This piece was originally published in July 2019
As I enter the Dior headquarters on an unusually hot Paris morning, the first thing I notice is several private pastry chefs baking fresh croissants and tarte tatins. Outside, tables are set with Dior homewares, a make-your-own flower bouquet booth (peonies! dahlias! cherry blossoms!), next to an elaborate set-up for a portrait photo shoot. Everyone waltzing around the pristine maison is dressed in head-to-toe Dior.
I’m following behind Christine Chiu, a multi-hyphenate Los Angeles dweller who splits her attention between Beverly Hills Plastic Surgery (the practice she founded with her husband, Dr. Gabriel Chiu), philanthropy, and an ambitious social life. She's now perhaps best known for her starring role in Netflix hit Bling Empire. Her Dior sales rep from Beverly Hills, who is leading the way, notes that a private room has been booked for the next 90 minutes. But Christine will need to complete her purchase in 30 minutes or less. The Chanel show is only two hours away, and she’ll need to go back to the hotel to change.
She already has an idea of the Dior looks that she wants—the full lace catsuit (look 6), a strapless gown with leather fringe skirt (look 9), and a couple of lace dresses (looks 35 and 44)—but first we’re led downstairs to see Dior’s high jewellery collection, an organised-by-colour spectacle of emeralds, rubies, sapphires, and diamonds. The dark room amplifies the spotlights on each jewellery podium: everything sparkles in their velvet trays, with several silver star stickers identifying the dozens of pieces that have already been spoken for. Christine selects four pieces to try on, two rings and two pairs of earrings, with prices ranging from €160,000 to €200,000 per piece. We’re quickly led to the room that houses all 65 Christian Dior haute couture looks from the autumn/winter 2019 show that debuted just a day earlier. I hear prices being called out from the fitting room. They range up to €200,000.
The buying of haute couture is now a competitive sport, according to Chiu, with each fashion house enforcing strict rules (which vary depending on designer) around how they sell their haute couture pieces. Some will only sell one dress per country or per territory—meaning as soon as a designer takes their bow at the end of the show, Christine is already texting the brand's sales rep about the looks she wants for the season. If she's not fast enough and a look has already been snapped up by a US client that Christine had set her sights on, she’ll offer to buy as a Taiwanese client (she also has a home there), and promises the brand she’ll only wear it for events in her native country.
However, when it comes to Hollywood, A-listers always get first dibs—even if they're not technically buying it. When Celine Dion planned to wear the same couture dress as Christine to the Alexandre Vauthier show, the brand alerted Christine and asked her to wear something else to avoid a faux pas. Demi Moore was also the first person to debut a tuxedo-inspired Chanel Haute Couture gown that Christine had already purchased, in the October 2019 issue of Harper's Bazaar. "For red carpet appearances the brand will always give us a heads up," Christine explains, but that may not always be the case for editorial placements.
At Dior, look 65 catches her eye. It’s not your average couture gown — it’s a box shaped as a castle, the final look from the show. “Is that for sale? How much for that? I want it!” Christine asks with excitement. The Dior sales rep will be in touch. Chiu is tiny enough to fit into the runway samples with ample room, but a seamstress is on hand to ensure each measurement is just right, and after 30 minutes — and a projected six-figure price tag — we head back to the iconic Plaza Athenee Hotel, one of the most luxurious and undoubtedly most expensive places to rest your head in Paris, to get ready for Chanel. This entails a brand new outfit, new hair, and new make-up.
On the first day of the haute couture shows, I meet Christine at her hotel as soon as she touches down in Paris. Her room, the presidential suite, isn't ready for her yet, and her Valentino fitting is looming. Still dressed in her clothes from the flight — citron floral silk pyjama trousers and a matching floor-length robe — she is teetering on platforms with a full face of make-up, lashes included, as she takes a minute to deliberate what to do with the small Louis Vuitton monogram suitcase at her feet. “It’s filled with all my jewellery,” she tells me. She’s afraid of it being stolen.
