Eileen Gu’s Popularity in China Makes Her Her Luxury Fashion’s Dream Model

Written by Oscar Holland, CNN

Contributors Teele Rebane, CNNLizzy Yee, CNN

A version of this story appeared in CNN’s news bulletin Meanwhile in China, a tri-weekly update exploring what you need to know about the country’s rise and its impact on the world. Register here.
For fans of freestyle skiing and fashion, the buzz surrounding Winter Olympian Eileen Gu at this year’s Games comes as no surprise.
The 18-year-old’s gold medal performance in the big air competition thrust her into the global spotlight on Tuesday, sparking such furor in China that the Weibo social media platform crashed under the weight of interest. But Gu has spent years establishing herself as both a top athlete and a hugely bankable role model who appeals to brands in Asia and the West.

In 2021, as she won gold medals at the World Ski Championships and the Winter X Games, Gu was also forging lucrative partnerships with fashion houses and luxury brands. Signing for IMG Models, the agency representing Bella Hadid, Kate Moss and Hailey Bieber, she has signed deals with Louis Vuitton, Victoria’s Secret and Tiffany & Co., as well as Swiss luxury watchmaker IWC and fashion brand Estée Lauder cosmetics, among others.

In fact, the California-born athlete is among the most sponsored athletes at these Olympics. She arrived in Beijing with more than 20 business partnerships, ranging from Beats by Dre headphones to Cadillac.

A promotional image from Gu’s recent campaign with Louis Vuitton. Credit: Louis Vuitton

But it’s Gu’s massive appeal in China, where she’s known by her Chinese name Gu Ailing and has been dubbed the “Snow Princess,” that makes her particularly valuable to brands.

After shifting his sporting allegiance to his mother’s home country in 2019, Gu’s fluency in Mandarin has helped secure his place in Chinese TV commercials, billboards, and even milk cartons (as a face of Mengniu Dairy, based in Inner Mongolia). E-commerce giant JD.com, coffeehouse chain Luckin Coffee and telecommunications company China Mobile are among the growing list of mainland brands she has modeled for in recent months.
China is on track to become the world’s largest luxury market by 2025, according to consultancy Bain. The Asian edition of marketing and advertising industry magazine Campaign estimated that new endorsements could net the athlete around 15 million yuan ($2.5 million) each – and that was before his gold medal.
Eileen Gu seen on a JD.com advertisement at a bus stop in Beijing, China.

Eileen Gu seen on a JD.com advertisement at a bus stop in Beijing, China. Credit: Tingshu Wang/Reuters

According to Bohan Qiu, whose Shanghai-based creative agency Boh Project works with major fashion brands, Gu’s growing popularity in the country comes at a time when nationalist pride in China has seen “the relevance of Western celebrities ” to diminish.

“For this generation, a lot of the celebrities here are more domestically oriented — so (Gu) being half-American, half-Chinese and fluent in both languages, has a very global appeal,” he said over the phone. , adding that the country’s Gen Z population contains “third culture kids” who simultaneously understand both Chinese and Western backgrounds. “She’s definitely a unique kind of talent in ten years.”

Gu has associated big business with articles from reputable magazines and appearances in high-profile fashion shows. Spotted at events like Paris Fashion Week as early as 2019, she has since been seen front row at Louis Vuitton and at the notoriously exclusive Met Gala, where she arrived on the red carpet wearing a Carolina Herrera bubble dress.
“The fashion world helped balance my education,” she told Vogue Hong Kong, appearing on the cover of the magazine’s July issue. “Just like skiing, modeling requires incredible expression and personality. It requires creativity, confidence and the ability to learn and adapt… The transition from modeling to skiing has become a break and practice for each other that ultimately helped me feel more motivated in every area.”
Eileen Gu pictured with Stacy Martin (left) and Venus Williams (right) at the Louis Vuitton Women's Spring/Summer 2022 show at Paris Fashion Week last October.

