market. Western girls normally have a good life, so they don’t work hard like Vietnamese [models],” she says. “Our girls normally just go for work and they come back. They’re not involved in the bars, drinking or cocaine. Their attitude is very good and they work very hard so I think that’s an advantage for Vietnamese models.”

Van, too, sees the importance of her role as a representative of Vietnam’s young modeling industry. Though she still has a career to build, maintaining a positive image for Vietnam is important to her, too.

“When I go to castings, designers ask me where I’m from and I say I’m from Vietnam,” she says. “Everyone is really surprised. People think that Vietnam is a country whose fashion industry is still developing so they don’t expect a Vietnamese model to turn up at an international casting.”

Now that Vietnam has its first-ever fashion week in the bag, both the country’s models and its designers are turning more than a few heads in the fashion world. With the eyes of many upon them, Trang believes that the next step forward for Vietnam is consistency. This means producing not just one high-quality fashion week but many in the years to come. Given the country’s talent and an ever-growing industry with which to support it, success seems more than likely as models like Van continue to climb the catwalk all the way to the top.