‘Crazy Rich Asians’ author Kevin Kwan trav­els to Paris to meet the Asian style icons who are shak­ing up the staid world of cou­ture.

Harper’s Bazaar (Malaysia) - - The Style -

Iwas sit­ting on a min­i­mal­ist white bench in the mid­dle of a glow­ing white box pavil­ion that had been built amid the splen­dour of the for­mal gar­dens sur­round­ing the Musée Rodin in Paris. This was the ethe­real set­ting for the Dior Haute Cou­ture Au­tumn/Win­ter ’18 show, and as I sat there think­ing I must be in heaven, a woman leaned into my face and im­pe­ri­ously de­manded that I move. She wore ca­nary di­a­monds the size of small lemons and a cham­pag­ne­coloured cock­tail dress, and she looked like she had spent at least four hours in her make-up artist’s chair. “You are in my seat! You need to move more to the left,” she im­plored. I told her as po­litely as I could that there was no pos­si­ble way I could move an­other mil­lime­tre, as I was al­ready prac­ti­cally in the lap of the friendly Aus­tralian woman next to me. But this lady stand­ing over me, who I sud­denly recog­nised as the wife of one of the rich­est men in Asia, wouldn’t take no for an an­swer. She had two planes, a dozen houses, and her own pri­vate mu­seum, I be­lieve, and she wanted her seat. A flurry of at­ten­dants came to sort out the fra­cas, where­upon it was re­vealed that Madame had made a mis­take af­ter all. This was not her seat; she was ac­tu­ally in the row be­hind. Wel­come to the land of haute cou­ture, where even all the money in the world can­not buy you a front-row seat. “Haute cou­ture,” Yves Saint Lau­rent fa­mously said, “con­sists of se­crets whis­pered from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion.” The leg­endary de­signer was re­fer­ring to the ar­ti­sans who cre­ate all the hand-sewn bits of exquisite­ness that go into ev­ery cou­ture dress, but his words could ap­ply just as well to the women who wear the gowns. Cou­ture oc­cu­pies the up­per­most strato­sphere of fash­ion. It is the holy of holies, as only about 2,000 women glob­ally are for­tu­nate enough to wear th­ese pre­cious gar­ments tai­lored to their ex­act mea­sure­ments, mak­ing it per­haps the most ex­clu­sive club in the world. In­creas­ingly, it is the women of Asia who are be­gin­ning to dom­i­nate this rare­fied mi­lieu.

When my first novel, Crazy Rich Asians, was pub­lished in 2013, many read­ers were as­ton­ished to learn that in Asia there were women who dressed in cou­ture from morn­ing till night. They were par­tic­u­larly cap­ti­vated by the char­ac­ter of Astrid, the beau­ti­ful heiress from Sin­ga­pore who was al­ways im­mac­u­lately at­tired in the lat­est cou­ture looks. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been asked whether women like Astrid truly ex­ist, but I would al­ways an­swer that, as a child in the late 1970s, I per­son­ally knew women who took the Con­corde from Sin­ga­pore to Paris via Lon­don twice a year for their cou­ture fit­tings and that Queen Sirikit of Thai­land had been par­tial to Bal­main since 1960. I have pic­tures of my grand­mother from the 1920s and ’30s in avant­garde dresses that looked like they could have come from the House of Worth or Lu­cien Le­long. She would never say if they were cou­ture, but I do re­call her telling me, “All my clothes and shoes came from Paris.”

My grand­mother’s be­hav­iour is sim­i­lar to that of many Asian women who come from fam­i­lies who have dressed in cou­ture for gen­er­a­tions: They tend to be in­tensely pri­vate about it. The cou­ture houses like­wise re­main as silent as the Sphinx, never dis­cussing their clients, so a fas­ci­na­tion re­mains. Who are th­ese women who wear cou­ture, who would buy a dress that costs more than a Range Rover? In July, I was lucky enough to get a peek into this in­ner sanc­tum by ac­com­pa­ny­ing four dis­tinctly stylish women from Asia who are reg­u­lars at the cou­ture shows.

