How did your modelling journey begin?
Yumi: I started as a baby model first but only for a short time – I would cry too much. I came back into it when I was 12, told my mom it was something I was interested in and she helped guide me through it all the way through my teens.
Chloe: I randomly decided to apply to Elite NYC, my mother agency, and they got back to me in two hours. After signing with them, within a month I got a call from them asking me to fly to Milan to walk for Prada as a worldwide exclusive. I said yes right away and that’s how everything started.
Sherry: When I was 12, I was scouted by a local agency. I spent the next few years honing my walk to be runway ready. After I hit my growth spurt at 16, I was signed to IMG and began building my portfolio in New York and Paris.
Kayako: My modelling journey began when I was scouted by my Spanish modelling agency (mother agency) at Starbucks in Tokyo 4 years ago.
What does beauty mean to you? As an Asian model, how have your ideals of beauty shifted throughout the years?
Yumi: Beauty to me is a glow of kindness, confidence and authenticity. The most beautiful people are people who light up a room with their presence. I used to think beauty was purely about how flawless, perfect or skinny I could be and a lot of that came from Asian beauty standards that unintentionally trickled down from my elders and the way they carried themselves. Over time, we’ve all grown and our ideas of beauty have grown too.
Yoonmi: The feeling of loving yourself
Chloe: I still don’t know. Everybody has different beauty standards and I still couldn’t figure out what the perfect beauty is. Ultimately everybody is beautiful in their own way. We cannot change our external beauty. The only thing we can change is internal. We should always love and accept ourselves and our own beauty.
Kayako: Beauty is about being myself (仮). The idea of beauty in Japan, and much of Asia, is often about large eyes and smaller faces, which is often the opposite of most Asian people’s physical features. However, I’ve grown to recognise that there are various kinds of beauty throughout my years in this industry.
Sherry: “Beauty in the eye of the beholder”. People can have differing opinions on what is beautiful. So, what one person perceives as flawless and captivating might be ordinary or unappealing to another. Beauty is about individuality. If you think something is beautiful, then you should feel free to explore it, enjoy it, show it and demonstrate it. You don’t have to worry about what other people may say about you.
How has the industry changed since you started modelling? Do you feel anything has changed for Asian models specifically?
Yumi: I started modelling in the early stages when plus size modelling was slowly being included in the industry, nothing like today. Back then I was a lot smaller, more of an in between model and there was a bigger gap in what size you had to be to get work. It was either you were a size 2-4 as a straight model or a size 14-16 for a plus model. There was no space for any size diversity in between. It was very specific and strict and the way people and communities were represented was very specific and more rigid. I feel Asian representation in the media used to be more of a side role or a supporting act. It was representation but through American stereotypes for Asian people. Not all representation is positive or something we want. I feel like now we are passing the mic and platforms to Asian teams, casting directors, models, hair and makeup artists where we can take back control of our own narrative and share our voices authentically, so we are represented positively and can show the world how diverse we all are.
Sherry: If I were to use one word to describe the changes since I started modelling, it would be more inclusion. We traditionally saw models on the stage who were tall and slim, young and traditionally beautiful, but now we see all sort of different sizes and different ages. I’m also proud to see more and more Asian models coming onto the scene and being featured in more shows every year, I definitely think that’s a step in the right direction.
There also used to be an explicit distinction between clothing intended for men and clothing intended for women, but now fashion has become more fluid. I must admit that I’ve personally been enjoying this new trend as a lot of my favourite clothing would be classified as androgynous or gender neutral.
Kayako: The situation around model casting in general has changed dramatically especially for Black and plus sized models. However, I personally feel that Asian models are still not being focused upon as much in this industry, so we remain in the shadows a bit.
What can the industry do to be more diverse and inclusive? Are there any key moments throughout your career where you felt you were a part of something that truly embodied these values?
Yumi: The industry could make a huge leap in inclusivity and diversity if they used way more size diversity on the runway and in high fashion. Typically on average, if there are any curve models in a show, it’s only 2-3 out of 40-60 models and that’s if they even use a curve model in a show. And even then, most of those brands only go up to a size L or 10, when the average American woman is a size 16.
There are many key moments through my career where I’m apart of embodying these values. It’s almost daily. I’m grateful to be on the frontlines of pushing this change in the industry and collaborating with a lot of people who truly care about making that difference. It’s my biggest goal as a model.
