The New Class of Models Redefining Singaporean Standards of Beauty

Most who have followed Singapore’s fashion industry through the years would point to the ’80s and ’90s as the heyday for Singaporean models — when women such as Ethel Fong, Hanis Hussey and Huda Ali blossomed on runways and campaigns for legacy fashion houses, carving out a place for our tiny city on the fashion map.

An industry still dominated by Western models made for Western-dominated audiences meant that for brands, engaging models from Asia came with significant financial risks. But cultural shifts of the fashion gaze, which has always looked to novelty and exoticism, might have helped alleviate those concerns. The fact that all this happened before the digital age perhaps enhanced the appeal of these pioneering Asian supermodels — and yet also made such achievements even more significant. 

Such success can perhaps be attributed to unprecedented growth in the Singapore economy during that period, when the nation rose to prominence in global markets as one of the Four Asian Tigers. In 1997, Fashion Connections Singapore (an event that became Singapore Fashion Week in 2001) led plans to make Singapore a fashion hub — “a marketplace for the 400 million people in the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations,” wrote Suzy Menkes for The New York Times. Stephen Lee, the chairman of the Singapore Trade Development Board at the time, described the three-day event — which included a trade show and a designer contest among Southeast Asian countries — as “a gateway to the burgeoning Asian market.” During the same period, famous French upmarket departmental stores like Printemps (located along the ground level of the old Hotel Le Meridien at Orchard Road) and Galeries Lafayette (situated in Goldhill Square, now United Square; and later in Liat Towers) made brief forays into the Singapore fashion market.

Left: (On Mike Lim) Tod’s jacket and sweater. (On Aaron Lim) Tod’s coat, sweater and jeans. (On Spencer Lee) Tod’s jacket, sweater and trousers. Right: (On Srri) Alexander McQueen sweater and trousers. (On Noelle Woon) Alexander McQueen dress.
Left: (On Mike Lim) Tod’s jacket and sweater. (On Aaron Lim) Tod’s coat, sweater and jeans. (On Spencer Lee) Tod’s jacket, sweater and trousers. Right: (On Srri) Alexander McQueen sweater and trousers. (On Noelle Woon) Alexander McQueen dress.

The prominence of Singaporean models then, who joined the troop of emerging Asian models, was testament to the local fashion industry’s professional standards. Just as Western luxury brands opened stores in shopping malls in the districts of Orchard Road, models from the region came to Singapore to prepare for the global runway. “In the ’80s and ’90s, everyone really knew their roles and responsibilities very well,” says Ginger Lynette Leong, who has worked as a hair and makeup artist in the scene for over 25 years. “There was one ultimate goal — good photographs and shows.”

But the turn of the millennium saw this traction die down. Perhaps Asian women like Fong, Hussey and Ali had laid the path for more Asian models to go on the global stage, leading to more representation and a saturated market for Asian faces. Globalisation and the rise of social media also changed the world of fashion. Just as editors and journalists had to compete with social media influencers and celebrities, models had to compete with a new wave of models, birthed by Instagram and pop culture, with global followings. “During the ’80s, models had to work hard to get exposure in the media,” says Leong. “Now, models have to work more to promote themselves on social media.” And adding to the competition fashion models grapple with today, it seems that brands have also begun to realise that the red carpet often moves products more effectively than the runway. 

From left: (On Nicole Liew) Balenciaga sweatshirt. (On Spencer) Balenciaga shirt, sweater, jeans and shoes. (On Mike) Balenciaga jacket, trousers and earring. (On Ilhan Fandi) Balenciaga jacket, sweater, and trousers. (On Layla Ong) Balenciaga jacket.
From left: (On Nicole Liew) Balenciaga sweatshirt. (On Spencer) Balenciaga shirt, sweater, jeans and shoes. (On Mike) Balenciaga jacket, trousers and earring. (On Ilhan Fandi) Balenciaga jacket, sweater, and trousers. (On Layla Ong) Balenciaga jacket.

For a group of new faces in Singapore, navigating the modelling profession now requires them to confront both conventional and ever-changing issues. The lack of diversity in the demand for models, for one, has risen to dominate local narratives in recent years and demanded all individuals involved in the business of modelling to address those issues.

“In countries like Milan and Paris, the percentage of transgender models walking shows and booking jobs are higher, as brands are more inclusive in that part of the world,” says Andrea Razali, a transgender model managed by Upfront Models. “In Singapore, where society is a little more conservative, transgender models are a hit or miss. Some brands fully welcome the idea of having a trans model represent their brand, and some are opposed to it.” From her personal experience, brands that would hire a trans model tend to be ones which appeal to a more global market.