Over the next few days, it’s evident that security is constantly on Christine’s mind. “What if someone bombs the shows? Could you imagine? A lot of them don’t have high security,” she says anxiously on our first day together. This is not a woman who travels light, or cheaply, so she often double books her own airport assistance to get through customs, and her own car service — even if a brand also offers to book one for her. During lunch at Caviar Kaspia with Piaget, Christine and her close friends recall a recent robbery of an acquaintance at a private airport in Paris. “It was an inside job,” one of them reveals, as they look at each other nervously, wondering who could be next.
Personal security isn’t the only thing on Christine’s mind. She’s also anxious about her wardrobe options for the shows this season. “Haute couture is like a project you work on year-long,” she explains. “You have a million fittings to get these pieces exactly as you want them and then you debut them at the show.” Such is not the case this week, as she missed the last year of shows due to her pregnancy and birth of her first son, Gabriel, or “Baby G” as she often calls him. Several fashion houses offered to create pregnancy couture for her, but she only accepted one offer from Armani Privé,which hosted her Malibu baby shower. “I know it sounds superficial,” she admits about her worries over her fashion week outfit choices. But Christine, a major player in the high stakes game of haute couture, is used to wearing clothes that no one in the same country — or maybe even continent — could ever wear.
Back in Paris, Christine still needs something to wear for the Valentino show, so we head to the atelier to look at samples. “Where is Dr. Chiu?” Valentino’s sales rep asks after greeting us. Dr. Gabriel Chiu, who usually accompanies his wife on these lavish trips, decided to skip out and stay at home with Baby G this week. Now I’m Christine’s plus one. We're quickly led into a private room, where a rack already set up with clothing options awaits: three dresses, plus a blouse and trouser look from the autumn/winter 2018 haute couture collection, hang pristinely. The Valentino rep also pulls runway photos of each look so Christine can see how they looked on models walking the show.
Christine turns to me for my opinion, and I’m not afraid to share it — I am a fashion editor after all — and I hone in on the standout teal silk gown with a gold neck adornment that also comes with a red taffeta jacket (look 58). After the seamstress and everyone else in the room gushes over this choice, Christine decides it’s not even worth trying on the other pieces. Considering the price tag, she is surprisingly decisive. The seamstress immediately gets to work pinning the dress for its shorter hem, noting there’s not much time for major alterations. Like a true fashion fan, Christine inquires about the inspiration and meaning behind the gown she’s about to purchase. The Valentino rep shares that the dress is inspired by Picasso. Christine hands over her credit card for the dress she will wear to the Valentino show in two days; although it’s a runway sample, it’s still haute couture, so there’s only a small discount.
When I ask Christine if she has a budget for the week, she doesn’t hesitate before replying, “No, but I have to pace myself”.
Back in the car, she gives me the rundown on what she’s been up to lately. There was the Once Upon a Time in Hollywood premiere at Cannes, the amfAR Gala, not to mention she and her husband just finished building The Prince’s Foundation Chiu Integrated Health Programme, a health and wellness centre in Scotland with Prince Charles. They even named a wing after their only son. Baby G’s first birthday party in June also resulted in a million-dollar donation to the Cayton Children’s Museum in Los Angeles. And last but not least, Christine is about to start filming tomorrow for an unscripted Crazy Rich Asians-inspired show, which she is also producing.
For our busy week ahead, Christine is most excited for the Armani Privé and Alexandre Vauthier shows. “Armani has really invested in me and our relationship, so I spend a lot of money with them,” she reveals. “They’ve worked to cultivate the relationship.” It’s clear that the houses that go above and beyond for her are the ones she feels inclined to spend more money on. As for Vauthier, “his designs are young and sexy, they’re most in-line with my personal style. I like to look sexy,” she says.
The following day is a busy one; there are four major shows and I attend most of them as an editor, but co-ordinate to meet up with Christine after the last show of the day: Givenchy. She was feeling a little concerned about timing for the evening; she had the Armani Privé client show at 7 pm with a private dinner following, and Givenchy at 8 pm. She felt it would be rude to show up so late because fashion houses, she says, have certain expectations of their clients. However, she couldn’t not go to Givenchy, so she did what any smart fashionista would do: changed in the car from her Givenchy look back into her Armani look for the dinner to maximise time.
