If you’re not really up with what’s happening in fashion circles, then you’d be forgiven for thinking that this month’s return of Vietnam’s Next Top Model marks just another season of makeup, makeovers, and make-believe.
The Top Model franchise may be one of the world’s most glamorous and successful television formats around, but after 12 years on the air in the States and a distinct absence of any actual top models emerging from the competition, a healthy skepticism towards the show is understandable.
If you were following local fashion news, however, then you’d already know that Vietnam’s version of Top Model is a little different. Going into its sixth season this month, the show has already turned out some of the modeling industry’s biggest names – many of whom now work on international runways never-before touched by Vietnamese models in chic destinations like Paris, New york, London and Milan.
The success of the show has brought its local licensee, Multimedia JSC, to the forefront of the local fashion scene. Within the space of five years, Multimedia has grown from a tiny production team into an empire at the center of Vietnamese vogue – it represents models and designers, manages a growing number of TV formats, and has hosted glitzy fashion events. Most recently, it co-organized Vietnam’s first-ever International Fashion Week – surpassing local producers and fashionistas who’ve never quite been able to put one together in the past.
Perhaps the most remarkable factor in all the above is that the woman with her hands poised over the pieces started it all with zero experience in either fashion or reality TV – and that she reached success not by following the show’s winning format, but by daring to turn its core concept on its head. That mastermind is Le Thi Quynh Trang, and if you were expecting a vivacious media personality à la Tyra Banks, you’d be in for another surprise – Trang built her fashion and media empire in a few short years based on a background as a plain accountant. To those who ask her (as they frequently do) how such a thing is possible, she has a very simple answer: “I’m a businesswoman. If I were an artist, I could never do this.”
The success of Vietnam’s Next Top Model, in fact, can be traced back to Trang’s days working as financial controller for the media agency that produced Vietnam’s Who Wants to be a Millionaire over a decade ago. That’s a story in itself – Millionaire’s popularity gave rise to major internal power struggles that eventually destroyed the company – but as the house of cards shook, Trang became increasingly involved in production tasks, receiving a thorough grounding in the television licensing business in the process. When the agency finally fell, Trang decided to use her new knowledge to try out the game for herself.
Within a year, she found herself wandering the exhibitions at MIPCOM – the world’s largest television content trade show in Cannes – coming to a stop in front of the CBS stand, where the large banner advertising the broadcaster’s reality juggernaut America’s Next Top Model happened to catch her eye. What stirred her passions at that moment wasn’t any romantic notion of the show’s appeal, however, but rather the tagline on the poster – “shown in over 100 countries.”
“I’m doing business. The media business,” Trang explains candidly. “Seeing as we have to sell to advertisers, we know very well that their main target is women. The woman is the person who can make the decision to buy. For any program, the first targeted consumer is always the woman. I’d heard about that show before, and I’d seen it before. So immediately in my mind, ‘over a hundred countries,’ it meant it was very successful.”
While the chances of a fledgling media firm successfully negotiating for the license of such a major format were slim at best, Trang’s compelling manner and superhuman persistence eventually won over Top Model’s organizers. Negotiations took three years – but Trang quickly discovered that winning the license wasn’t going to be the hardest part. “When I signed the agreement in January 2010, they gave me a big book,” she says of the moment she received the enormous series bible. “From the beginning, I just had a little experience in production, so I thought it was easy. It was not. A game show is different from a reality show. For a game show, you’ve got a formula. you fill it out with some questions, but the setup is the same. A reality show is not easy.”
Unable to make sense of the show’s bible, and without any experience in modeling or fashion whatsoever, Trang’s preparations were grossly insufficient – and a few months later, CBS threatened to withdraw the license. As a last-chance gesture, they agreed to allow Trang behind-the-scenes access to observe the production of ANTM Cycle 15, due to begin filming within days. After many frantic emails and a good deal of begging the American embassy for a rush visa, Trang got to the US on time. That experience changed everything.
“My vision totally changed after the trip,” she says. “They trained us every day from post-production, production, pre- production, every single part of production. So after that, coming back to Vietnam, I had a greater sense of imagination.”
