Beyond the glamour, fashion, ambition, a London education and wealthy backgrounds, Wendy Yu and Jane Kitakkaranon represent a generation of young Asian women making big moves in the world of fashion. And as economic power shifts towards the East, that comes in parallel with a cultural and creative clout.
“The Wendy collection consists of fluffy layers, wavering silk and detailed adornments of crystals, feathers and beads,” says Kitakkaranon, the 27-year-old creative director and founder of Bangkok-based couture label L’Astelle. She’s walking us through a capsule that takes heiress Wendy Yu, one of China’s most high-profile fashion figures (and Kitakkaranon’s university contemporary), as muse.
“I really admire the brand Jane has created; it’s modern, feminine and romantic, with great attention to detail in the craftsmanship,” says the heiress and millionaire millennial investor Yu, from her opulent Shanghai abode.
There are wispy layers of tulle in a dramatically tiered bright-red gown, plumes of ostrich feathers adorning the white crystal-embellished strapless corset dress, an expertly draped, floaty pale-pink number as well as a sexy, feathered black cocktail dress with a waistline emboldened with gemstones. It’s all part and parcel of the romantic, aristo-chic couture aesthetic L’Astelle has developed since launching in 2019 with ambitions to be “a renowned haute couture brand worldwide; selected by top celebrities and stylists”.
The two entrepreneurs were introduced through a mutual friend years ago when both were attending the London College of Fashion. They’d always see each other around campus, and the designer “could tell instantly that Wendy represented everything the L’Astelle brand stands for – classy, elegant and somewhat royal. Wendy really plays into that.”
Both women, one currently in Bangkok and the other in Shanghai, consider the British capital their second home. After graduating, both made fast-and-furious fashion waves in their native countries and beyond. Kitakkaranon launched her globally minded couture house with its first customers introduced through family and friends, but she soon gained traction through word-of-mouth and is now dressing international celebrities and aristo-ladies, such as Nicky Hilton Rothschild, Lady Kitty Spencer, Princess Maria-Olympia of Greece and Denmark, and Bianca Brandolini.
Although much of the world has been hit hard by Covid, China’s rapid bounce-back has meant that the 30-year-old Yu has also been incredibly busy. She’s preparing the launch of a new beauty line, and in 2020 inaugurated the first Yu Prize for emerging designers at Shanghai Fashion Week. She garnered fame with her early backing of Didi (China’s Uber) and the property-rental business Tuijia, landing her on the investor map before she took her attention to the creative, fashion and cultural fields.
“While I’m not a designer or artist myself, I’m endlessly inspired by creativity and its power to breed positivity and unite people,” says Yu, who, through her platforms, has a vision to “empower talent and cultivate new businesses that shape the cultural landscape”, while “acting as a catalyst for change”.
There’s been the high-profile 2018 investment into the Mary Katranzou fashion label. Yu’s support for British brands is also evident in her becoming the British Fashion Council’s youngest-ever patron. She has numerous arts and fashion patronages: the Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Portrait Gallery in London, and New York’s Met Costume Institute. And recently, by evolving Yu Capital into Yu Holdings, she now oversees a reported $20 million earmarked to support brands and projects for creativity, culture, connectivity and sustainability.
As a consumer, collector and investor, Yu sees fashion’s capacity “to boost your day and mood; whether that be choosing clothes that celebrate your body, enhance your confidence, empower your role or simply bring you joy”.
For big events, she usually goes the couture route, such as the clothes she wears in this shoot. “I also love bespoke or custom pieces by Oscar de la Renta, Valentino, Giambattista Valli and Huishan Zhang,” she says. Her work wardrobe consists more of Dior, McQueen and Saint Laurent suits or, for a less structured look, Bottega Veneta and Alaïa. And for casual days it’s Givenchy or Off-White, “especially jumpsuits and a denim-shorts combo”, but she also iterates that she’s a great fan of Chinese designers Caroline Hu, Ming Ma, Susan Fang and Yueqi Q.
This millennial female power duo clearly shares a dedicated passion for couture, one that brought them together for our cover. Yu, through her love of fashion, has famously built a vast collection for events and galas. Before launching L’Astelle, Kitakkaranon honed her skills at a big London-based couture brand. There she specialised in embroidery and worked alongside silhouette designers and pattern makers, learning “the ins and outs of each process … seeing the professionalism and high standards involved in crafting couture, and applying it at my own label”, she explains. “The craftsmanship and experience required to be a couture designer are extremely niche. Each piece created is custom-made and one-of-a-kind, so it carries a story within itself.”
The place of couture is at an interesting inflection point today. Although streetwear’s influence on ready-to-wear continues to dominate, the uber rich’s appetite for fantasy and made-to-measure outfits anchored in handcraft and tradition hasn’t waned. Now more than ever, it’s driven by new money in rapidly developing regions such as Asia. It’s no doubt been harder this past 12 months, due to the pandemic, but despite the ebbs and flows, “there’ll always be a place for high-skilled delicate details to be admired”, Kitakkaranon argues.
“Couture to me means creating a masterpiece of art and beauty,” says the designer, who cites Tom Ford as a major influence. “Ready-to-wear is great, but I don’t like how fast the sector moves. I like spending time on each inspiration. I often find myself devoting my time to embroidery and intricate details, leaving part of my soul in each creation. I’d like to think I’m very detail-orientated and fussy … I learned how to be extremely meticulous at my London internship.”
