Liu Wen Takes the Long View

After a three-year hiatus, the runway star who blazed the trail for Asian models makes a triumphant comeback.

Photographs by Mert Alas
Written by Alex Hawgood
Styled by Marie-Amélie Sauvé

Liu wears a Louis Vuitton jumpsuit, skirt, scarf, and belt.
Liu Wen wears a Louis Vuitton jumpsuit, skirt, scarf, and belt.

When Liu Wen closed Prada’s fall 2023 show last February, it marked the first time the model had set foot on a catwalk since her homeland of China shut its borders at the start of the pandemic.

On Instagram, she thanked designers Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons, and told her 6 million followers that it was “such a surreal feeling” to be “back on the runway after more than three years.” And back she was, closing Bottega Veneta and Alexander McQueen; walking for Loewe, Schiaparelli, Givenchy, and Miu Miu; and sitting front row at Chanel next to her boyfriend, the actor Jing Boran.

Famously dubbed “China’s first bona fide supermodel” by the press, Liu has, over the past 15 years, compiled a series of accomplishments so unique that her career will likely one day be its own category in Trivial Pursuit.

She is the first East Asian Angel to walk in a Victoria’s Secret show: With metal shrapnel wrapped around her 5-foot-10 frame, she appeared in a “Star Trooper”–themed portion of the company’s 2009 lingerie extravaganza, which was just one of the record 74 runways she walked that season. One year later, she became not only the first Asian face of Estée Lauder, but the first Asian spokesmodel ever to ink a global cosmetics deal—a bellwether indicating that, as she herself once said, “the stereotypes of Asian women as submissive and dainty were fading.”

Louis Vuitton tank top, pants, and scarf.

Loro Piana cape and pants.


Her résumé also includes being the first Asian model to make the Forbes list of highest-paid models (she ranked No. 5 in 2013); the first individual, model or otherwise, to wear an Apple Watch in an editorial (her smartwatch debut on the 2014 cover of Vogue China is now seen as a harbinger of today’s fashion-tech culture); the first Chinese woman to front American Vogue (she posed with the likes of Ashley Graham and Kendall Jenner for the magazine’s 2017 cover); and the first Asian model to have a Barbie made in her likeness (the doll is part of Mattel’s “Role Models” line and features the strapless Zac Posen ballgown Liu wore to the 2014 Met Gala). “To express yourself with confidence means to not be afraid of making mistakes,” she says. At 35, Liu is still a top-earning supermodel, credited with expanding global perceptions of beauty.

Getting to where she is now was not always easy. Growing up in Hunan Province, she felt awkward and unremarkable. “I didn’t have any specific style,” she says. “Due to my height, most feminine clothing never fit me well, so I often dressed in more androgynous pieces and became a tomboy.” Classmates nicknamed her “Mulan,” a reference to the Chinese legend of a young woman who disguises herself as a man to become a warrior. Nonetheless, she was discovered in a modeling competition when she was a lanky teenager. After the late, legendary fashion editor Joseph Carle met Liu during a fitting in Beijing, he helped catapult her career by introducing her to agents working in international markets.

Over time, the comparison to Mulan, a young heroine always on the run and whose identity is shaped by what she wears, felt apt—even empowering. “After so many years, I’ve discovered that beauty is versatile and never limited to only one vision,” she says. “My physical attributes or what I choose to put on convey an appeal that is singular to me.”

Miu Miu jacket, cardigan, T-shirt, and briefs.

Louis Vuitton tank top.

What are the upsides and downsides of being a top model?

Visiting different places in the world has helped me understand so many cultures—not to mention make friends from all walks of life. My least favorite part is actually also the travel aspect. It means less time spent with family back home.

What is your favorite destination when you’re not working?

Yongzhou, where I was born. To me, that’s where the most familiar sights, smells, and people are. The feeling of being home is always what relaxes me the most.

How would you describe your personal aesthetic?

I’m very minimalist at my core. Simplicity is beautiful to me. From a fashion standpoint, the most important thing has always been comfort. Throughout the years, I think the best thing I’ve learned is how to do “no-makeup” makeup, something I’ve personally found hard to achieve because you need to have maintained your hair and skin in ideal conditions to begin with. At the same time, I appreciate things that are colorful and rich. A lot of my furniture possesses those attributes, setting the right “temperature” as soon as I enter a room and making home really feel like home.

You’re a global ambassador for Chanel Beauty. What are your best beauty bets?

I use a lash curler on my bottom lashes because those tend to grow upwards. Every time I do this on my own backstage at a show, I get makeup artists studying my technique. In my daily life, I pay a lot of attention to the cleanliness of my skin. Massaging my face to encourage blood flow is a key part of my routine. I use conditioner first to tend to my hair before shampooing, and then finish with conditioner again. This can help prevent significant hair loss every time you shower.

Loro Piana coat and pants; Dior bralette.

How do you spend time away from the camera?

Meditation and Pilates help keep both my body and mind in the healthiest states possible. Whenever I’m not working, I enjoy visiting museums or galleries to absorb what different artists create. Personal aesthetic can’t be defined by just a single concept or a single word—it evolves over time as I collect more ideas.

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?

A simple home surrounded by nature. If small wild animals were willing to be my neighbors, that would be a great bonus.

Hair by Stéphane Lancien for L’Oréal Paris at Callisté Agency; makeup by Hiromi Ueda at Art + Commerce; manicure by Elsa Deslandes at Majeure Prod. Model: Liu Wen at the Society Management. Casting by Piergiorgio Del Moro and Samuel Ellis Scheinman at DM Casting. Set design by Nicola Scarlino at Blaze Paris.

Produced by January Productions; executive producer: Leonard Cuinet; local producer: Afif Baroudi; production coordinator: Barbara Eyt; photo assistants: Kai Cem Narin, John Neate, Thomas Pigeon; digital operator: Niccolo Pacilli; digital assistant: Cassian Gray; lab: Dreamer; fashion assistants: Xenia Settel, Tess Pisani, Teagan Cardenas, Camryn Pessin; production assistants: Jules Guibourg, Anthony Abikhzer, Sofiane Baziz; hair assistants: Julian Sapin, Sonia Messaoudi; makeup assistants: Qin Huo, Victoria Reuter.