I was sitting on a minimalist white bench in the middle of a glowing white box pavilion that had been built amid the splendor of the formal gardens surrounding the Musée Rodin in Paris. This was the ethereal setting for the Dior Haute Couture Fall 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-colored 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 millimeter, 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 recognized 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.
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“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 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 behavior 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.
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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 realize 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.
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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 epitomizes 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 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 showstoppingly 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 super chic 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 honor of being the first Malaysians to debut at Queen Charlotte’s Ball at Kensington Palace, a historic ritual once reserved for Europe’s aristocratic families. Last year, the twins also made their fashion debut, commanding the catwalk in Dolce & Gabbana’s Fall 2017 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 marveled not only at how the Yeoh sisters seemed 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. I think 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 says. “I dress from the heart,” Rachel tells 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-paneled 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 favorite 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 come 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 realize is, if you can use your platform of influence to inspire girls to step out of their comfort zone with the way they dress, I think that’s pretty powerful.”
On our last day in Paris, the women took part in a photo shoot at the Ritz, dressed in their favorite 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 magnificently 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 all experienced a 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 all-consuming love affair. As I caught Feiping’s eye during the photo shoot, 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 green lawn in an alleé of perfectly manicured trees, I knew exactly 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.
Kevin Kwan is a best-selling author. Crazy Rich Asians, the film based on his first novel, hits theaters August 15.
Hair: Vincent De Moro; Makeup: Lisa Legrand; Grooming: Angie Moullin for Augustinus Bader Skincare and Leonor Greyl Paris; Production: Michaël Lacomblez for Louis2 Paris. Evangelista’s hair and makeup: Jeck Aguilar for Philip B. Botanicals and Albert Kurniawan. Special Thanks to the Ritz Paris.
This article originally appeared on Harper’s BAZAAR US