Andrea Razali in an Etro dress and hat.
Andrea Razali in an Etro dress and hat.

In Singapore, where society is a little more conservative, transgender models are a hit or miss. Some brands fully welcome the idea of having a trans model represent their brand, and some are opposed to it.

On the other hand, Noelle Woon, a Nigerian-Chinese model under Mannequin Studio, says models of colour in Singapore have found that the lack of inclusivity potentially limits their job opportunities. “In Singapore, it is generally more desirable to appeal to the target market by using pan-Asian, Eurasian or white models,” she says. “I think this challenge applies to many models of colour in Singapore. We are often used as ‘token brown models’ and there aren’t many brands that use multiple models of colour.”

And for almost all models in the current climate, more conventional challenges, such as performing at casting calls, actual modelling on set and body management routines off set, still exist and add to increasing expectations. “Being beautiful is no longer enough for people to want to hire you. You need to also have charisma, an identifiable presence, and a unique look that makes people remember you long after you have left the room,” says Andrea.

Noelle in a Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello coat, dress and heels.
Noelle in a Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello coat, dress and heels.

In Singapore, it is generally more desirable to appeal to the target market by using pan-Asian, Eurasian or white models. I think this challenge applies to many models of colour in Singapore. We are often used as ‘token brown models’ and there aren’t many brands that use multiple models of colour.

“The moment my agency accepted me as I am, I came into this career putting a lot of pressure and expectations on myself such as having perfect measurements and having to be as universally beautiful as possible,” says Woon. “Because of this, I became incredibly anxious and developed an eating disorder (bulimia). I did not want to let my agents down and did my best to meet all these self-inflicted expectations.” She came clean to her agency one day about her mental and physical struggles and her decision to quit the industry, but her management changed her mind by providing support and assuring job opportunities for her as long as she felt healthy and well. “This truly helped me understand how lucky I am to be with an agency that truly believes in me and supports me with my best interests at heart,” she says.

But Woon is perhaps one of the lucky ones in an industry known for cutthroat competition and unrealistic expectations. Spencer Lee, a Chinese model under the same management as Woon, says his biggest challenge is performing well at casting calls, during which he often feels that he looks his “worst.”

The social media boom has not completely spelt gloom for Singapore’s fashion models, and the question of its impact is often a matter of perspective. Instant connectivity with diverse, global audiences has allowed models to tailor public personas, generate fame and position themselves for opportunities. Although some models — from Kendall Jenner to the Hadid siblings to Asian counterparts like Soo Joo Park and Liu Wen — collectively reflect the potential for online-to-offline stardom beyond the traditional runway, they represent a minority among the majority of lesser-known yet thriving individuals of the multibillion-dollar modelling industry.

Left, clockwise from top left: (On Mike) Louis Vuitton jacket and trousers. (On Spencer) Louis Vuitton shirt. (On Noelle) Louis Vuitton cape, top and jeans. (On Nicole) Louis Vuitton top, dress and boots. (On Aaron) Louis Vuitton jacket and shorts. Right: Ilhan in a Celine by Hedi Slimane jacket, trousers and sneakers
Left, clockwise from top left: (On Mike) Louis Vuitton jacket and trousers. (On Spencer) Louis Vuitton shirt. (On Noelle) Louis Vuitton cape, top and jeans. (On Nicole) Louis Vuitton top, dress and boots. (On Aaron) Louis Vuitton jacket and shorts. Right: Ilhan in a Celine by Hedi Slimane jacket, trousers and sneakers
Spencer in a Loro Piana cape.
Spencer in a Loro Piana cape.
Left, clockwise from top left: (On Nicole) Givenchy dress, boots and choker. (On Aaron) Givenchy shirt, sweater, cardigan, shorts, boots and sunglasses. (On Noelle) Givenchy dress, bracelet and earrings. (On Spencer) Givenchy jacket, sweater, trousers and boots. Right: Srri in a Coach vest and jacket.
Left, clockwise from top left: (On Nicole) Givenchy dress, boots and choker. (On Aaron) Givenchy shirt, sweater, cardigan, shorts, boots and sunglasses. (On Noelle) Givenchy dress, bracelet and earrings. (On Spencer) Givenchy jacket, sweater, trousers and boots. Right: Srri in a Coach vest and jacket.

To Andrea, social media has been a game-changer. “I have gotten so much recognition for my craft through social media, and many designers and brands have found me through that platform,” she says. Her social media presence has allowed designers and brands to know more about her before meeting her in the flesh. “My story as a trans model is a long one, and brief casting sessions and electronic comp cards simply aren’t enough for clients to get to know me,” she says. “Through social media, they can connect a little more with who I am as a person and as a model, and it makes the working chemistry between us more effortless and fluid.”

