Inside the world of a haute couture collector who has bought dresses that cost more than the average US home
- Christine Chiu is a producer, philanthropist, and collector of haute couture. She is also the cofounder of Beverly Hills Plastic Surgery, the practice she opened in 2006 with her husband, Dr. Gabriel Chiu.
- Chiu typically attends at least 30 fashion shows a year, and tries to buy something from each. Haute couture can cost over $100,000, and Chiu says her most expensive piece is worth more than the average US home.
- She is also a philanthropist and is on the board of over 27 organizations worldwide, including The Prince's Foundation Chiu Integrated Health and Wellness Programme, launched with her husband and Prince Charles in 2019.
- Her lifestyle will be on display in her new Netflix show, "Bling Empire," which chronicles the lives of wealthy Asians and Asian Americans from various cultural and professional backgrounds, living in Los Angeles.
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One day, Christine Chiu was speaking to a friend, telling her how much she loved an outfit she'd seen during a fashion show. It was a piece of haute couture, of course. Each one of those is unique, one-of-a-kind, and therefore can only be sold once. It's also usually quite expensive. Chiu had to get her hands on it.
"I discovered later that [my friend] had changed her appointment time with the fashion house ahead of mine so that she could purchase it first," Chiu told Insider. "I learned quickly that all is fair in love and couture."
Not every company can say it makes haute couture. In France, it's regulated by the Ministry of Industry, which chooses which brands are true emblems of the craft.
Read more: Inside wealthy kids' weird, pricey pandemic purchases, from $1,000 Patagonia fleeces to a $31.8 million T. rex
Chiu attended her first haute couture show at the age of 26 and remembers it clearly. She was bright-eyed and filled with excitement. "I was immediately transported to an era of ultimate luxury and refinement," she said, "and fell in love with these museum-worthy pieces of wearable art."
During the pandemic, Chiu said her methods for shopping haven't changed, but her perception of what it means to responsibly consume luxury has. She said she found herself with a great incentive to spend money on brands that took a moral stance.
For example, Chiu paid close attention when Burberry used its trench coat factories to make hospital gowns, and when Valentino and Balmain donated millions to the COVID-19 relief effort. She also watched to see how companies responded to the Black Lives Matter protests.
There are rules to this haute couture game
A typical, non-pandemic year see Chiu attending about 30 shows a year — or about 15 shows per fashion season. She usually buys something from each show and has amassed a collection that includes gowns, capes, accessories, and even shoes.
Pieces of couture can easily cost over $100,000 and Chiu said, without naming a price, that her most expensive pieces cost "more than the median cost of a home in the US." That was more than $300,000 as of the summer of 2020. They cost "less than a Jeff Koons piece of work," she clarified — the most recent of those just publicly sold for $91 million.
A glimpse of her jet-set lifestyle can be seen on her new Netflix show "Bling Empire" which premiered on January 15. The show chronicles the lives of successful Asians and Asian Americans, from various cultural and professional backgrounds, living in Los Angeles. It will feature DJ Kim Lee, investor Kane Lim, and Jaime Xie, daughter of billionaire Fortinet founder Ken Xie.
Chiu is a producer on the show and told Insider that she wanted to show the journey of herself and her husband — with whom she founded Beverly Hills Plastic Surgery in 2006 — in balancing western expectations with eastern values and traditions.
Chiu's journey began in Taiwan, where she was born. (She moved to the United States when she was 5 years old.) Her husband, on the other hand, is from Hong Kong, and he came to the US at the age of 2.
"Bling Empire" will show the Chiu family as philanthropists, raising awareness for their favorite charities and organizations; as world voyagers living a jet-set life, and of course, in lots of couture. "It was an incredible experience full of laughter and tears for me," Lee told Insider about her experience working on the show, adding that Chiu "definitely knows how to throw the best parties."
Knowing how to throw a good party is a staple skill on the jet-set circuit. In fact, Chiu said one of the main reasons she buys haute couture is for events — weddings, red carpets, film festivals. That's all changed with the pandemic, however. But let's pretend, just for a moment, that it's the year 2019.
This would see Chiu in New York, London, Rome, and Paris. Those are just the big named fashion cities, not including the trips that come in between. Each city has its own fashion houses, and each house — whether it's Chanel, Givenchy, Armani, or Christian Dior — has its respective traditions, and desired protocols.
Generally, Chiu said, the experience of buying haute couture starts like this: each house gives a presentation, commonly known as a fashion show. From there, the game begins.
Clients of haute couture have to be invited, as reported by The Wall Street Journal's Christina Binkley, and they are usually introduced by someone who knows someone super well-connected to an haute couture house.
During fashion weeks, these invite-only individuals are allowed to book private appointments to get a second look at what was shown at the presentations.
"Some houses would hire a model [to] 're-model' the client's selected pieces," Chiu said. "While in other circumstances, the designer walk meets with clients to discuss [their] inspiration and make personal recommendations."
Once the potential buyer selects their favorite look, they can suggest further customizations to the outfit.
After a deposit is put down, the person waits six to 12 months for the piece to be produced.
During this time, there are at least two to three fittings to make sure the look is all coming together as desired, Chiu said.
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There are a few rules to the game, however. For one, it's a faux pas to ask about price — or discounts, for that matter. And sometimes fashion houses will only sell one look per country. Chiu told Harper's Bazaar that when she can't get an outfit as an American, then she'll try to buy a Taiwanese citizen, promising to only wear the outfit in that country.
Trying to buy haute couture with morals
Before the pandemic, Chiu said she always tried to find a way to use fashion to highlight social justice causes. Even before the pandemic, she said she would request fashion houses to donate a percentage of her purchase to an organization they both support, which, she said, has led to contributions to further AIDS research, education, and increased access to medicine for impoverished communities.
Her Netflix show is also being used as a vehicle to highlight some of her favorite charities and organizations, she said. The show went into development in early 2018 and upon its premiere, became one of the few shows to have an all-Asian ensemble. Participants hail from various cultural backgrounds, including Vietnamese, Singaporean, and Korean.
Chiu said the original premise of the show had nothing to do with showcasing wealth; rather, it was primarily about revealing the cultural pressures, morals, values, and expectations Asians living in the United States are often confronted with. That doesn't mean wealth won't be on display, however, even if the scenes on-screen are much different than the reality Chiu finds herself living.
Snuggled up in Los Angeles, there isn't sweatpant couture, yet. Chiu said she's buying sunglasses, bathing suits, sneakers, and exercise attire. She'll be, probably on the couch, watching her show like the rest of us, sporting high-quality, sustainably sourced, comfort clothing.
"After all," she said. "The thought of running through Erewhon [Market] in platform Louboutins, lugging a Himalayan Birkin is very much a thing of 2019."
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