We all buy clothes, but no two people shop the same. It can be a social experience, and a deeply personal one; at times, it can be impulsive and entertaining, at others, purpose-driven, a chore. Where do you shop? When do you shop? How do you decide what you need, how much to spend and what's "you"? These are some of the questions we're putting to prominent figures in our column "How I Shop."
You'd be surprised to learn that Christine Chiu — one of the stars and producers of Netflix's "Bling Empire," owner of Beverly Hills Plastic Surgery, Inc. (along with her husband, Dr. Gabriel Chiu), philanthropist and noted collector of haute couture — is probably spending her days dressed a lot like you.
"You're going to die — where I feel happiest is in sweats," she confesses to me, over Zoom. "I hate to do this because I feel like I'm bursting bubbles for viewers. Yes, I have an incredible collection of haute couture that I feel is very personal and I hopefully one day can pass on to a museum, but I love being in sweats. And I specifically like to wear sweats of mine — college sweats, old sorority sweats, Super Bowl sweats."
In a way, that's helped preserve Chiu's anonymity in Los Angeles since the show's premiere earlier this year, she says: "A lot of times I get asked like, 'Oh my gosh, what is life like after 'Bling'? Do you get recognized?' And I'm like, 'No, actually no one recognizes me ever.' And I think it's because I'm always in sweats and Uggs.'"
That's not to say Chiu doesn't have some finer pieces in her beloved sweats collection: She'll pepper in some soft Brunello Cucinelli pieces and Loro Piana cashmere, items she's acquired from visits with the brands themselves that hold sentimental value.
Personal connection is something that drives Chiu's shopping, whether it's for at-home loungewear or for couture gowns. She's interested in the story behind a garment, in the decisions that went into its creation, in where she was in her life at the time she first saw it. She'll support the designers that have supported her and, recently, has become more invested in those that support the community as well.
Chiu's appreciation of fashion has only deepened as she's gotten more embedded in the world of haute couture. "You learn about the houses, the people and the business of fashion," she says. "I've really fallen in love with the people involved in fashion."
Chiu spoke with Fashionista about how she ended up running in the couture circles, why you'll never spot her on Rodeo Drive, how she's gone about building her storied haute couture collection and what role we can expect fashion to play in future seasons of "Bling Empire." Read on.
"I would describe my style as full spectrum. I love to explore and to express different facets of who I am through clothing and accessories and tangibles in general. I was always a nerd. That's something that people don't realize: I grew up as a super nerd. My parents didn't let me have Barbies and I didn't get to play with pretty clothes. I just had to study all the time. When I finally could [do those things], it was like an explosion of all of these suppressed passions for color and for objects and for textures. So, I would consider myself a fashion nerd — obviously a fashion enthusiast.
"I'm very fascinated with fashion education and history. We see fashion as an art form or an artistic expression, a clue into a time and a space and a culture. Also, fashion, to me, is one of the greatest storytellers, one of the oldest form of storytelling. Because of all that, I like to explore all styles, to understand more about a culture or a designer and his vision.
"I think fashion opens up conversation. I get to utilize whatever I'm wearing as a conversation-starter — maybe we find commonalities with people or maybe, in the case of the drama with Anna on the TV show, fashion conversation [is] a form of contention.
"In terms of buying styles, because I see it as an art form and I'm so grateful and privileged to be able to attend the shows, to meet the designers, to go backstage and look at their storyboards and see their vision... I mean, even looking at the hair and makeup and the glam aspect of it, you really get another element of the vision of the designer, where he's pulling inspiration from or where he's manifesting that vision. Fashion week is so much about the venues and the integration of the collection with the place and time and people, but also afterwards, at parties and dinners. I get to have these intimate conversations with people in the know and pick their brains; then I visit their ateliers and I order from the collection.
"Whether it's ready-to-wear or couture, I order pieces that are art to me or that symbolize something that I may not necessarily know exactly right then and there, but I just know that my collection needs, to further expand on this story. My everyday shopping style is not very functional because I buy things to collect. I don't really have functional clothing. I have this reputation in town of being a very haphazard scrambler. My closet is full of beautiful pieces, but when I just need something to wear to dinner or a party, I send out a mass SOS text — I basically have about 95% of the boutiques on Rodeo Drive on my phone — like, 'I have dinner tonight, please send whatever you have.' Then all of the stores will send consignments. And I, in a very disorganized fashion, pick something out and pop it on.