Sherry: Fashion is a vibrant, exciting industry that attracts many aspiring designers and professionals. Understanding how the world of inclusivity and diversity in the fashion industry works would help designers and models to be more customer-centric. When customers think and feel that they’re seen and appreciated, without regard to looks, size, gender, race, or orientation it will be a major win for fashion industry.
Fashion is one of the most highly-exposed industries for our generation. This only means that by default, fashion is widely used by any and everyone. However, fashion often seems to be one of the industries currently lacking when it comes to inclusion and diversity, catering only for a select group of people. So, we have to cater to different age groups, sizes, and preferences in the items on sale and the faces representing the brand.
The key moment I felt I was a part of something that truly embodied these values was the time I had the honour of being on the American Vogue cover last September. Diversity was one of the key themes for that shoot, and I felt a tremendous sense of achievement to be selected to represent all the Asian-Americans out there, not just myself.
What were some challenges you overcame working as a model?
Kayako: A great challenge is being and staying fit, especially mentally fit while under the pressures caused by living away from home, travelling so much and unable to settle in one specific place, and speaking a language that’s not my mother tongue daily.
Yumi: Especially as an Asian curve model, when I started out I think people were confused on where to place me. Asian beauty standards have traditionally not favoured larger bodies and definitely don’t seem to want to highlight them in the media. So for me to be Asian representation, but in a way that was not traditionally accepted was a fight. It’s gotten so much better, as more and more brands are making space for all different types of people.
Yoonmi: Models travel alone and spend a lot of time alone, so I always miss my family, but I’m getting through this!
Chloe: To love myself as I am. It’s still hard for me. I tend to take everything personal. Anything that happens during the casting process, I tend to find faults from myself. We have less than 10 seconds to present ourselves in front of a client, and I can’t be my best self all the time. I am still learning but I am definitely getting better at accepting myself and that I cannot be perfect all the time.
Sherry: As a model, we face many challenges — rejection, being judged and scrutinised by the public just to name a few. After being an international model for four years, I felt I have come to terms with these challenges and overcame them. Thanks to the help of my agents, one of which who worked in casting himself, I’ve come to better understand the people who make those tough decisions during the model selection process. I’ve also learned the value of networking and relationship-building, which has made me more resourceful and given me thicker skin now.
Where do you see the fashion industry in 5 years?
Sherry: I think fashion in five years will be more authentic. People used to think fashion was run for the privileged and intended for the privileged, while everyone else was just the general audience, an afterthought. But now, fashion has begun to become integrated in everybody’s lives, thanks to social media. Everyone can watch a virtual show when it goes live now. They can participate in local pop-up events throughout the world, with some being available to the public. They can even involve themselves with brands on social media platforms, thus allowing them to have the same level of participation that only the models and wealthy clients could have.
Yumi: In my dream world, 5 years from now the industry would carry more inclusive size ranges in their collections, more diversity on our runways, more POC leads and an industry where all communities are positively represented.
Chloe: Hopefully becoming more inclusive and diverse in gender, ethnicity, and shapes. It’s getting there but I think there’s still a long way to go.
Kayako: I can’t really picture where I will be in the next five years. However, I wish to being in this industry for a long time, since I want to prove that models shouldn’t be restricted to a certain age group.
What is your favourite thing about modelling?
Yumi: Modelling has brought me all over the world, working with the most talented, creative individuals that have become lifelong friends. I’m so grateful for the vibrant experiences I’ve had from modelling.
Yoonmi: Each of us can show our own beauty.
Chloe: My favourite part is that I get to become whoever I want on set. When I am alone in front of the camera, I tend to become a different person. In front of the camera, I am a young, empowering, confident woman who can do and be whatever I want. I become a career woman one day and an athlete another day. I change my roles each shoot. I love experiencing the different sides of myself.
Sherry: My favourite thing about modelling is that we are the first to display the art created by the designers to people around the world. I love the fact that I get to be exposed to creative geniuses every day: the designers, casting directors, stylists, and hair and makeup artists.
What’s your go-to model-off-duty outfit?
Yumi: Lately it’s been a maxi skirt with a statement tank top and some boots or loafers.
Chloe: Black top and jeans! I love to be comfy in my outfits when off duty.
Sherry: I like to wear very casual street clothing on a regular day. This usually consists of sneakers or a cool pair of boots, high-rise, loose pants, and an oversize blazer for the cooler days. For me, it’s all about comfort. That’s why you’ll see me borrowing from the closet of my male family members.
Name one thing in your wardrobe you can’t live without.
