Imagine this: you’re a young fashion acolyte who has just moved from your hometown to the big city to study fashion and design, and by some magnificent stroke of fate, you’re selected to open and close a fashion show. And not just any show, but Valentino’s special once-in-an-era presentation. That was exactly what happened to supermodel He Cong in 2013, when she moved to Shanghai from her hometown in Changsha, in China’s Hunan province.
Tall, leggy, with delicate features and cheekbones to die for, He Cong was—and still is—the quintessential fresh-faced ingenue. The close of the Valentino show—with He Cong draped in a translucent tulle gown and overcoat festooned with red-toned rosettes—was the beginning of a spectacular career. Over time, she would walk for everyone from the likes of Chanel and Dior to Masha Ma, Fenty and Alexander McQueen, and appear on the cover of magazines the world over. Her career has taken her to all the fashion capitals of the world.
For a girl who had never dreamt of being a model growing up, it was quite the career indeed. In March, when the world was quiet and still due to the COVID-19 pandemic, He Cong took the chance to relax, reflect and reconnect with her hometown roots. “It was a blessing in disguise because this was possibly the longest time I’ve spent at home with my family [since I left for Shanghai]. I took the opportunity to learn cooking from my mum so that I can prepare hometown specialities whenever I am homesick while overseas.”
Other than the familial reconnection, He Cong’s lockdown was largely spent in loungewear, indulging in self-care—she does a face mask almost every day as part of her regular beauty routine—as well as listening to music and exercising to maintain a healthy mind and body. Refreshingly normal activities for someone who lives an extraordinary life in more ordinary times. When asked about what she thought was most important in this time of reflection, she merely says: “Health is wealth. I want to declutter my mind and enjoy the simplest things in life.” Wise words indeed.
On a deeper level, He Cong is also reflective of her position in the fashion industry, which has stayed remarkably unscathed in a time when every other industry in the world is having a deep discussion about issues of race and equity. To be fair, her career has benefited from the gargantuan rise in the popularity of East Asian models in recent years—in 2017’s autumn/winter season, she walked 42 shows, the most of any model of colour that season. But that doesn’t mean that she remains uncritical of the industry’s need for greater inclusivity. “Race is just one of the many issues that the industry needs to address,” she says seriously. “The modelling world is becoming a more inclusive space in recent years, but it doesn’t mean that diversity and inclusivity are properly represented. Let’s not overlook issues like fatphobia and ageism, just to name two. No one is truly secure in this fickle industry and the struggle is real for everyone.”
He Cong is also conscious of others around her and of the need to take care of others in the midst of difficult times. “It’s easy to feel powerless in the face of a pandemic that has affected everyone on every level. But no matter who you are or what your situation is, one can make a difference, whether it’s giving a donation or showing extra care to the people around you. Advocating for social distancing, personal hygiene and supporting local small businesses are just some of the many ways of giving back to my community.”
While the respite from a hectic career in fashion has been welcome, the one thing she missed during the lockdown was the freedom to travel—mainly for work, she admits. Once the world opens up again, she plans to jet off to another corner of the world. Where exactly? “I don’t have a destination in mind. I prefer to be spontaneous.” Given her happenstance encounter with Valentino, it’s unsurprising that He Cong learnt the value of a little serendipity. (Although she admits to wanting to take a trip to Tibet on holiday, should the opportunity arise.)
When thinking about her past and the advice that she would give her younger self, He Cong remains resolutely practical and grounded. “Focus and work hard. Many people outside the industry don’t realise it, but being a model demands a lot of hard work, self-motivation and persistence. Overnight success doesn’t happen as often as you think.”
As for her future in the fashion world, well, He Cong still relishes the transformative power of fashion and its ability to elevate the everyday, making the world just a little bit more beautiful. “I’m still enjoying every minute of it!”
Featured image credits: Celine by Hedi Slimane black velvet flared skinny pants, beige blouse with lace detail along the buttons, and black men’s jacket with velvet detail at the collar; Francesco Russo gold patent leather heeled sandals; Aurélie Bidermann gold chain necklace with gold feather pendant
Fashion: Daniela Paudice
Hair: Marc Lopez / Audrey Petit-Grand
Make-up: Lloyd Simmonds / Carole
Manicure: Anais Cordevant
Models: He Cong and Malika Louback / IMG Models
Fashion production: Michael McDowell
On-set assistance: Thomas Santos
Casting director: Piergiorgio Del Moro