Eileen Gu pictured with Stacy Martin (left) and Venus Williams (right) at the Louis Vuitton Women’s Spring/Summer 2022 show at Paris Fashion Week last October. Credit: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Gu has also appeared on the cover of the Chinese editions of GQ and Elle. And as guest editor of Vogue China’s Gen-Z-focused bimonthly issue, Vogue+, the athlete recently explored the intricacies of her identity under the topic of “code-switching.”

“I wanted to explore and showcase the inherently malleable nature of teenage identities, Gu wrote on Instagram, “a quality I found myself tapping into time and time again as I displayed different sides of myself (athlete, model, student, Chinese, American, teenager, writer, public figure, etc.) in different environments. Everyone is switching codes, and I think it’s time to start celebrating this multi-faceted nature.”
The ski star guest-edited an issue of Vogue China's Gen-Z bimonthly issue, Vogue+.

The ski star guest-edited an issue of Vogue China’s Gen-Z bimonthly issue, Vogue+.

A “safe bet” for brands

Gu’s social media is also littered with fashion. Whether posting on Instagram or writing to millions of followers on Xiaohongshu and Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Instagram and Twitter, respectively), his feeds oscillate between sport and style, with photos of the tracks posted alongside. of model photos and her latest fashion editorials.

Her unassuming approach has helped her connect with young fans, in China and the West, who want to see “beyond coaching, sports, the more official side of things,” Qiu said. . “A lot of Chinese celebrities are much more protected by their agent or management, or they find it hard to share the more real sides of their lives.”

Shortly after last Friday’s opening ceremony, Gu released a “lookbook” of the outfits she’s worn to the Games so far. Elsewhere, she shared messages of support from model Karlie Kloss and a viral video of her unboxing gear from Chinese sportswear brand Anta for an impromptu fashion show in the Olympic Village.

“My god, this cardigan and puffer jacket are giving off model vibes,” one user wrote alongside this latest video on Chinese version of TikTok, Douyin. “The frog princess is so trendy,” read a comment on another video, using another Chinese nickname given to Gu because of a green ski helmet she wore as a child. “I encourage you to be the best at the Winter Olympics.”

A billboard shows Eileen Gu promoting Chinese dairy company Mengniu Dairy.

A billboard shows Eileen Gu promoting Chinese dairy company Mengniu Dairy. Credit: Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images

Even in the heat of competition, Gu used her public platform to bolster her fashion credentials and promote Chinese culture. Speaking to reporters after qualifying for Monday’s big air final, she pulled up her bib to show the cameras a black jacket embroidered with a gold dragon. “It’s a garment that I designed, with Chinese elements,” she said in Mandarin.

Gu’s rise comes at a time when Western brands are frequently subjected to consumer boycotts for perceived missteps – ranging from casting models who don’t meet Chinese beauty standards to printing T-shirts listing Hong Kong and Macau as countries, rather than cities. Her refusal to be drawn into political issues may bolster her reputation as a low-risk ambassador.
The skier has remained tight-lipped about the many controversies surrounding China at these Games, including Beijing’s alleged treatment of Xinjiang’s Uyghur population and concerns over the well-being of tennis star Peng Shuai.
“There is no need to sow discord,” she recently told The New York Times after saying she would “pass” questions about China. “I think everything I do is about inclusivity.”
Asked about Peng at a press conference this week, Gu simply welcomed her presence and expressed her gratitude that the tennis player was “happy and healthy and doing her thing again.” Gu also dodged the question of whether she was forced to give up her US passport, as China does not officially recognize dual citizenship.

Related video: Reporters press Eileen Gu on her citizenship. See his answer

His diplomatic approach echoes that of tennis star Emma Raducanu, who also received praise from state media and rose to prominence on Weibo after winning the US Open last year. (She, too, has a Chinese mother and addressed fans on social media in Mandarin). Raducanu has since signed with Dior, with talent manager Jonathan Shalit telling CNN last year that he expected her to earn “well over $100 million” in endorsement deals in 2022.

But unlike the tennis star, who continues to represent the UK, Gu’s decision to ski for China makes him an even more bankable name, according to Qiu.

“Sports heroes are definitely the new idols here,” Qiu said, adding, “They are national heroes, which makes them a very safe bet for brands to work with.”

Top image: Eileen Gu in a campaign for Louis Vuitton.


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