It suddenly occurred to me that I was extremely underdressed for dinner. I hadn’t had a moment to get back to my hotel to change all day and was dressed in a yellow floral sundress, while Christine was in couture. “Why don’t you try on my Givenchy gown?” she casually suggests. Though I knew there was no way it would fit, I appreciated that she was generous enough to offer such a special dress to me. When I arrived at the dinner, wearing a little black dress that could pass as appropriate for a dinner with Giorgio Armani, I passed tables seating the likes of Nicole Kidman and husband Keith Urban, and Aleksander Skarsgard, until I found Christine next to a marketing executive at Giorgio Armani. The two had never met before, but he is very aware of exactly who Christine is: The brand hosted an elaborate baby shower for her last year at Soho House's new Malibu location.
The following day, I meet Christine (and her TV camera crew) after Jean Paul Gaultier. The clothes were bold and full of fantasy — absolute eye candy — and the booming early ‘90s dance music made it feel like a party (or maybe that was the champagne and Magnum ice cream bars they handed out beforehand). I couldn’t wait to get her opinion. During each show, I often found myself trying to pick out the pieces that I thought she would like. For Gaultier, it'd be look 15 or look 19, for an après ski scenario, or look 53 for her next engagement at Buckingham Palace.
“Well, leopard is my neutrals so I loved it,” she tells me reflecting on the show while we’re stuck in traffic. “Normally I wouldn’t wear the same dress twice, I still have so much couture I haven’t worn yet!” she says referring to her current Grecian-inspired mini dress by Jean Paul Gaultier. “But I did wear this dress for the Oscars after-parties this year.”
Where does she actually keep all of these clothes? “Well, our Beverly Hills home used to belong to Kimora Lee Simons,” she says by way of explanation. “We ripped the whole house down and redid it, but I kept the bones of her closet. It spans the entire length of the house. In my old house, there were little rooms inside my closet that were temperature and humidity-controlled to make sure it was the best environment for my clothes,” she adds. However the brands also take responsibility for helping her keep her couture in pristine shape. “Most of the houses will take back your pieces after you’ve worn them and restore it for you, if you got a stain on it or an embellishment has fallen off. It’s like a little spa treatment.”
And how does a couture client like Christine Chiu make a decision on what to add to her already overflowing wardrobe? “Sometimes like with the Armani show, when there’s so many looks that I love, the first process of elimination is if it overlaps with any other pieces I’m potentially buying. Then it’s the price. If it’s an insane price (like a seven-figure range), I consider whether I would rather get three dresses or one spectacular dress.” Christine also considers the craftsmanship of her purchases. “I think about how much the material costs, how hard it is to make, the effort that has gone into it. Everyone has their own evaluation,” she explains. “Sometimes there’s no logical reason behind it, you just fall in love and the price doesn’t matter.”
The next day we’re off to Rome for the final haute couture show of the week: Fendi, a true spectacle, staged at the Temple of Venus, which the fashion house is making a pledge to restore. About 600 friends and fans of the brand were present, with a perfect view of the Coliseum to see Silvia Venturini Fendi's first solo couture collection since the passing of Karl Lagerfeld. Christine’s Fendi sales rep meets us as soon as we arrive to escort us up to her seat. The invitation made note that guests should wear “sensible” shoes, so although Christine is dressed up in a body-hugging fur cocktail dress and matching platform stilettos, she is also toting around white leather Hermes sandals. When the show is over, the Fendi sales rep finds us again to put us in a golf-cart, which takes us to an equally stunning dinner location nearby. After dinner, dessert, and a performance by Lion Babe, we’re ready to call it a night — two handsome suit-clad escorts help us down the dark, rocky hill to get into her private car.