The first show I at­tended was Schi­a­par­elli. As I ar­rived at the Palais Garnier to meet Heart Evan­ge­lista, a swarm of pa­parazzi de­scended on us like lo­custs. Heart hails from a Filipino-Chi­nese clan that founded the Bar­rio Fi­esta food empire and is mar­ried to Fran­cis Joseph “Chiz” Gue­vara Es­cud­ero, a mem­ber of the Philip­pine Se­nate who was a lead­ing can­di­date for vice pres­i­dent two years ago. But her il­lus­tri­ous so­cial stand­ing isn’t the only rea­son the pho­tog­ra­phers were click­ing away: Heart also hap­pens to be one of the most pop­u­lar ac­tresses in the Philip­pines. It didn’t hurt that in her round tinted sun­glasses and se­quinned om­bré dress, she looked like a mod­ern-day Au­drey Hep­burn. Images of her went vi­ral be­fore the show was even over, with her fans spec­u­lat­ing about why she was in Paris and whether she might be in the Crazy Rich Asians film.

As the mod­els came bil­low­ing down the cat­walk be­neath the opera house’s glit­ter­ing chan­de­liers and Belle Époque fres­coes, I could see how Heart con­nected in­tu­itively to the fash­ion with an artist’s eye. “Ev­ery time I go to the cou­ture shows, it in­spires my art,” she told me. An ac­com­plished pain­ter who has hosted sev­eral sold-out ex­hi­bi­tions, Heart landed on a sur­prise hit when she be­gan paint­ing on Her­mès hand­bags. “I had an or­ange lizard skin Birkin bag and I was eat­ing French fries at Chili’s, and I didn’t re­alise I was get­ting grease all over the bot­tom,” she said. “I tried to clean it, but it was just im­pos­si­ble to fix, so I thought, ‘Why don’t I paint on it?’ I sketched a yel­low bird on a branch of flow­ers, and peo­ple started rav­ing about it. A lot of women have their bags stained some­where—one woman’s daugh­ter had scrib­bled all over her Birkin— so all th­ese clients started com­ing to me and ask­ing, ‘Can you paint on my bag?’” Heart’s be­spoke Birkin bags now have a cult fol­low­ing.

Speak­ing of cult fol­low­ings, few de­sign­ers have es­tab­lished a group of fans as de­voted as Gi­ambat­tista Valli. “Cou­ture is at its essence about the fan­tasy, and Gi­amba re­ally brings it to life,” Feip­ing Chang said in the car on our way to

his show at the Pav­il­lon Gabriel. Feip­ing epit­o­mises a cer­tain breed of in­ter­na­tional Asian that is a hy­brid of East and West. A na­tive of Tai­wan, she grew up in Syd­ney and Sin­ga­pore be­fore mov­ing to New York, where she worked as an in­vest­ment banker af­ter get­ting a de­gree at NYU’s Stern School of Busi­ness. When a friend in­vited her to join her fash­ion in­vest­ment fund in Hong Kong, Feip­ing jumped at the op­por­tu­nity to con­nect with her true pas­sion. “Fash­ion has al­ways been in my blood,” she said. “My grand­mother only wore Chanel and Es­cada, and as a lit­tle girl I would play around in her closet. She was su­per in­tim­i­dat­ing and had this mys­ti­cal aura about her, so I al­ways thought, ‘Wow, I want to look like her.’” Feip­ing’s ar­rival in the Hong Kong scene co­in­cided with the rise of fash­ion in­flu­encers on so­cial me­dia, and be­fore she knew it agents and brand were ap­proach­ing her.

To­day, Feip­ing is one of Asia’s top In­sta­gram fash­ion stars. Her wed­ding in Capri to fi­nancier Lin­coln Li was one of the most talked­about nup­tials of 2017, as fash­ion and wed­ding blog­gers went wild over the breath­tak­ing pic­tures of Villa Ly­sis blan­keted in wild­flow­ers, with Feip­ing pos­ing on the mar­ble stair­case in cas­cades of white tulle by Gi­ambat­tista Valli. Feip­ing com­mis­sioned sev­eral cou­ture gowns for her wed­ding, and at to­day’s show it looked as though she was about to com­mis­sion a dozen more. As a model in a ma­jes­tic pale­green tulle stalked slowly across the stark, airy space like a pea­cock do­ing an in­tri­cate mat­ing dance, Feip­ing sighed au­di­bly. “That one,” she said to me, as if she had found her mate.

