Kelly England: a catwalk icon turned Made-in-China entrepreneur
Photo: Paolo Guadagnin

With a modeling career that lasted over a decade, Kelly England was the face of international campaigns for brands such as Chopard and Lancôme, and appeared in over two hundred editorials in “Vogue”, “Marie Claire”, “Just Seventeen”, “Cosmopolitan”, “Noblesse” and more. Chosen by beauty guru Shu Uemura as his muse, she was the first model to start and manage a fashion blog, and after walking the catwalks in Paris, London, Tokyo, Milan, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore, she is now a top name in the Made-in-China fashion world. In 2008, she launched her own publishing house and started collaborations with international brands wanting to establish their presence on the Chinese market, offering consultancies in branding, licensing, media and celebrity endorsement. Kelly England was nominated British Fashion Ambassador and defined by “Elle” magazine as “the most powerful woman in fashion in China”.

We met her for a chat and here is what she told us...

Photo: Paolo Guadagnin

When did your passion for fashion begin?

I grew up in a very small, beautiful countryside village in Staffordshire, UK. Life was very traditional, and I mostly wore wellington boots to visit horses and cows in the fields and play with dogs. I used to watch Fashion TV (FTV) and I guess that was my first introduction to “fashion”. I would watch the runway collections and interviews with designers with fascination. Magazines were also a huge influence and I would look at the small credits of the photographers, models and makeup artists on each shoot. When I was discovered – by a lady model agent from Models One London in Covent Garden on a school trip – I was really surprised and thrilled that I could possibly work alongside such creative people. It was like magic.


What are you working on at the moment?

I always work on a number of projects. What I am really excited about now is new generation fashion and new luxe materials that are animal free. There are so many fantastic companies working on protecting the environment and animals and I want to be a part of this. Prada, Giorgio Armani, Stella McCartney, Calvin Klein, Vivienne Westwood, Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger are all fur free, and this is a big change.


How does your company GFI Group operate to help international brands enter and grow in the Chinese market?

I was lucky to have been one of the first international models to work in China, and a lot of people I worked with then I continue to work with now. We now have three offices in China and constantly launch and expand exciting luxury brands in the country. Every project is different and we are proud to have worked with everyone from HYATT to Benefit Cosmetics, from Haig Club (David Beckham) to Salvatore Ferragamo. I love what I do. My team are incredible and make my concepts come to life, whilst I am always buzzing with ideas.


You ran the first blog for models. Why did you start it?

I started my own website very early on, so that clients and agencies around the world would keep up to date with my tear sheets. It was one of the first model websites as most models left it to agents to handle at the time. I then got hundreds of emails from models, and often their mothers around the world, asking questions – so I ended up covering a lot of advice to new faces on how to get their break, as I couldn’t answer all individually.

What do you remember most about your years as a model?

I was very lucky to work as a model for ten whole years, which now is quite unusual as the lifecycle for a fashion model is getting shorter and shorter. In that time I did nothing other than shoot, cast, shoot. I always thought it might end any minute, so I hardly took any breaks and worked really hard. I would often wake up in the morning not knowing what country I was in. My first contract was in Tokyo for two months with the Saturo Model Agency, when they would give you a fixed guarantee to fly in (and a pretty huge dollar amount for a 17 year old), and then would book you like mad and chaperone you to shoots for fashion and beauty campaigns. I had never been to Asia before, nor had anyone that I knew, so I arrived like Alice in Wonderland, or actually more like “Lost in Translation”! I went from a countryside village to a top agency with extremely worldly, glamorous, successful models from all around the world – it was a huge shock, and really exciting. Modeling is kind of like being in the Olympics or on “X Factor” every day – castings for new faces are grueling (and you endure about ten per day). You have to get through a barrier to make it happen. I was lucky that Mr. Shu Uemura launched me, and that gave me the jumpstart I needed.

Do you miss that time in your life?

I am so grateful for my career modeling as I met amazing and creative people and got opportunities that cannot be bought. I met so many people that have been a huge part of my life since then, so although I no longer “model” my life has not change that much – now there is just much more behind-the-scenes business that I find really satisfying and exciting. Weirdly, now I am in front of the camera way more than I expected: people are very interested in a former fashion model doing business.


What is your advice to young models today, considering your experience?

I recommend new faces take their social media super seriously. It is amazing to be able to communicate your brand directly. Before, models could only “talk” if a brand involved them in their campaign – and then they could only talk about their message. I also caution young girls I have mentored on keeping content super clean and cool, and to think of the bigger picture rather than focusing on traffic spikes from more risqué content.

You were the face of huge brands like Shu Uemura, Chopard and Lancôme. What did those experiences teach you?

Everything I do today in my career I was lucky to learn from the very best. Working with brands’ founders is the most inspiring; the brand is their baby. For example, Mr. Shu Uemura built his company from the ground up, following his career as a makeup artist, and created a highly technical makeup collection that was light years ahead of its time. Seriously, every single model had his products (especially the eyelash curlers and the strobe cream) and was so in awe of him doing their face – he was a living legend and very demanding of his art. Makeup artists didn’t have their own brands at that point, so what Mr. Shu did was revolutionary. I guess that teaches us there are no limits: all you have to do is do what you love, and do it really really well.


