Fan Bingbing: The Chic Life of a Cannes 'It' Girl

Fan Bing Bing Headshot - P 2013
Courtesy of WME

Fan Bing Bing Headshot - P 2013

The actress and international fashion icon, with roles in "Iron Man 3" and "X-Men," is the gatekeeper to China's luxury and film market.

This story first appeared in the May 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Fan Bingbing really knows how to make an entrance. For the opening ceremony of the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, the Chinese actress chose a one-sleeved, imperial yellow silk gown embroidered with dragons and cascading ocean waves, instantly declaring her proud heritage (no more shouts of "Where are you from?" on the red carpet) and flooring the fashion press even more than usual. The Laurence Xu creation was no fluke: Shifting fluently between indie designers and European haute couture, Fan already had established herself as one of fashion's most intriguing figures with her bold, flamboyant choices. But her Cannes debut launched her into the style stratosphere.

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American audiences finally will see Fan on the big screen in summer 2014's X-Men: Days of Future Past as the teleporting mutant Blink. She's "extremely focused," says director Bryan Singer. "She inhabits the screen like a true star." (Fan also appears in the Chinese version of Iron Man 3, which scored a $63.5 million opening weekend.) At home, Fan has been an A-lister for much of her 15-year film and television career. And as her acclaimed films such as Lost in Beijing and Chongqing Blues made the festival circuit, Fan built a reputation for her chameleonic and dramatic looks.

"My style depends on my mood," says Fan, 31, of her sartorial philosophy. "Having something to say is the most important part." (The star, who grew up in a middle-class family in Shandong province before attending Shanghai Theater Academy, is studying English; THR interviewed her in her native Mandarin.) Her fearlessness has attracted top designers, particularly those seeking a foothold in China's $50 billion luxury market -- the world's largest, according to Brian Buchwald, CEO of Bomoda, a website focused on Chinese luxury consumers.

"She has this interesting duality," notes Buchwald of Fan, who has been a L'Oreal brand ambassador for three years and signed with Chopard and Louis Vuitton this year (she's attending Cannes for L'Oreal and Chopard). "She represents products that a Chinese consumer would want to buy because she wears them, but also she represents a girl's individuality and ability to stand out."

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Beijing-based Fan had no problem standing out when she attended the 2013 Oscars with producer Bill Mechanic and Chopard's Caroline Scheufele. Having arrived in L.A. undecided on what to wear, Fan fell for photos of a Marchesa gown that was in New York. Her friend Harvey Weinstein (they met at the 2010 amfAR dinner in Cannes) called his wife, label co-founder Georgina Chapman, who sent the dress on a private plane. Fan's hair and makeup were done before the gown arrived, and she slipped it on just in time for the red carpet. "I loathe fittings," she says. "When you do a fitting, it's because your heart has no plan."

Marchesa isn't the only brand eager to dress Fan. Later that night, she hit the Vanity Fair fete in a black-and-white Oscar de la Renta and the Elton John AIDS Foundation party in beaded Elie Saab Couture. She isn't sure what she'll choose for this year's Cannes kickoff. Up to now, she's worn a Chinese-style gown -- the most recent two designed by her stylist, Christopher Bu -- but her X-Men schedule might not allow time for an original creation. "The designers are good to me," she says of her access to the festival fashion suites. "The clothes I want, they'll hold on to them."

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"[Compared to other Asian stars], Fan seems to have the most fun with fashion," says Catherine Kallon, founder of the U.K.-based blog Red Carpet Fashion Awards. "She's more of a risk-taker." Fan understands her influence -- she recently was named No. 1 on Forbes China's Celebrity 100 -- but says luxury brands can't take Chinese consumers for granted. "There was a period when China was very label-conscious. But now I think Chinese women will use more of their creativity," says the star, who once showed up in the front row at Elie Saab with one of the designer's beaded cardigans wrapped around her head like a turban. "There are more people who really know fashion as a lifestyle, an attitude. China is catching up."

Fan's expanding film career -- she founded her own production studio in 2007, signed with WME in 2012 and just has been cast opposite Jackie Chan in the upcoming action comedy Skiptrace -- will only amplify her voice as the unofficial Chinese ambassador to the fashion and beauty realms. But her off-duty look is T-shirts, jeans, flats and no makeup: "When I wear makeup, it's to go out and make money," she jokes. "Otherwise, no way."