With her show-stop­pingly bold style, Feip­ing at­tracts movie-star at­ten­tion ev­ery­where she goes. Out­side the Dior show, sport­ing a red leather Dior trench coat with black mesh lace-up boots that made her look like a su­per­chic James Bond vil­lain­ess, Feip­ing was stopped ev­ery few feet by pho­tog­ra­phers. Af­ter snap­ping a pic­ture of the two of us, one pho­tog­ra­pher asked me, “What’s her name?” I du­ti­fully told her, adding, “Do you want to know my name?” “Not un­less you’re fa­mous,” the woman quipped. “What if I was?” I replied. The pho­tog­ra­pher squinted at me du­bi­ously.

While Feip­ing em­bod­ies the cur­rent zeit­geist of fash­ion­able women in Asia, the Yeoh sis­ters un­doubt­edly rep­re­sent the fu­ture. Rachel and Michelle Yeoh are de­scended from a distin­guished Malaysian-Chi­nese fam­ily. Born and raised in Kuala Lumpur, the fra­ter­nal twins at­tended board­ing school in Eng­land and have called Lon­don home for the past few years. In 2015, they had the hon­our

of be­ing the first Malaysians to de­but at Queen Char­lotte’s Ball at Kens­ing­ton Palace, a his­tor­i­cal rit­ual once re­served for Eu­rope’s aris­to­cratic fam­i­lies. Last year, the twins also made their fash­ion de­but, com­mand­ing the cat­walk in Dolce & Gab­bana’s Au­tumn/Win­ter ’17 show in Mi­lan along­side the off­spring of stars like Daniel Day-Lewis, Christie Brink­ley, and Jude Law.

When we at­tended the Fendi show to­gether at the mon­u­men­tal Palais Brong­niart, I mar­velled not only at how the Yeoh sis­ters seems to know all the right peo­ple but also at how they were a study in pa­tri­cian grace, per­fectly poised, while all around them less well-be­haved at­ten­dees jos­tled for front-row seats, pranced for at­ten­tion, and took in­nu­mer­able self­ies. Their com­po­sure no doubt comes from hav­ing been raised well and grow­ing up around the cou­turier’s ate­lier. “We started at­tend­ing the shows with our mother when we were 11. It’s be­come a fam­ily tra­di­tion, a sum­mer rit­ual that we look for­ward to ev­ery year,” Michelle said, al­most wist­fully.

That’s be­cause when sum­mer is over, the twins will re­turn to be­ing im­mersed in their stud­ies. Michelle is about to grad­u­ate from law school, while Rachel is fin­ish­ing up a com­bined de­gree in pol­i­tics, phi­los­o­phy, and law. “Our fam­ily val­ues ed­u­ca­tion a lot and cu­rios­ity and in­tel­lect, but never at the ex­pense of cre­ativ­ity. You al­ways have to have both sides. The essence of life is that we’re here to cre­ate, in­no­vate, do some­thing at the very least,” Rachel mused. As if pay­ing heed to her own words, she and Michelle ap­peared on the cat­walk again, at Dolce & Gab­bana’s Alta Moda show at a villa over­look­ing Lake Como just days af­ter we met up in Paris.

Like most twins, they are preter­nat­u­rally close. They fin­ish each other’s sen­tences in the sort of English ac­cent that many a par­ent would pay a for­tune in board­ing school fees for their chil­dren to ac­quire. They also share a dress size, but, alas, there’s lit­tle swap­ping go­ing on, as their tastes couldn’t be more dif­fer­ent. “Rachel is re­ally ex­per­i­men­tal and will wear what­ever she wants. I make safer choices,” Michelle said. “I dress from the heart,” Rachel told me over break­fast one morn­ing, ges­tur­ing to her red tea-length Ganni wrap dress with black leop­ard spots. I found it charm­ing that Rachel is equally com­fort­able wear­ing Ganni, a moder­ately priced Dan­ish line, as she is wear­ing cou­ture.

In fact, this ca­sual em­brace of high and low was ev­i­dent among all the women. Like Astrid from my nov­els, who showed up at an ex­clu­sive party wear­ing a white dress from Zara, th­ese ladies are as keyed in on high street fash­ion as they are on cou­ture. At an­other din­ner dur­ing the week, Feip­ing turned up in a pleated laven­der Tibi dress, the same one that Heart owns and wore to her art open­ing at the Ayala Mu­seum in Manila in April. The women bril­liantly mix cou­ture pieces with con­tem­po­rary brands sold at a much lower price point with­out an ounce of snob­bery. Of course, on th­ese ladies, ev­ery­thing looks like cou­ture.