Yumi: Silver jewellery. I love jewellery with soft, unique shapes. My favourite jewellery designer is Aeri Go, a local Korean designer who masters this perfectly.
Yoonmi: A hat to block the sun.
Kayako: My leather jacket!
Sherry: I would say definitely my sneakers, I wouldn’t get very far walking to my castings in the city without them!
What is the most memorable show you walked?
Yumi: Jacquemus! It was a dream I had forever.
Yoonmi: My first fashion show, the Louis Vuitton World Exclusive.
Chloe: My most memorable show so far was Fendi AW21. It was my next season after my debut and I didn’t do NY that season. So it was a show to start off a whole new season. I was very nervous and excited at the same time. But I still remember the music, the outfit, and hair and make-up. Everything was perfect and I just enjoyed that runway so much.
Kayako: The most memorable show I walked was Burberry SS21. It was a special one for me, since I opened the show.
Sherry: My first walk for Versace when I just turned 18 years old was the most memorable show. Ever since I became a model, it was my dream to walk the Versace show one day. When I was confirmed for that show, I had a hard time to go to bed that night. To me, it symbolised that I was beginning to make it in the industry.
Any fun backstage anecdotes with other models/designers?
Sherry: My encounters with Mariacarla Boscono, a long-time fashion idol of mine. She was iconic to me ever since I was a young girl watching her walk for all the big shows, I loved her energy and always wished I could emulate it on the runway. Then, I eventually had the privilege of meeting her backstage during our shows. The first few times I met Mariacarla, I was so starstruck, I couldn’t help to tell her how thrilled I was to meet her. When she gave me a long and tight hug, tears came to my eyes. She even comforted me, and told me everything was going to be okay when I was in an exhausted and concerned state, which showed me just how genuine and kind she is. Ever since that moment, she has always been encouraging and supporting me, and I’m so grateful to be able to have these experiences with my work.
How do you prepare for a show?
Yumi: Having my bag prepped the night before with all my essentials for the next day makes my life so much easier. I make sure to do a face mask in the morning and ice my feet in between shows. Little ways to boost my self care go a long way!
Yoonmi: I listen to the music playing.
Chloe: I think music is very important to me. Fun powerful music helps me pump up the energy when I walk. I try to feel the music when the show starts, and walk with the beat.
Sherry: I used to take deep breathes trying to calm myself down before I walked out to the stage, but now, I just enjoy the precious moment of interactions with the designers and other models. I always make sure I am in good physical and mental state before any shows, even though it’s very tough during fashion week due to lack of sleep, jetlag, and crazy schedules. To me, eating right is crucial during these periods of time to help you be in the best mental health possible.
Kayako: My show preparation is coffee and cigarettes.
Do you have any advice for aspiring models?
Yumi: Don’t ever lose your gratitude. I’ve seen it happen where people get burnt out or jaded, but lose their gratitude in the midst. It affects your energy and the way you treat people. Every time I work I try to stay present in the gratitude of being there, working with these amazing teams, getting to do what I love. Of course there are pros and cons to any job, but staying in my gratitude for it has made the experience so much more colourful.
Yoonmi: There is no right answer like “The fashion model should be like this”. Just show your own unique beauty.
Kayako: My advice is to stay as physically and mentally fit as you can.
Chloe: To models including myself: please please please love yourself, eat healthy, and don’t take things personal. We all are beautiful in our own ways, and there is somewhere in this industry where we belong. I really hope models don’t get depressed about feeling like they don’t belong in this industry.
Sherry: My advice to aspiring models is that you have be self-aware and have perseverance. You need to have thick skin in this industry because you’re going to face a lot of rejections. People will stare and sometimes make unappealing comments about your appearance, they will judge you and compare you to other people. You have to be ready to face critique and learn from them, and you have to keep your head high and above the water all the time. Only you can defeat yourself.
Photography: Hyea Won Kang
Stylist: Anya Ziourova
Models: Chloe Oh & Yoonmi Sun @Elite, Kayako Higuchi & Yumi Nu @The Society, Sherry Shi @IMG
Artist & Creative Communication: Lee Kyung Kim @BL Creative House
Producer: Alexey Galetskiy @AGPNYC
On Set Producer: Zane Chen
Makeup Artist: Tayler Treadwell @Home
Hair Stylist: Tsuki @Streeters
Manicurist: Juan Alvear @Opus Beauty
Casting: Marina Fairfax
Digital Technician: Um Ji Su
Fashion Assistant: William Noguchi
Cover Wardrobe: Burberry
EditorVOGUE HONG KONG