On the contrary, Woon says social media has not had a huge impact on her career. She’s not one to publicise pictures of herself by nature but understands that that is not very ideal for someone who wants to pursue modelling. “I do intend to post more pictures of myself because I want to build my brand eventually,” she says. “Now, I just use it to express things that interest me, such as stills and clips from animated shows, movies, or pictures of random things I find super cool.” This, in effect, still allows Woon to connect with people and offers a sort of open book for social media marketing executives, brands and businesses to understand her public image and potential audiences that her online persona can reach. 

Left: (On Nicole) Fendi jacket. (On Spencer) Fendi jacket and trousers. (On Noelle) Fendi dress. Right:  (On Nicole) Dior top, trousers, belt and hat. (On Mike) Dior Men jacket and Dior earrings.
Left: (On Nicole) Fendi jacket. (On Spencer) Fendi jacket and trousers. (On Noelle) Fendi dress. Right: (On Nicole) Dior top, trousers, belt and hat. (On Mike) Dior Men jacket and Dior earrings.
From left: (On Layla) Chanel top, skirt, necklace and belt. (On Noelle) Chanel dress and belt. (On Nicole) Chanel dress, necklace and shoes.
From left: (On Layla) Chanel top, skirt, necklace and belt. (On Noelle) Chanel dress and belt. (On Nicole) Chanel dress, necklace and shoes.
Left: Aaron in a Bottega Veneta jacket. Right: (On Nicole) Chloé jacket and culottes. (On Noelle) Chloé jacket, top and culottes.
Left: Aaron in a Bottega Veneta jacket. Right: (On Nicole) Chloé jacket and culottes. (On Noelle) Chloé jacket, top and culottes.

The perspective that the spotlight on Singapore’s models has dimmed, in comparison to its past glory in the ’80s and ’90s, ignores how individuals like Woon and Andrea are part of a young, evolving community that continues to navigate the changing fashion and modelling culture. It is perhaps worth acknowledging how this new generation of faces is forging their own path, just like their predecessors forged theirs. And in doing so, they have managed to embrace parts of themselves long deemed by society to be undesirable in an industry known for perpetuating unrealistic beauty standards.

From left: (On Layla) Gucci dress, headband and boots. (On Spencer) Gucci shirt, T-shirt and shorts. (On Aaron) Gucci coat, vest and jeans. (On Andrea) Gucci top, bra and trousers.
From left: (On Layla) Gucci dress, headband and boots. (On Spencer) Gucci shirt, T-shirt and shorts. (On Aaron) Gucci coat, vest and jeans. (On Andrea) Gucci top, bra and trousers.

Andrea has walked the runway for an international evening wear brand, and the show was aired on Netflix. “It was surreal seeing myself on the TV screen walking a fashion show, especially as one of Singapore’s first few transgender models,” she says. “Many of my friends and peers saw me on screen, and started sending me screengrabs of my little stint. That was the defining moment when I realised that I had become one of the girls (models) I used to watch on TV as a teenager.”

Whereas Woon, in keeping up with the relentless industry, has also ironically been empowered by it, showing how this new age in fashion and modelling can benefit the search for greater inclusivity. “I look up to a number of black models who always look to challenge the norms in the fashion industry and general beauty standards. For example, Adesuwa Aighewi, Binx Walton and Selena Forrest,” says Woon. “They stand for having more diversity in the world of fashion and make being coloured and androgynous a superpower instead of a disadvantage.”

On the cover of T Singapore’s “Men’s Fashion” August 2020 cover are nine Singaporean models. All clothing and shoes by Fear of God exclusively for Ermenegildo Zegna.
On the cover of T Singapore’s “Men’s Fashion” August 2020 cover are nine Singaporean models. All clothing and shoes by Fear of God exclusively for Ermenegildo Zegna.
Text by Terence Poh
Photographs by Stefan Khoo
Creative direction by Jack Wang
Styling by Jenine Oh and Michelle Kok
Models: Noelle Woon (Mannequin), Spencer Lee (Mannequin), Aaron Lim (Mannequin), Srri (Now Model Management), Nicole Liew (Basic Models), Andrea Razali (Upfront Models), Mike Lim (Ave Models), Ilhan Fandi, Layla Ong (Basic Models)
Hair: Ken Hong (Evolve Salon)
Makeup: Manisa Tan
Photographer’s assistant: Mhd Alif
Hair assistants: Roy Tan (Evolve Salon), Jansen Aalyssa Jade Alexander (Evolve Salon)
Makeup assistants: Jane Lau (Palette Inc), Ziwei Yang (Palette Inc)