In 2021, as she won gold medals at the skiing World Championships and Winter X Games, Gu was also forging lucrative partnerships with fashion houses and luxury labels. Signing for IMG Models, the agency representing Bella Hadid, Kate Moss and Hailey Bieber, she has penned deals with Louis Vuitton, Victoria’s Secret and Tiffany & Co., as well as the luxury Swiss watchmaker IWC and cosmetics brand Estée Lauder, among others.
A promotional image from Gu’s recent campaign with Louis Vuitton. Credit: Louis Vuitton
But it is Gu’s mass appeal in China, where she is known by her Chinese name Gu Ailing and has been nicknamed the “Snow Princess,” that makes her especially valuable to brands.
Eileen Gu seen on a JD.com advertisement at a bus stop in Beijing, China. Credit: Tingshu Wang/Reuters
According to Bohan Qiu, whose Shanghai-based creative agency Boh Project works with major fashion brands, Gu’s surging popularity in the country comes at a time when nationalist pride in China has seen “the relevance of Western celebrities” decrease.
“For this generation, a lot of the celebrities here are quite domestic-oriented — so (Gu) being half-American half-Chinese, and speaking both languages fluently, has a very global appeal,” he said over the phone, adding that the country’s Gen Z demographic contains “third culture kids” who simultaneously understand Chinese and Western contexts. “She is definitely a once-in-a-decade type of talent.”
Eileen Gu pictured with Stacy Martin (left) and Venus Williams (right) at the Louis Vuitton Womenswear Spring/Summer 2022 show at Paris Fashion Week last October. Credit: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images
Gu has also appeared on the cover of Chinese editions of GQ and Elle. And as guest editor of Vogue China’s Gen-Z-focused bimonthly issue, Vogue+, the athlete recently explored the complexities of her identity under the theme “code switch.”
The skiing star guest-edited an issue of Vogue China’s Gen-Z-focused bimonthly issue, Vogue+.
A ‘safe bet’ for brands
Gu’s social media is also littered with fashion. Whether posting to Instagram or writing to millions of followers on Xiaohongshu and Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Instagram and Twitter, respectively), her feeds flit between sport and style, with pictures from the slopes posted alongside modeling shots and her latest fashion editorials.
Her unguarded approach has helped her connect with young fans, in both China and the West, who want to see “above and beyond the training, the sports, the more official side of things,” said Qiu. “A lot of Chinese celebrities are much more protected by their agent or management, or they have a hard time sharing the more real sides of their lives.”
“My god, that vest and down jacket give off supermodel vibes,” wrote one user beneath the latter video on the Chinese version of TikTok, Douyin. “The Frog Princess is so fashionable,” read a comment on another video, using another Chinese nickname given to Gu on account of a green ski helmet she wore as a child. “Cheering you on to be the best at the Winter Olympics.”
An advertising billboard shows Eileen Gu promoting the Chinese dairy company Mengniu Dairy. Credit: Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images
Even in the heat of competition, Gu has used her public platform to boost her fashion credentials and promote Chinese culture. Speaking to reporters after qualifying for the big air final on Monday, she pulled up her race bib to show the cameras a black jacket embroidered with a golden dragon. “This is a piece of clothing I designed, with Chinese elements,” she said in Mandarin.
Related video: Reporters press Eileen Gu over her citizenship. See her response
But unlike the tennis star, who continues to represent the UK, Gu’s decision to ski for China makes her an even more bankable name, according to Qiu.
“Sports heroes are definitely the new idols here,” Qiu said, adding: “They’re national heroes, which makes them a very safe bet for brands to work with.”
Top image: Eileen Gu in a campaign for Louis Vuitton.