At the Fendi fitting the following afternoon, I’m excited to see what Christine will order after seeing the ‘70s-inspired collection. “I want to get pieces that when you look at them, you’re like ‘Oh, that was the one standout look from that show,’” she notes. Christine likens her haute couture purchases to collecting art, although she says her husband has suggested she focus more of their funds on high jewellery — since jewellery typically holds its value.
Christine, who has been a couture client for nearly a decade, often reminisces on the earlier days of haute couture shopping. “There was a romance about it,” she says as she describes the more “civilised” days. “You didn’t feel like you were competing against anyone else. The designers would be present during your buy, they would share their favourite pieces, or recommend what look you should buy. I loved being able to get into the head of the designer, his journey, and understanding how the collection was a manifestation of that journey,” she explains. “They’d give you a folder of sketches from the collection, and you were presented with swatches of fabric they used that season. I really miss that side of haute couture. Honestly, you end up buying more, you appreciate it beyond just the face value, beyond the prettiness...” Sometimes designers would even take the clients to lunch. The feeling of being courted by a brand and bonding with the designer is what Christine really misses. But despite the lack of romancing, she says she still feels obligated to buy each season, for every show that she attends, even if she’s not really feeling the collection.
At the Fendi headquarters, we’re immersed in the “Dawn of Romanity,” the name of the collection and exhibition that will run for the next two weeks in Rome. There’s stations set up with multiple artisans working on pieces similar to what we viewed on the runway: from a table of exotic skins to make the Fendi Peekaboo bags to a hand-embroiderer sewing tiny tulle flowers onto a dress nearby. There’s another station that would send any animal rights activist into a tailspin: a table of furs for the house’s statement coats. (It’s the brand’s signature, so don’t expect any announcements about them going fur-free.)
First, Christine goes through the couture clutches ranging from marble-print enamel to fur-covered, before making her way through the clothing. She has her eye on a floor-length fur coat, “but where would I wear it?” she asks, genuinely curious. After all, she is a California resident, which has strict rules about fur.
The Fendi sales rep takes pictures of everything that catches her eye until we’re escorted into a private dressing room. These aren’t your regular, dimly-lit and cramped dressing rooms; it’s more like a celebrity green room, with a plush sofa, ottomans, and marble coffee table which will soon be covered with a bottle of Ruinart champagne, small bites, and a bowl of caviar. “This is probably a $1,000 worth of caviar,” Christine tells me, which she reveals also makes her feel compelled to spend more with them since they’re obviously treating her.
She tries on a black dress with sheer panels. It’s reserved but still a bit sexy. “Where would I wear this?” she asks with each look. Then there’s a fur jacket with an attached cape, “I could just wear this as a dress, is there a belt?” She pulls the coat tightly around her tiny waist. While the clothes she has already tried on are swapped out for another set (only three samples are allowed at a time in the dressing room), Christine looks over the line sheets with all the colour options and pricing, as well as an iPad that shows each piece from the show. Then her dream sable coat arrives. “What colour would I do this in?” The sample is black but there’s a range of other fur colours to choose from.
For once this week, Christine is not in a rush. There’s no time limit on her dressing room or constraints to her schedule. She takes her time enjoying the process, trying on clothes, taking photos and snapping boomerangs of herself in each look while sipping champagne. It's the ultimate shopping experience. However, time is ticking for me, as I only have one free day left in Rome, so I decide it’s time to make my exit.
“Is this the last time I’ll see you?” asks my couture companion as she rises from the couch to hug me goodbye. I tell her I’m only a phone call away and to keep me posted on the purchases.
That afternoon she texts me: “I got the big sexy black see-through gown btw, and the under-trimmings and clutch.”
“What about the fur cape dress?” I responded
“Undecided — it’s difficult for California peta patrol — you can only wear fur in secret nowadays.”
After I spent the rest of my afternoon walking around the city, taking in the Pantheon and Trevi Fountain sights, eating pizza and tiramisu gelato, I return to my hotel to find a Fendi shopping bag waiting for me in my hotel room. A parting gift from Christine with a note... Dear Chrissy— these boots were made for Rome-ing... and you! Loved sharing Paris and Rome with you! Cheers for adventures ahead! xx Christine
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