Back in Vietnam, Trang switched off her phone and closeted herself away for a week, furiously watching entire seasons of the show from all around the world. It was by doing this that Trang experienced her first epiphany – that there was a structural consistency to each season. Beyond all the catfighting, eliminations, and repetitive catchphrases, Next Top Model is actually a fairly decent crash-course along the career path of a supermodel in a straight, logical progression. From casting and catwalking, through to the makeovers designed to give each model a memorable look, and then on to the proper comportment of a supermodel, Trang realized that all the prepping of the squabbling contestants was building up to the commercial reality of the modeling industry – brand ambassadorship.
That simple insight opened the gateway towards a radical repurposing of her franchise. After a tremendously successful first season of Vietnam’s Next Top Model, Trang saw that passing the competition winner off to a disinterested modeling agency was a fatally flawed strategy. By the time the show’s top performers graduated as trained supermodels in the making, they already had their own established following – and yet they were being transferred to big agencies without any incentive to support a fresh talent who had yet to pay her dues on the runway. How much more effective it would be, she realized, to instead direct that marketing resource back into her own brand.
The point was demonstrated at the conclusion of the first season. “In the format,” says Trang, “there’s only one winner. So the first runner-up, she was very sad. At that moment, the final two are winner and loser. When the show finished, the media only focused on the winner, and nobody mentioned the second one. It was like 99 and 100. Just in a moment. Then she called me, crying to me, ‘Trang, can you help me find any work, I’m so sad, I have nothing to do.’ So we started to support her. She had no agreement with any agency. She had become a free model.”
“We work with them in the show, we know their strong points and their weak points,” Trang explains. “So we started to make contact with people to find a way to support her. And you know what? After one year, the first-runner-up was even more successful than the winner. The winner became nobody in the market. The first runner up – we contacted Wilhelmina, she’s working in New york right now. Immediately she worked in Singapore. All my team supported her, because – modeling is the business.”
The implications were obvious. “The winner is an ambassador of my show,” says Trang. “The image of my show. I want to control her, so I can control the brand. So that’s why I say, I’ve got a business mind. I understand that the success of the show rests on the success of the winner.”
Soon afterwards, Trang became the first Top Model franchisee worldwide to start her own modeling agency, beU Models. While it wasn’t a big moneymaker initially, Trang remained unconcerned. With every passing season of Vietnam’s Next Top Model, the agency acquired more and more proven talent, each with their own fan base. The idea was originally conceived from the heart as a way to keep the models in work, ensuring that their names (and, by association, the show) remained in the news between cycles. With the sixth season, Trang now has enough talent to drive beU’s own success – she now claims that it has already become the top agency in Vietnam.
Trang is very protective of her models, for good reason. “They’re still very new,” she says matter-of-factly. “They have no experience and can’t speak English as well. So I have to follow them every single step.”
“I take care of my models more than my children”, she says warmly. “Because they are brand value.”
While accompanying her models backstage as they prepared for international events, the final pieces of Trang’s puzzle came together at last. At that point, she had already replicated her business strategy with Project Runway, thus garnering sufficient in-house design talent to keep her models busy. Behind the runway, however, Trang could finally see the workings of a fashion extravaganza first-hand. It gave her the knowledge she needed to put together an International Fashion Week that would not only establish Vietnam as a world-class fashion destination, but would also bring about a level of celebrity that would reflect directly on her properties. Her fashion empire had risen.
If you’re thinking this was Trang’s endgame, you’re quite wrong. This is not a fairy story that fades out with the flashing lights of a fashion spectacle – it’s an enterprise. Although her plans have yet to be formally announced, anyone with any business acumen should be able to see it coming: Trang’s master stroke – first revealed to Oi Vietnam – is that she’s about to launch her own fashion line.
“It’s not my own brand, actually,” she qualifies. “I have a partner in Singapore. They will create one fashion brand. And that brand will sell online all over the world.”
Trang’s first material fashion offering will start with items that everyone can wear, but she plans to spread into niche markets shortly afterwards. There’s another TV format coming up too – She’s Got the Look, a beauty competition for contestants over 30 – and with each season of each show, Trang will be collecting more and more talent for her empire.
It’s perhaps ironic that Trang’s career started with Who Wants to be a Millionaire, because the answer to that question is now obvious. Those who seek to flatter Trang by calling her a fashion queenmaker haven’t quite seen the truth of the matter. Taking the industry by strategy, Le Thi Quynh Trang has herself become the queen.
“I’ve got the media, I’ve got the models, I’ve got the designers, I know how to run business, and I know how to do marketing,” she concludes. “Fashion, as I say, is just a game of branding and marketing.”