Is there a person that you would like to thank? Someone that changed your career?

There are so many people that have helped me. I am very grateful to have been scouted by Models One on a school trip to London: without them my life would have been 100% different! Overall, I think I have an angel looking after me: I was super lucky to have a great experience modeling with most clients, agents, photographers around the world being very professional and supportive.

Can you tell us an anecdote, a curiosity from a campaign or from a shooting, that no one knows?

So many! I was told by my first (very tough) booker to never bring my problems to a studio, and instead to always to be in a good mood and be a professional. It sounds simple, but you would be surprised how many models think it’s alright to not do that, and instead arrive gossiping about their bad boyfriends, agents or whatever. Also, it’s really important to be polite to everyone, especially the runners and assistants, as honestly they do the most work and don’t get enough love from anyone – plus in a few years they will be the ones calling the shots. Finally, you need to know your worth, and to get the rates you deserve, but at the same time to do work that is going to propel your career. A good agent will help you with that, but you need to know what you want.


You travel a lot and you worked for many years around the world. How does the fashion system in China differ from the one in other countries, in your opinion?

Chinese people are very proud of their culture, and there are so many exceptional Chinese fashion brands such as Guo Pei. China really embraces international brands and their love for Italy is particularly strong. Chinese people are increasingly appreciating shopping as close to the designers as they can, which is great for the fashion business – and London, Milan, Madrid and Paris in particular are capitalizing on this. Chinese people are very fast minded and know in an instant if they like a brand, collection, or piece immediately – and they don’t change their mind easily. They want to know everything about the design process. You have to get it right from the start: first impressions are a big deal. They also care a lot about brand heritage, but honestly that alone isn’t enough: you need to be looking to the future and showing your newest ideas. They want the latest, greatest and best quality.


And what is the Chinese concept of “beauty”?

Chinese women take this very seriously and will invest whatever is needed to improve their beauty. They also understand that food and lifestyle are an intricate part of feeling beautiful and that makeup is only the icing on the cake. Most of my Chinese friends and I go to acupuncture every week and use Chinese herbs and teas to keep at our best. Chinese people also love to hear beauty tips from around the world, are super open minded, and become girlish with excitement when they hear about Italian, French, British and Korean beauty secrets.

What is your dream in your professional life?

From when I started, I always just wanted to be free and independent and I am so grateful every hour of every day that that is happening. I like my own schedule and being able to decide who I work with, when and how. That is a tremendous privilege: I am very lucky. I just want to continue enjoying what I do, doing amazing things and having adventures.


You were nominated “British Fashion Ambassador”. Do you feel a sort of responsibility in this?

The media first named me the British Fashion Ambassador as everyone knows I am obsessed with afternoon tea, the British sense of humor and Her Majesty the Queen! But in all seriousness, it is an honor to represent the best of Britain around the world and I take it very seriously. I have spoken for the British Council to inspire other women to follow their dreams. I do my utmost to support and promote British design, art and culture. Many of the British brands I have helped in China were very appreciative to be guided or introduced to the right people to make big things happen, and I am happy to help.

You collaborate with Italian brands such as Dolce & Gabbana, Donatella Versace…

I may be as British as it gets, but honestly Italy is where true style and passion are at the forefront. Dolce & Gabbana held Alta Moda shows in Hong Kong, Beijing and Tokyo recently and brought their unique artistry. Stefano Gabbana is mega talented and willing to show his true natural personality full of warmth and joy to people, which is good for humanity. His Instagram stories are addictive too… I love his fitness videos – he is so fun! Donatella is an icon of the highest order and she radiates power and positive energy. I have been very lucky to have spent time with these three Italian fashion icons, and just find being in their presence so inspiring.


Do you have any particular advice for young people that want to work in fashion?

I think you need to do work experience everywhere you can and learn, learn, learn. Ask questions, work hard, stay late, be helpful. Also, decide if you want to be “commercial” or not, as many people forget, this is business and your work has to sell – so figure out what people want and find your place. Fashion is relentless and exciting, but also super hard work. In terms of direction, I think there is lot of growth in sustainable, vegan type fashion – so take Stella McCartney, Tesla and Formula E (the Electric Street Racing Series) as inspirations of new ways to do business and be creative: that is the future.


“Elle” magazine defined you as “the most powerful woman in fashion in China”. What do you think about that?

When I was sent the article, I was so surprised and so humbled. It is such an honor and I am so appreciative of those that support me – it means so much to me. There are so many women doing great things I admire around the world, like Natalie Massenet, Wendy Yu, Payal Shah Parikh, Silvia Grilli, Chen Man, Giovanna Battaglia Engelbert, Rosie Nixon and Victoria Beckham. It feels like the beginning and 2018 will be very exciting.


Interview by Barbara Palladino

© Kelly England

Photo: Paolo Guadagnin

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