"Unfortunately, probably to many people's disappointment, I don't spend weekends shopping — I don't enjoy going into the boutiques and looking through racks and racks of clothing. I'm a new mom, I have diapers to change and poop to pick up and a business to run. In that way, I'm kind of strange when it comes to shopping.
"You'll never find me on Rodeo, by the way. It's a running joke anytime there's new salespeople in our neighborhood, they're like, 'Ooh, we want to get Christine in the boutique.' And the seasoned people are like, 'Good luck, that will never happen.'
"Where I do love to shop is [when I travel.] I like to travel without luggage because when I travel internationally, I'm on vacation and I like to do things that I enjoy and to immerse myself in culture. I'm forced, in a fun way and in a challenging way, to get out there and shop in the local stores and boutiques. Of course, there's really no pressure, because I'm on vacation, but that's my most enjoyable way of shopping, picking up these really unique pieces. I get to speak with the store owner and find out about the history of them, and I get to put it together and ask my husband for his opinion. That's probably the only time you'll find me spending hours and hours in stores shopping.
"[For ready-to-wear] I love Saint Laurent. There are splashes of Gucci that I can handle, though sometimes it's too much. Dior's great. Bottega is having a moment right now. I'm obsessing over LaQuan Smith — so sexy, but done in such a sharp way. I love the creative use of materials and [how] it makes every woman feel beautiful and empowered. And obviously, I love the fact that it's an African-American designer. I like Khaite, as a more casual but still very chic [option]. I will always have a special place for Armani because Mr. Armani and the Armani family hosted my baby shower, so I always try to integrate a little piece of Armani in there. I'm a very sentimental fashionista, I guess.
"I have to credit the fashion people around me when I was around 25 or 26, when I was buying ready-to-wear and I think I just asked too many questions. I wanted to know, 'And where is this from? What was the designer's vision on this piece? Why did this collection take this direction?' Whether it was the boutique managers or the PR people, they started realizing, 'This girl's really intrigued. She wants to know more.' So I was invited to Chanel Haute Couture at 26, because they wanted to be able to answer those questions for me in a tangible way, so I could see it and touch it.
"It was so eyeopening, so gratifying to learn the process and the history and the heritage of haute couture. Then, throughout the years, to be able to visit their ateliers, to build that relationship with your seamstress — they cry when you put their pieces on, because it's something they've spent thousands of hours of their lives putting together. Every house does things differently: Some, I have designated seamstresses who have been with me for over a decade and then others, they break it up where one person will make this part of the dress and the other person will make that part, so that when you put the whole dress together, you have a team of folks who're incredibly proud and grateful for the journey that we're all sharing together.
"Even now, it's still very private and a very small circle of couture buyers. Back [when I started], it was even much smaller and skewed older, so here comes this 26-year-old who's asking all of these questions, who wants to see, touch, smell, feel everything — just bright-eyed. I think that level of enthusiasm caught fire throughout the houses. They all know each other, so the word spread and I started getting invitations to other shows. I started learning more and asking more questions. Fast-forward to now, I'm still very excited to be building my couture collection.
"I always see [couture] as this ultimate expression of art. It's great, in the midst of fast fashion and the Topshops and the H&Ms — which are all great, because I do mix a couple of pieces here and there with haute couture — [to] not forget where fashion started. Let's not forget the people who [have been doing this] for generations and generations of this passed-down craft and trade. Let's also remember the history of fashion. I like the balance.
"There's actually a Chanel Haute Couture piece that's amongst my favorites, if not my most favorite. Firstly, Chanel Haute Couture was my very first haute couture purchase, so that will always hold a special place in my heart. But that piece, specifically, the team made for me four times, because I was undergoing rounds and rounds of IVF treatments and my weight was fluctuating up and down like a roller coaster. They were so patient with me. This is the grande dame of haute couture, and they essentially held my hand — in their very Parisian way — through [that]. And it's very costly, obviously, time- and materials-wise. At the very end, I did have a happy outcome because I did become pregnant with Baby G. So that piece to me is so special because these people who I admire and respect so much, who with their craftsmanship and the heritage of Chanel Haute Couture, stood on my side. I mean, I would break down in the fittings, because it was such a tough journey. It's memories like that, when I look at that or when I look at another piece and I remember that was Baby G's first fashion show with mama and he was so into it. There are stories with every piece.