Two days later, at­tend­ing the Ar­mani Privé show in an el­e­gant, bois­erie-pan­elled salon of the Ital­ian Em­bassy with Heart, I found my­self star­ing in dis­be­lief at the most spec­tac­u­lar sight. Is­abelle Hup­pert, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Juli­ette Binoche were sit­ting across from me. Only three of my four favourite ac­tresses in the whole world. If Cather­ine Deneuve walked in right now, I knew I would com­pletely lose it. I could al­ready see the head­line: ‘Asian Author Goes Crazy at Ar­mani’. Heart leaned in and asked, “Kevin, is that Tina Turner in front of us?” Holy Proud Mary, it sure was. How was I ever go­ing to con­cen­trate on the show?

I needn’t have wor­ried. Ar­mani showed 96 looks, far more than any other cou­turier I’d seen that week, but dress af­ter dress de­manded your at­ten­tion. I saw ex­quis­ite gowns with se­quins sug­gest­ing sa­cred ge­om­e­try, a Jean Cocteau-es­que draw­ing came to life against black vel­vet, and like the rest of the crowd, Heart and I were trans­fixed. “See­ing a show like this re­minds me why I love go­ing to the cou­ture shows. It’s so ther­a­peu­tic,” Heart ob­served. “Asians can be re­ally con­ser­va­tive. It’s hard to ex­press your­self with­out some­one say­ing some­thing about you. But what I re­alise is, if you can use your plat­form of in­flu­ence to in­spire girls to step out of their com­fort zone with the way they dress, that’s pretty pow­er­ful.”

On our last day in Paris, the women took part in a pho­to­shoot at the Ritz, dressed in their favourite looks from the shows. The Yeoh sis­ters seated among piles of mac­arons in the Maria Callas suite, adorned in Cartier jewels and de­light­ful pink gowns by Fendi, re­minded me of two young duchesses pos­ing for a court por­trait by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Heart, stand­ing on a bal­cony swathed in an os­trich-feath­ered Ar­mani Privé cre­ation and Chopard di­a­monds, looked so stun­ning that she caused me to for­get the view. But it was only when I saw Feip­ing in the gar­den, re­s­plen­dent in the glo­ri­ous pale-green tulle gown she had spot­ted on the Gi­ambat­tista Valli run­way, that I be­gan to un­der­stand what cou­ture was truly all about.

The gen­er­a­tions of women who have worn cou­ture— whether they’re from Amer­ica, Eu­rope, the Mid­dle East, Africa, or Asia—have ex­pe­ri­enced uni­ver­sal con­nec­tion when they put on a piece of cou­ture and are en­veloped in its artistry. The dress trans­forms them, im­bues them with an in­de­scrib­able power, and be­comes an all­con­sum­ing love af­fair. As I caught Feip­ing’s eye dur­ing the pho­to­shoot, she de­clared, “I never want to take this dress off.” Her Mes­sika ear­rings glim­mered in the sun­light, and as she posed—run­ning, leap­ing, fall­ing—on the crisp lawn in an alleé of per­fectly man­i­cured trees, I knew why. All of a sud­den she was a but­ter­fly, she was a sea anemone, she was a pe­ony in full bloom, she was like noth­ing on earth. She was pure joy.

Pho­tographed by Matthieu Salvaing.

On Feip­ing Chang: Ball gown, Gi­ambat­tista Valli Haute Cou­ture. Ear­rings, Mes­sika Paris.

On Heart Evan­ge­lista: Cape, Ar­mani Privé. Ear­rings, Chopard.

From left to right: On Rachel Yeoh: Dress; and shoes, both from Fendi Haute Cou­ture. Ear­rings, Cartier. On Michelle Yeoh: Dress; and shoes, both from Fendi Haute Cou­ture. Ring, Cartier. Fash­ion ed­i­tor: Cassie An­der­son. Hair: Vin­cent De Moro; Jeck Aguilar for Philip B. Botan­i­cals. Make-up: Lisa Le­grand; Al­bert Kur­ni­awan. Groom­ing: Angie Moullin for Au­gusti­nus Bader Skin­care and Leonor Greyl Paris. Pro­duc­tion: Michael La­comblez/Louis2 Paris.

On Kevin Kwan: Jacket; and pants, both from Fendi.

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