If the “Black Lives Matter” movement allowed raising the issue of the presence of black models in the United States and Europe, then the model of light-skinned and skinny women still dominates the world of modeling in Asia, and is considered the ideal image of models in it, although it does not reflect at all the reality of the region.
“When I used to go to modeling agencies, I was told that they preferred white models to black models,” says Ilonga, who came to Hong Kong as a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, told AFP.
“I was 17 years old, and this answer was violent,” she added.
In this city of 7.5 million people, 600,000 of whom are of non-Chinese origin, fashion agencies have been asking for “tall, light and skinny” models. This preference also applied to mainland China.
“I started using products to lighten my skin, so that it simply conformed to standards,” Ilonga recalls.
After facing rejection after rejection, Ilonga decided in 2018 to establish her own agency in order to include models of various origins.
She believes that fashion can be a weapon to change mentalities, so that women do not feel they have to change themselves.
The number of exhibitors in Ilonga is 32 women and men from countries as diverse as Rwanda, Burundi, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and the Philippines.
However, the agency owner admits that changing mindsets is a difficult challenge, explaining in detail the nature of customers wanting to escape the stereotypes of Chinese fashion.
“Most of these are not local brands, but rather brands trying to expand internationally,” she explains.
She notes that black male models are seeing success, as they are seen as “more elegant” and casual. Reservations remain, however, regarding black women.
Ilonga recalls what happened at a meeting when she suggested to a client the use of a model of African and Asian descent.
“She had Asian features, but her hair was curly, and it seemed clear that this was too much for the customer,” she said.
However, the traditional Asian look is not limited to skin tone. Even though the fashion industry in the US or Europe is opening up to natural bodies, Asia is still obsessed with thinness.
Chinese consumers seem to expect brands to meet their beauty standards, says Lawrence Lim Daly, who works at Cherry Blossoms Intercultural Branding, which specializes in aiding global corporate campaigns targeting Chinese customers.
“Obesity is seen as a reflection of a person’s self-neglect, which contradicts the Confucian principle of self-improvement,” she says.
The kind of pressure was put on by Mia Kang, a Eurasian model who grew up in Hong Kong where agencies spotted her when she was a teenager and expected her to maintain her physique.
Suffering from loss of appetite and bulimia, Kang took medication and did “everything possible to stay skinny”.
She says the pressure is great on models all over the world, but in Asia it is greater than anywhere else.
In her book “Knockout”, she recounts that she returned from Europe when she was in her twenties and was told that she had to lose weight.
And she points out that “the ideal of a beautiful woman in Asia is much more confined than it is in the West,” explaining that her success was achieved when she left Hong Kong.
She believes that “the Asian market has just begun to expand its horizons and seek greater diversity.”