"Something I didn't realize [about haute couture] was there are, just as in the art world, advisors and brokers. I stumbled into it and found my own way but later on, I found out that that position exists. These professionals guide collectors to make a fuller, more impactful collection, whatever their objective is, and help them navigate through the haute couture world. If you're spending six figures and are truly trying to build a collection, you don't want to buy a wrong piece or a piece that's not as impactful. And sometimes there's inside knowledge on the movement within the industry of designers — like, maybe the designer is about to exit or maybe there's something that's going to come to light about a designer and you may not want to invest in that piece right now.
"For the first half, even first two-thirds of me collecting couture, I did it a little bit aimlessly. I've become more strategic more recently, and I still have a long ways to go. I had a really famous photographer get on the phone saying, 'I'm going to shoot a magnificent coffee table book of your haute couture collection. It's going to be like you're legacy, your namesake.' And I told him, 'I'm still in my 30s. I plan on collecting until the day I die. So call me a year before I die.' I have such a long ways to go, and the history and life of haute couture, it's still unfolding. I want to collect pieces of that along the way. I'm not done yet. There's so much more to collect and so much more to come.
"When people see the deep price tag, it's easy for folks who aren't in the know to think that [couture] is a vanity piece, that it's a piece to showcase wealth, and it's not. I think I've worn haute couture to the grocery store, to the park. It's a personal relationship, a personal journey, a personal education. Couture is a very personal, special moment and experience. And it's not about the money: What you're paying for is literally the time that it's taking someone who has learned this craft and trade from her mother and her grandmother and the generations before that; you're paying for the materials that they're sourcing and they're using; you're paying for the most ultimate, extreme, unfiltered vision of a very talented designer. The price tag is your homage to this art. I bring out the fashion because I'm so passionate about it, and I hope people can see that it's more than a piece of fabric, it's more than a dress. There's so much more behind the bling.
"Right now, my focus has been a little bit less on the pieces and more on what the houses and the brands are doing. Maybe what I'm about to acquire from this last season will be telling of a time where I cared less about that piece and more about the designer behind it or more about what the house as a whole was doing and how they were navigating through this pandemic. I mean, I purchased the gold house of Dior and I don't plan on wearing that ever, but I remember that the house of Dior on Avenue Montaigne was undergoing a renovation and it would never be the same again, so I wanted to hold onto a piece of that. Now I have the house of Dior in my closet.
"During the pandemic, I couldn't go to the shows or order from the ateliers. Things definitely changed and of course, like everyone else, I had a lot of extra time. So I actually became, I like to think, a much more responsible and conscientious shopper, because I had the time — and it was the right time in our lives — to really think about where our money is going. Prior to the pandemic, I was collecting art, but during the pandemic, I felt like my passion became an investment into our community, our local, regional, national and global community. And if I put my shopping dollar in the right companies, in the right places, I could make an impact. That's really when it hit me, that we need to shop in a more responsible way, be more targeted and focused with our consumerism and our shopping dollars. That will help shift, also, the direction of these corporations who have such a big scale and platform to do good.
"There were a lot of big corporations that really stood up and donated to emergency services in hospitals or converted factories to make PPE for frontline workers, created masks and sanitizer. And then, of course, [there was] the treatment of their own employees — there were a lot of big corporations that, despite their own profitability, decided to keep all of their employees employed and taken care of during the pandemic. Chanel, Valentino, Balmain, Burberry, Gucci, LVMH are very large corporations that, of course, are financially in a position to do so, but they could also have sat back. I gained more respect for them. That's something that, if you have a dollar to spend and you get to choose between a company that's not doing much or a company that's standing up for the community for its people, I mean, you're investing your money into the community. It's a no-brainer.
"Before the pandemic, I already started doing this loosely, but I made it much more of a solidified habit: to request a percentage of my purchase be donated back to an organization that we support or is the need. So, for some of the higher-ticket items, I would definitely request a percentage of 10, 15 or whatever the company can do back. Sometimes, when things are on sale, I ask the company to sell it to me full price and donate the difference to a charity. I'm trying to build up this shameless approach where, if you value me as a client and a loyal client, I'm asking that you also support these organizations that are in need right now or that we firmly stand behind. And the organizations that we generally support are in early education and, right now, Stop AAPI Hate. If we all did a little here and there, the community and our next generations will definitely be a much brighter place.
