She’s got Dior and Valli on speed-dial and her clothes need their own suite
Couture clients don’t usually talk, but Marie Claire’s Jess Wood was invited into the unique world of businesswoman and fashion uber-fan, Wendy Yu
‘Packing List PDF’. It might sound like something you’d receive from a removals company on the eve of a big move. But if you’re the personal assistant for Wendy Yu, this spreadsheet of photographs is your permanent companion. It runs to four pages, and is checked and updated several times a day. The items documented aren’t china and white goods – they’re Dior ‘Lady’ bags and tulle Giambattista Valli dresses.
Wendy Yu takes, on average, four trips a month, shuttling back and forth between homes in China, her base in London’s Knightsbridge and five-star European hotels. Each time she travels, six Rimowa cases come with her – along with two assistants, who spend their days keeping track of new purchases, delivery slots and flatlay outfit pictures via WhatsApp.
Wendy Yu has over a million followers on Chinese social platforms WeChat and Weibo, but ‘influencer’ is not what she’d put under ‘occupation’. Buying, wearing and collecting designer fashion is her hobby. Her day job, as the CEO of her own investment fund, is much more prosaic. The Wendy Yu Capital’s investment portfolio includes Didi, China’s answer to Uber, and Tuija, a luxury home-rental platform along the lines of Airbnb. She’s also the co-chair of the family business started by her father – now the largest wooden door manufacturer in Asia. The childhood winner of multiple maths prizes, she grew up in China, but attended an English boarding school.
We meet in Paris, where she’s attending Couture Fashion Week. The world of couture clients and the VVIP customers who keep fashion brands in the black is a notoriously secret one. Couture Fashion Week might be buzzier than a hornet’s nest now, with influencers and A-listers from around the globe descending on Paris in a storm of selfies, but how many of them can actually buy these clothes? Not many. The serious spenders – the octogenarian American socialites and Middle Eastern clientele – don’t generally want to talk about it, which is why 27-year-old Wendy Yu is a breath of fresh air. She’s becoming a high-profile figure on the London arts and fashion scene – a founding member of the V&A’s Young Patron’s Circle, she co-hosted this year’s launch of the Fashion Forum, a British Fashion Council initiative, as well as providing more practical support to designers in the form of actual orders. ‘I see myself as a philanthropist in fashion. I want to support amazing emerging talent,’ she says. In her unofficial fashion-patron role, she’s agreed to talk to me about the process. And, of course, what I want to know is: what’s it like to spend the price of a small property on one dress?
‘It is an expensive hobby, but I see it as a “passion investment”,’ she tells me when we meet at her Paris hotel (she favours the George V for their exemplary dim sum). ‘Some people collect art, which I also love – but fashion is a space where not many people are collecting.’ She did, in fact, study fashion management in London after school, and one of her dreams is to open her own fashion museum. ‘For now, I’m focusing on my business. But when I’m older, in my forties maybe, I would love to focus on that.’
Yu has a personal photographer on hand, who is quietly snapping away, only appearing to stop for the occasional loo break. Every conceivable moment of the day is captured for Yu’s WeChat audience – from a stroll around the hotel gardens (outfit: printed Gucci maxi dress and matching platforms) to our grand exit for the Dior show, Yu having changed into one of designer Maria Grazia Chiuri’s ‘DIO(R)EVOLUTION’ T-shirts in tribute. Previously a loyal customer of the house’s ready-to-wear, Yu graduated to couture client when she ordered a ‘big, big gown’ that’s slated for an appearance at one of the many galas – amfAR, Naked Heart Foundation, the Met – that pepper her calendar. It took six months to make – two initial meetings, plus three fittings at the house’s ateliers in Paris.
After the Dior show, there’s a selfie session (or rather, the professionally shot version) in front of the giant, open jungle set, complete with wooden animals. Then it’s off to an appointment at Ralph & Russo, on Rue François 1er. Led by designer Tamara Ralph, the young English maison is becoming known for both drop-dead glamour and elegant daytime tailoring. Yu has already ordered a pale pink skirt-suit from the house, which she intends to wear for ‘a lot of different occasions’.
The Ralph & Russo show was closed by Bollywood actress Sonam Kapoor, dripping in crystal head coverings, and a beaded Chantilly lace gown and train that took 6,000 hours to hand-embroider. Yu already has her eye on another star look from the show – a purple ombre tulle confection. I perch amid a forest of white roses, trying to blend in with the pale grey sofa, while she and Ralph discuss fabrics and the progress of the previously ordered suit. After the appointment, I’m told that the dress is still in the frame – but (a bit like buying
a house), this won’t exactly be an impulse buy.
Often shopping with a particular occasion in mind, Wendy Yu appears able to engage both left and right brain when faced with a room full of fantasy £100,000 dresses. ‘I do feel like a kid in a candy store,’ she tells me. ‘But I choose carefully. I think about where I can wear it and how versatile it is.’ The first piece of couture she ever bought was actually a tulle two-piece, from Giambattista Valli. ‘I mix and match it. I put the skirt with a T-shirt and I can wear the top with trousers.’sdfsf
Newsflash: although we’re clearly in money-no-object territory, there is still a budget. ‘Of course! But some budgets are flexible, and some are more fixed. With couture, something amazing and unexpected will always pop out. If I end up spending more on one thing, I’ll adjust my spending in other areas.’ She needs to get a particular sense before making that kind of investment: ‘It’s not about the price tag, it’s about how a piece makes me feel.’ But talking of price tags – given that couture pieces don’t actually come with one, how does she know the bottom line, as it were? ‘I choose a few items that I like and they will come back to me with quotes. Because it’s couture, anything can be changed,’ she explains. ‘Clothes with a lot of embroidery are the most expensive. But if your budget isn’t there, they can take some of it out. I love the process of working with the design team and the studio.’ If she needs something made more quickly than the big Paris houses can accommodate, Wendy Yu often works with ready-to-wear designers, such as Huishan Zhang, on custom pieces. She recently co-hosted an exhibition with her friend Mary Katrantzou, who turned around a dress for her in ten days. ‘The theme was creatures and creations, so we chose a beautiful print, she gave me different options for the shape of the dress and then they made some adjustments.’
Back in London after the shows, I visit her apartment. She doesn’t sleep there (partly for feng shui reasons, apparently), but her clothes need the space anyway. There’s a room for ready-to-wear – with a rail each for Dior, Valentino, Dolce and Gucci – and a room for couture. Looking at the Aladdin’s cave, I have to ask her: does she worry about spilling red wine down it all? She laughs. ‘No, not at all. I just enjoy it. There’s no point collecting couture if you’re not enjoying wearing it.’