With their international exposure and West-East backgrounds, these young women also represent an increasingly important demographic in fashion. Yu realised in her late 20s that she was indeed “in a very special position, possessing a true understanding and appreciation of both East and West, having been educated across both”. She was drawn back to China, riding the wave of a burgeoning creative industry to be at “the forefront of its evolution”.
“Each country has its own idea of beauty and I like to explore and take inspiration from each place I visit,” adds Kitakkaranon, who was well travelled even as a child. Her family owns a mass-production denim factory, and some of her earliest trips involved flying with her mother to visit overseas customers, a prompt that informed her trajectory in the fashion world.
“I’m fond of the European attention to fine details in historic sculpture and architecture. I’m always baffled at how humankind can create such beautiful pieces of art and architecture,” she says. That early exposure to different cities and countries means that she instinctively absorbs details from the architecture, fashion and works of art that she comes across.
For Yu, fashion magazines were her first portal into fashion. And when she moved to England, it was visits to Harrods that sparked inspiration: “Captivated by the store’s magic, scale of offering and sense of retail theatre, it was here that I began to take an interest in British designers specifically, who are known for their highly creative and avant-garde approach,” she recalls.
It’s the inimitable style of the British capital that draws both Yu and Kitakkaranon back there, instead of the other more commercial fashion capitals. Both were educated there, but also regard the city as an epicentre of creativity.
“It offers a raw, free and conceptual approach to fashion and one that often reflects the times we’re living in,” adds Yu, “and there’s this deep sense of innovation and cultural story-telling, as well as the people – I love their etiquette and humility.”
Kitakkaranon has set up an L’Astelle team in London as well as Bangkok and credits the UK for broadening her creativity and connections, resulting in an eclectic network of potential collaborators. Meanwhile, the Thai cultural focus on intricate details and skills (easily seen in fruit carvings, flower ornaments, weaving and traditional architectural decorations) means that “there’s a balance of both cultures blended into L’Astelle’s brand DNA”.
There are plenty of fashion labels in Thailand, “but none hold the quality standard of an haute-couture atelier”, says Kitakkaranon. “L’Astelle fills that gap for Thailand, and even for Asia. It’s a lot closer for Asian customers to visit than travelling to Europe or America for the same quality.”
There’s great power in “fashion diplomacy”. Historically, Asia’s wealthy have been obsessed with heritage European luxury labels, but with support for local designers rising in both China and Thailand, Yu and Kitakkaranon’s work has extra relevance today. Case in point is that L’Astelle was the only Thai brand to dress the country’s Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana in a recent Vogue Thailand photoshoot.
Yu’s father is the self-made billionaire businessman Jingyuan Yu, founder of Mengtian Group, which is Asia’s largest manufacturer of wooden doors. The heiress admits she’s in a “fortunate position”, but aims to leverage her privilege for positive impact. Yu touts her role as an East-West investor, interlocutor and cultural facilitator – evidenced by her support for the The Met’s Costume Institute. In 2018, her donation endowed the position of Wendy Yu Curator in Charge, which was bestowed upon Andrew Bolton.
“It was an honour and privilege to support a cultural institution that sets such a high global benchmark for fashion and its legacy, past and future,” she says.
Whether it’s supporting global institutions or spotlighting designers in her native China, Yu argues that “fashion is a powerful tool, not only in terms of personal confidence but also in encouraging action in others.” Judging by the contents of her extensive wardrobe – a collection of couture, accessories and limited-edition Barbie Dolls, it also offers a chance for escapism, romance, fun and fantasy.
“Fashion has many facets;” says Yu. Approaching it from a more academic viewpoint at the institutions also made her “appreciate the importance of backing tomorrow’s rising stars”, including those in her native China with the Yu Prize.
“There’s lots of fresh talent there,” she says, “and creative confidence and Chinese pride shining through. However, the industry remains unstructured to help those with the potential to break through internationally and succeed domestically. I’m thrilled to partner with Shanghai Fashion Week on the Yu Prize, which represents a very modern approach to fashion week.”
For her next big project, Yu is working on launching her own beauty brand, an idea conceived to offer something “for the young Asian woman that’s as extraordinary as she is”. Seeking to empower women beyond a glam up, “it will represent this notion of infinite possibility, with creativity and beauty as a universal language that can inspire us to be and do better”.
Meanwhile, beauty as a universal language is also a code at L’Astelle, a label that’s honed on “art and delicate details”, says Kitakkaranon. “Each outfit is a collaboration of crafts and creativity assembled into a grand art piece,” one that’s aimed firmly at those who can afford couture.
The designer’s penchant for old-world romance is clear – she paints with watercolours and acrylics in her spare time, is forever inspired by grand buildings, and has a healthy obsession with Claude Monet: “He uses selective colours as timestamps on his paintings and he always painted from his first impression of a scenery,” says Kitakkaranon. “Exploring his colour palettes and brush-stroke techniques has always come in handy when I’m designing.”
Talking to these two young women, for whom the world is their oyster, the sense is that their trajectories won’t be wavering anytime soon. At 27 and 30, they still have a remarkably long and promising road of potential peaks ahead. It’s the power of a driven generation, especially in Asia – a new class of wealthy, global entrepreneurs who are just as savvy at social media and harnessing digital power as they are at staking their places in traditional business arenas.
As Yu says, “Travelling and asking a million questions along the way have helped me gain a greater understanding of the world; they’ve opened my eyes to other cultures and exposed me to those less fortunate. How and where you’re born is a lottery. My definition of success is not just financial or about status, it’s also about your impact on others and how much you give back.” Over time, it seems that both women have learned to follow their passions and play the long game.
(All images: Prestige Hong Kong)
This story first appeared in Prestige Hong Kong.