Beverly Hills Housewife Annoyed at Buying $100,000 Dresses Seen on Actresses: "I Don’t Want the Sloppy Seconds"
Christine Chiu, the socialite wife of a plastic surgeon, reveals she dislikes seeing exclusive gowns she’s buying worn by Jessica Chastain and Kerry Washington in this diary about the ultra-exclusive front rows — from Armani to Chanel — at Paris haute couture week: "I buy something at every show."
While the red carpet pendulum swings toward inclusiveness, one sacred realm of fashion remains ever exclusive: haute couture, a hush-hush private club that's invite-only, strictly nontransferable. There's less than a handful of Los Angeles-based women, out of a global couture customer base of roughly 2,000, who make the biannual trip to shop the new collections in Paris. One of them is Christine Chiu, 33, the wife of prominent Beverly Hills plastic surgeon Gabriel. "It's safe to say that $100,000 is the average price of a dress," says Chiu, "but no one ever asks about price."
Those hefty sums will garner a masterful creation, like the Chanel Haute Couture seen on Julianne Moore during the 2015 Oscars that boasted 80,000 hand-painted flowers and took 27 tailors 987 hours to produce. "It's like watching art in motion," says Marjorie Harvey (the wife of NBC's Little Big Shots host Steve Harvey), who sits front-row at the shows with her daughter Lori. "If an incredible piece comes down the runway that you just have to have, an occasion is never necessary."
A makeup artist touches up a leg on Chiu, who says: “I have to strategize, otherwise I’d buy every sparkly, skimpy cocktail dress. I’m hoping to build a well-rounded collection.”
Chiu averages four shows a day over the course of three days. "I buy something at every show," she says. "The ateliers only produce one of each piece, often worldwide, but sometimes by continent or country." The one exception is Hollywood's red carpet: Designers can loan their creations to any A-lister they please. "The first five years of couture for me were about coming to terms with celebrities possibly wearing the same dress that I'm paying a lot of money for," recalls Chiu, who at 26 attended her first Chanel couture show. "A few years ago, there was a Chanel dress that I was putting a deposit on and I saw Jessica Chastain wearing it at an Oscar event and thought, 'I don't want the sloppy seconds.' Not that anyone would call couture sloppy."
Chiu in Louis Vuitton headband; Christian Dior Haute Couture dress; Dior earrings, mink coat and clutch; Yerprem diamond and pearl arm jewelry
Kerry Washington stepped out in frothy Giambattista Valli Couture tulle in November at the Baby2Baby gala — the same frock Chiu donned to meet the Prince of Wales at Buckingham Palace in June. "I now look at the celebrity photos and ask, 'Can I do it better?' If my answer is yes, I'll go for it, but if Gisele [Bundchen] wore it, then screw that, find me another piece!" laughs Chiu, who serves on 27 boards in town, including the Chinese Children's Initiative with UNICEF and the Children's Institute of Los Angeles and Art of Elysium; she's helping co-chair the latter's star-studded gala in January. On the upside, Hollywood bolsters visibility and helps couture maintain relevance. "Actresses are the reference for customers and create a great window of exposure for the brand," designer Elie Saab tells THR.
At the entrance of the Armani Prive couture show.
When it comes to the secrecy surrounding couture, Helene Farnault, author of Haute Couture Ateliers, notes that designers are simply protecting their ideas from being knocked off. Chiu admits she stumbled initially when it came to couture etiquette: "No one will help you; it's trial and error. It took me a couple of years of offending people." Faux pas include asking about the price (or a discount: "Never! I would seriously die," says Chiu); asking other attendees what they liked (competition for pieces is deadly); and not making a small courtesy purchase, even if you didn't love the collection (which will help hold your front-row seat for next season).
One couture trick that Chiu and her husband have learned is to forecast plastic surgery trends from the runway. Backless gowns mean liposuction of the back bra-line and contouring of the back waist; plunging necklines call for removal of implants; and high-low hemlines result in knee liposuction and a demand for a thigh gap. Chiu says this season's focus on shoulders, neck and decolletage means requests for procedures to eliminate lines, wrinkles and sun damage in those areas.
Front row at Giambattista Valli couture with Gabriel (right).
"Entertainment drives plastic surgery," says Chiu, whose husband's patient roster includes directors, producers and studio execs. The couple recently signed on to executive produce two films with A-list talent attached by Straight Up Films and are working with The Weinstein Co. on TV and film projects. They're also taking meetings with agencies for film finance representation. "We're bright-eyed and not sure what we are doing, but you could say it's a lot like couture," she says. "You just figure it out as you go."
Designer invites at Chiu’s hotel: “There aren’t any perks to being a couture customer; they aren’t trying to wine and dine you.”
This story first appeared in the Sept. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.