CRAZY RICH COUTURE
Kevin Kwan meets the next gen soaking up fashion finery.
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 A/W 2018 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 champagne-coloured cocktail dress, and she looked like she had spent at least four hours in her makeup 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, whom 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 handsewn 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 2000 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. 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 avant-garde 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 sequined ombré dress she looked like a modern-day incarnation of Audrey Hepburn. Images of her went viral before the fashion show was even over, with her fans furiously 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 says. “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 says. “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 on the Hong Kong scene coincided with the rise of fashion influencers on social media, and before she knew it agents and brands were approaching her.
Today, Feiping is one of Asia’s top Instagram fashion stars. Her wedding on Capri to financier Lincoln Li became one of the most talked-about nuptials of 2017, as fashion and wedding bloggers alike 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 explosion of pale green tulle stalked slowly across the stark, airy space like
“Welcome to the land of HAUTE COUTURE, where even all the money in the world cannot buy you a front-row seat.”