Wendy Yu on falling for Giambattista Valli’s fairytale frocks

Fashion entrepreneur and philanthropist Wendy Yu is part of a new generation of couture clients. But she still loves the romance of a ruffle. Portraits by Alex Cretey Systermans

Wendy Yu with Giambattista Valli at his Paris studio, wearing a gown from the designer’s most recent couture collection
Wendy Yu with Giambattista Valli at his Paris studio, wearing a gown from the designer’s most recent couture collection | Image: Alex Cretey Systermans

I first met Giambattista Valli through a close mutual friend. He dressed me for The Art of Giving Love Ball in Paris in 2016, which we attended together, and afterwards we became good friends. The same year, I was going to another ball in New York and I immediately thought of his designs for it. He made two bespoke pieces for me – a top and a huge skirt made out of tulle that, when worn together, look like one big gown; it’s a signature Giambattista look. 

An exhibition of Giambattista Valli’s autumn/winter 2019 couture collection, held at Shangri-La Hotel, Paris
An exhibition of Giambattista Valli’s autumn/winter 2019 couture collection, held at Shangri-La Hotel, Paris

For this year’s Met Gala – which had the theme Camp: Notes on Fashion – it felt very natural to approach Giamba again for a dress. He couldn’t fly to New York for fittings, so we had a really clear brief and worked remotely on the gown before it was shipped to New York. I ordered it three weeks before the Gala, and had my final try-on a couple of days before the event. It was a white and blue ombré gown with an off‑the-shoulder neckline and huge tiered tulle skirt.

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I think Giambattista Valli is one of the most distinctive and exciting couture designers – he creates fantasies, and that’s what I love about fashion and couture. It’s natural that Giamba and I have become close, as he has been so supportive. With designers at independent houses there really is a personal chemistry that brings you closer with them – I’m friends with lots of designers, but Giamba is a very special one. 

Yu at the International Debutante Ball, 2016, in Giambattista Valli
Yu at the International Debutante Ball, 2016, in Giambattista Valli

I have always been inspired by, and interested in, beautiful things. This was passed on to me by my parents, who grew up during the Cultural Revolution. They gave me a really good opportunity to have a good eye and experience beautiful things. I loved reading fashion magazines when I was younger – I was very lucky because these weren’t very accessible in China at the time. It sparked my interest in fashion and couture, which I see as the greatest and most interesting expression of fashion creativity. 

Yu with Andrew Bolton, who was Wendy Yu Curator in Charge at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, 2018
Yu with Andrew Bolton, who was Wendy Yu Curator in Charge at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, 2018

The first time I bought something really major was at Christian Dior – the same gown Jennifer Lawrence wore to the Oscars in 2013 but in a different colour. I still haven’t worn it yet because I’m saving it for my wedding. It’s a huge statement piece. I collect vintage couture from houses such as Balenciaga, Lanvin, Chanel and Dior. I also have pieces from Mary Katrantzou and Huishan Zhang; they are not traditional couture houses but they have made some beautiful bespoke pieces for me.

Wendy Yu at the 2019 Met Gala in Giambattista Valli haute couture
Wendy Yu at the 2019 Met Gala in Giambattista Valli haute couture

For a big event, I usually work with a stylist friend who will talk with the design houses. Often we’ll ask four or five houses to do different sketches for me and I’ll pick whichever I like best. I don’t travel specifically for couture fittings, but when I go to London or Paris for meetings, it’s easy to squeeze in an appointment with Ralph & Russo or Giambattista. I think it’s a more modern way of shopping couture, and actually, when you are working like crazy, it’s a fun experience. You always need a little bit of creativity in your life. 

Wendy Yu with Giambattista Valli
Wendy Yu with Giambattista Valli | Image: Alex Cretey Systermans

When your dress arrives and you see it completed for the first time and it has your name embroidered on the inside, it feels as if you are receiving something very special. With couture, you work so closely with the designer, it’s like receiving something you have nurtured – and it’s absolutely worth waiting for. I remember when the Oscar de la Renta gown I wore to the Met Gala in 2018 arrived at my London apartment, I put it on a mannequin for two months because I just loved it and wanted to look at it all the time. I did the same with my first Giambattista gown.

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My taste in couture has evolved over the years. In the beginning, I only wanted huge statement pieces with lots of tulle, ruffles and embellishment. But nowadays I love something you can wear in a more casual way; sometimes I mix my couture with informal pieces, like a huge couture skirt with a T-shirt or a couture jacket with a pair of simple black trousers or a black skirt. I wore Gucci trainers underneath one of my huge Giambattista gowns because I knew I would be standing up a lot and wanted to be comfortable. I love to create my own pieces and forge my own identity and image through couture. It doesn’t have to look like a huge statement; I don’t think you need to wear head-to-toe couture any more. I think there is a tendency for the younger generation of couture clients to be more effortless in this way. A part of me still loves the huge, dreamy gowns, though, which is why I immediately gravitated towards this dress from Giamba’s latest couture collection. When I’m wearing it, I feel like myself: a free spirit with a romantic soul. It’s so playful, being shorter at the front and voluminous everywhere else, and the colour has a soft sophistication. 

I have this vision of opening a fashion museum, so I am really building up my archive. Andrew Bolton showed me around the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute’s archive. The way I store my own couture is already quite professional – I put them in the original garment bags and store them so they won’t get damaged – and I’m particularly careful with the gowns. I think it will be great to share the world of high fashion with a Chinese audience, especially my generation, because we really have that passion for the most creative things. And, luckily, some of us have the opportunity to really be able to experience them. My company, Yu Holdings, combines business with the arts, from investment and philanthropy to collaborations and working on new ventures. I’m in a fortunate position, straddling east and west at a time when China is such a topical market. It’s a privilege as much as a responsibility to nurture new talent, the people who help shape our culture and the world we live in. My focus at the moment is very much on Yu Holdings and growing that, but I think when I’m 40 – in 10 years’ time – it will be the right time to open a museum. Beauty and creativity is a universal language, but what is special about couture is how unique it is. I want to share that with a wider audience. I don’t see mine as a personal archive, I see it as a public archive that one day, I hope, will bring beauty to more people’s lives.

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