The models we fall in love with are a powerful barometer of the times we live in. Back in the ’60s, Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton – all gamine, wide-eyed and clad in curve-cancelling shift dresses – signalled a culture that was wising up to the lure of androgyny and the power of women’s liberation. In the early ’90s, Cindy Crawford, Claudia Schiffer and Elle Macpherson, whose megawatt beauty was rivalled only by a near-ubiquitous presence (perfume campaigns, music videos, lingerie lines) symbolised an era in which celebrity worship was a global past-time and consumers were taught to covet, rather than connect with, the biggest brands. Although the catwalks are still mostly ruled by towering glamazons (paging you, Gisele Bündchen), they’re also giving rise to a new kind of supermodel – one reflective of a world whose physical ideals aren’t necessarily synonymous with blonde hair, pale skin or all-American good looks.
“It’s slowly getting better now but back in the day, all the biggest models were from places like Eastern Europe and Russia and not everyone can aspire to look like that!” laughs Fernanda Ly, the rising Chinese-Australian model who, true to fashion industry parables, was scouted at a shopping centre in Sydney’s south-western suburbs in 2013. She has since landed on the cover of Vogue Italy, Vogue Japan, Teen Vogue and i-D.
“Back when I was growing up, there weren’t that many Asians in modeling.”
“Diversity is very, very important for me. Australia is so multicultural and where I grew up everyone was different. I was Asian, my friends were from Indonesia or the Pacific Islands or Greece. I feel very strongly that the world should be like that. It’s nice to look up to other people but it’s even better to have someone who you really feel connected with to look up to.”
Fernanda, who’s chatting with me from her base in New York City, bubbles with the warmth and no-holds-barred hopefulness of a 20-year-old who’s still coming to terms with the fact that she may have the world at her feet. Early last year, Fernanda – who’s known for her bubblegum-pink hair and a schoolgirl-meets-goth style that wouldn’t look out of place on the streets of Tokyo’s Harajuku – was handpicked by Nicolas Ghesquière, Louis Vuitton’s artistic director, to walk for the fashion house’s Fall 2015 show. She has since closed Vuitton’s 2015 resort show in Palm Springs, California, and has been booked exclusively for their winter and summer 2016 shows and campaigns. And in November 2015, Grace Coddington, US Vogue’s legendary ex-creative director, singled her out as a model she “loves”. But for Fernanda, endorsements from the fashion industry’s tastemakers are just part of a roll call of pinch-me moments.
“The first time I walked for Louis Vuitton, it felt so unreal and I was like, ‘Why are they using me!’” recalls Fernanda, who can rock flatforms and a leather neck choker like no one else. “I thought it wasn’t really happening but I walked it and then thought, ‘Okay sure, why not?’ Being cast in the Vuitton campaign and meeting them in person has been such a highlight. It’s so strange receiving emails from family in Hong Kong who tell me, ‘I saw a picture of you here’ and then being on the cover of Vogue and seeing it in store and trying not to smile. And then you just hope that they don’t notice at the cash register!”
Googling Fernanda Ly is proof that our obsession with those bloggers responsible for banishing colour from our wardrobes has done nothing to curb our appetite for figures who aren’t scared to break the mould. From breathy editorials advising readers how to hijack her style to listicles fawning over her fondness for ice-cream and video games, Fernanda fever makes it easy to forget that her modeling career may not have happened at all.
“When I got scouted, I was in Year 12 and then I was really stressed out – I was like, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’ to the agency. But they accepted me during that time,” says Fernanda, who dreamed of becoming an architect (like most architecture devotees, she idolises Japanese minimalist Tadao Ando and his Church of Light building) but deferred her local course so she could relocate to New York. “When I started studying, I was also getting bigger jobs – I got my first Bonds campaign and was modelling for Alice McCall so I was skipping school and was always late.”
“And then I decided that I’d come back to school afterwards. I was getting so much work in New York but when I came back, I didn’t really get work in Australia. I talked to my agency in Sydney and in New York and they all decided that it might be better for me to be based in New York.”
The pink-haired beauty, who has also cycled through purple, orange and green locks (“but I’m pink right now. I think that I’m different but it sometimes backfires on me that I’m different. They might not like someone who’s different”) is clearly enamored with the city that never sleeps.
“You can do or buy anything whenever you want. It will probably be delivered to you for free in a few hours. That’s what I love about it. It’s got such great energy as well.”
She may inspire the likes of Nicolas Ghesquière, but it’s fronting her first campaign for Bonds – the underwear brand whose fair-haired, fresh-faced models signify to young girls everywhere what ‘Australian beauty’ looks like – at the start of 2014 that means the most.
“I feel really proud to be able to say that I’m a face of a Bond’s campaign, that they chose me,” grins Fernanda, who is back this year fronting their 2016 winter campaign. “I used to see their ads everywhere growing up – all those girls in their Bonds singlets! Everyone knows it and wears it. It’s really amazing and it makes me so happy.”
For all her gratitude, Fernanda – who counts fellow models and friends Sora Choi and Lineisy Montero (“she has natural hair”) among those she most admires – isn’t afraid to stick to her guns.
“We work very long hours – there’s a lot of waiting – and you feel really mentally drained because you’re not using your mind, you’re just waiting to hear from other people,” says Fernanda, who has long-term plans to return to her architecture studies, but hopes to model for as long as the industry will let her.
“It’s also hard working with people you don’t know who tell you, ‘You have to do this and this and this.’ It’s important to have your own voice and stand firm about who you are. If you’re uncomfortable about something, make sure you tell them. Some girls get really scared and think, ‘If I say this, I’m not going to get this job, I’m going to get cancelled.’ But it’s better to be happy than anything else. I’m getting so much better at it.”
Fernanda might be practical but she also knows that long hours and discomfort are no barrier to the thrills of achieving something truly worthwhile.
“The other day, I was buying milk and some girls who were of Asian background stopped me and were like, ‘Oh, you’re Fernanda, and you’re Asian – that’s amazing! I’m so excited that I’m helping change people’s ideas about fashion. It’s so surreal.’”