"Also during the pandemic and Black Lives Matter I felt the need to highlight talent that otherwise just didn't get the attention that they deserved. I went out of my way, in all aspects of my life, to support African-American businesses, designers and [buy] every single diverse book out there for Baby G, because I think early education is so important. And then, here we are with the Stop AAPI Hate movement — here's another time for us consumers to take a stand and make a move in our own ways.
"The most exciting part of the couture buying process is the fittings. It's going into the atelier. It's hanging out with the designer and having his feedback, having him touch the materials on your body and make adjustments per his vision for you. When you remove all of that, to me, it's not the full experience... For me, I have ear-marked all of the pieces I'd like. In the past, it was very competitive — I've definitely jeopardized friendships and lost out on significant pieces because I just wasn't fast enough, because I decided to go to lunch after a show instead of straight to the atelier. But you didn't have that during these last two seasons, which for me is so nice because that competitiveness really took out the romanticism around haute couture for me. So much of what I loved was the courtship of haute couture. When you're texting the atelier, 'Dibs on Look 5,' that diminishes all of it. The silver lining is that because there's no huge urgency and a lot of people can't fly internationally to fit, we get to take a step back and really let it absorb, and I'm really appreciating that. As soon as the borders open and we're allowed to travel, I will start fitting for all of my pieces. I purchased a lot of pieces that are still stuck internationally.
"I have so many [favorite haute couture looks.] We attended Cannes Film Festival and it was just a beautiful time that my husband and I had to spend together. It was really romantic. We watched 'Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood.' We went to that premiere, walked to that carpet — like, heightened date night on the red carpet in Cannes. And the movie itself was an interesting homage to Hollywood in that time period. I just remember wearing that dress with my husband and feeling incredibly blessed. When I look at that dress, I immediately smile.
"Of course, the more controversial ones right now — which I'm like kicking myself for even mentioning — but I have beautiful pieces from Dolce & Gabbana Alta Moda, and we have had amazing memories with them because they do haute couture in a way no other house does. We'd been with them almost from the beginning, attending their Alta Moda weekends... But right now, in light of the situation that they're having with Asians and Asian-Americans, it's just not the right time to highlight them. It puts me in a very difficult place because I'm close with the team and I'm not quite sure.... This is something I really have to flesh out because I want to leverage my consumerism in the right direction, but I also have to do it delicately and politically correct.
"I'm in the process of building out the new haute couture [closet] separate from the rest of the clothing, only because haute couture, of course, requires special handling — humidity, lighting, space. And because I'm such a nerd, I like to keep the description and the programs from that show with the pieces. I have every single invitation; some of them have stains on them, which I still love and keep because it's a sign of a good night. I like to keep the original hangers. Every house has a different way of packaging and I like to keep all of that, even the tissue paper and the special garment bags to travel with. Others will include a customized sketch of you. For most houses, there's a portfolio or a booklet of samples of different fabric choices or different embellishment choices. I keep it all together in its own section.
"I love high jewelry for the same reason why I love haute couture: You get to dive into the history and the people behind it. My husband collects high watches for the same reason, because he's a super nerd and he really gets in there and participates in the watchmaking.
"Something that's really special to me right now: My mother passed away last year and when I grew up, she actually had a beautiful custom-made collection and what I didn't know was that over the years she had this passion for purple. I guess over the decades, she had amassed an incredible collection of purple accessories that I never knew about. After her passing, it was shipped to me, and in opening up each box and uncovering all of these pieces, it's obviously bringing back so many wonderful memories. I'm really grateful, that through fashion and through accessories, now I get to remember my mom."
"I feel that fashion should be fun and it should be talked about. I didn't love the way fashion was framed, necessarily, in season one [of 'Bling Empire'] because it's not reflective of my perspective or experience. So I'm really excited in subsequent seasons to be able to unravel that. It really is a love affair that I have with fashion and it's a journey. I'm learning and I'm growing through fashion, and there are so many lessons to be learned through fashion."