Vietnamese models – the story of a startup agency

Entrepreneurs come from many backgrounds and often make gigantic leaps in work or geographical environment to follow their passion.

Quang Dang, or Canton, as he’s professionally known, left a successful career in mechanical engineering and immigration law in the US to launch his business in Saigon.

Now Canton is  the man many advertising agencies  and photographers turn to when they need talent for a campaign or photo shoot. With a can-do attitude, Canton has launched a model management company in Saigon, a whole world away from engineering, in more ways than one.

When asked how he made the seemingly odd transition, Canton laughs and explains: “It’s two different worlds. Since I was little I was interested in fashion and style. My parents influenced me to go to school and get a good job, so I took their advice. But after so many years of work I just thought, ‘I’ve got to fulfill my passion.’”

Of Vietnamese and Chinese descent, Canton and his nine siblings were born in Vietnam and migrated to the US on boats while their parents stayed behind. He spent most of his time in North Carolina and later Los Angeles. After his first trip to Vietnam in 1991, Canton recognized the huge potential and opportunities here and couldn’t stay away, making repeated trips every summer until he made a permanent move in 2003. When he arrived in Vietnam, Canton met a woman that would become crucial to his success – Pham Thuy Linh – a famous Vietnamese singer and TV show host. Through her he became enthralled in the fashion and modeling scene, meeting various movers and shakers in the industry where he built a large network.

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“She invited me to see all her events and shows and I was able to make connections with her and her model friends. One day the manager of Napoly Bar asked me to do a promotional show,” Canton recalls. “I already had experience from being around all the models at the events so I was able to direct the show and it turned out very well. After the first show I decided to start my own company. Many of my friends had asked me if I would open up an agency. I had enough connections I felt it was time for me to do it and everything was ready, so why not?”

I’m going to be big

Elegant Model Agency officially opened in 2012. Aside from getting the license (which became easy in 2007 when Vietnam became a member of the World Trade Organization), the hardest part for him was instilling trust in his clients and Vietnamese models. “Gaining trust was a big challenge. I’m in the middle; how can I make them trust me so that I can get what they want and get the job done? When I first started I was willing to work for free.”

He started with 10 models at his first showcase, inviting potential models and clients to prove his talent and it paid off – he received bookings from it. His models have been featured in designer shows for labels including Mango, Warehouse, Bebe, Charles & Keith, Christian Louboutin and Topshop. Not only was Canton making an impact in the fashion industry but also for various ad/cosmetic campaigns and promotional shows for brands such as Petro, Kawasaki, Shiseido Skincare and Heineken. Depending on their experience and how well-known they are, models can earn from USD100 to almost USD2,000 per show in Vietnam. Canton now has nearly 500 models on his book.

He scouts for new talent at social events around town. Looks may vary from tall, short, slim to athletic or a unique face – you name it. “There is a demand for all different types of models. Vietnam is catching up internationally so it has to be a mixture of Western, European and Vietnamese now.”

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Although Elegant Model Agency does not provide training, Canton is present throughout most of the preparation process whether it is helping out with music selection or directing models on the catwalk. He strives to build strong relationships with his models outside of work by hosting meetings and social events. “As a model manager, you have to love the work in order to get through all of the difficulties. Without the passion, I don’t think you could get things done. I love being around beautiful models. I love the beauty. I feel so happy every time I do a show. I feel that it is me.”

Welcoming its first International Fashion Week last fall, fashion is gradually gaining a presence throughout Vietnam but it still has a long way to go, Canton explains. With his experience in the US, he brings an international appeal and advantage that most local agencies here don’t have yet.

“I’m lucky that I was trained and educated in America and that I am from America. I happened to be born here but everything about me is American. I had the opportunity to learn so much from America and I like that I can bring that to Vietnam. If I meet a foreigner or someone who is not Vietnamese, my chances of closing a contract are higher than the local companies or agencies here.”

With newly-opened offices in District 11 and a growing network, Canton has high hopes for the future. “I’m not bragging but if you ask me how I feel about all of this and where I will be in the future, I feel that I’m going to be big. To me, making money at this point is not important anymore.”

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