This story was first published in the April 2015 issue of The Life digital magazine. A version of it was published in The Straits Times on June 19, 2015.
Three stylish women collect gowns that transform them into fashion royalty.
NANA AU-CHUA: Red carpet elegance
On May 18 last year, fans of designer Oscar de la Renta glided into the Audi Fashion Festival tent dressed in their best from the designer.
It was the first Singapore showcase for the Dominican-American designer, who died in October last year.
Among them was Mrs Nana Au-Chua, who stood out amid a sea of beautiful women in a multi-coloured tube cocktail dress, even though she was standing in a dark corner of the crowded show space.
At 1.75m, she towered over other show-goers and possessed a sense of elegance and confidence. Her sleek low bun completed the red-carpet-ready look.
The chief operating officer of lighting company Million Lighting is a fan of Oscar de la Renta and has over 30 of his gowns and cocktail dresses. His gowns make up most of her collection, which is partially tucked away in a storage facility.
“My body is not perfect, but his gowns have the ability to make my flaws disappear and make me feel like a princess,” says the 43-year-old.
She adds that tube gowns work best for her. “Tube dresses draw attention to my shoulders so people don’t look at my tummy,” she explains bashfully.
“There’s nothing over-the-top about his designs. They are classic, but still have the ability to make people go wow,” says the mother of three, aged two to 11.
Her husband, Mr Edwin Chua, 42, is the chief executive of Million Lighting.
Mrs Au-Chua, a former bank executive, bought the gowns from the brand’s boutique at South Cove Plaza in Costa Mesa, California. She has been making annual trips there with her family for the last eight years.
The designer Carolina Herrera is another favourite. Mrs Au-Chua’s everyday dressing of a crisp shirt and voluminous skirt mirrors the Venezuelan-American designer’s personal style.
“I’m drawn to designers that are all about elegance and sophistication,” she says.
Her style icons - actress Audrey Hepburn, former US First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Queen Rania of Jordan - exude these qualities.
Mrs Au-Chua says that it was her businessman father who made her value the importance of looking presentable.
“Even if we were just staying at home, my father did not like us leaving our bedrooms dressed sloppily,” says Mrs Au-Chua, who grew up in Batu Pahat, Johor, as the youngest of seven daughters.
Towards the end of the interview, she takes out two scrapbooks filled with magazine clippings of her favourite gowns (mostly from Oscar de la Renta again) and make-up looks, and shows them off with girlish pride.
“Evening gowns are so special because they are always associated with happy occasions.”
Hair by Sam Woo and Andrew Sim for PAVO Hair Studio; Make-up by Michelle Chin using LA BIOSTHETIQUE
Sharel Ho: Bespoke style
As the managing director of DeFRED Jewellers, Mrs Sharel Ho can certainly afford to buy her own designer gowns.
But a strong sense of personal style and a desire to stand out have led her to design her own evening gowns.
More than 60 per cent of her gown collection, which she is unable to attach a number to, are one-of-a-kind pieces that she designed.
The rest are from an array of designer brands, such as Valentino, Lanvin, Alexander McQueen and Oscar de la Renta, which she stores in a bedroom with the rest of her clothes. She is staying in a condominium along Thomson Lane while she looks for a new house.
On the day of the photo-shoot, she arrives at the presidential suite of The St Regis Singapore hotel armed with some of her best designs made by local tailor Heng Nam Nam.
Among her favourites is a fiery red dress with a long train that features a racerfront neckline - a recurring feature in many of her gowns. She also shows off a gold one-shoulder number with a mermaid silhouette that she designed a year ago.
“I think my shoulders and legs are my best features, so I love to show them off. When I design my own gown, I’ll highlight all my best features,” says Mrs Ho, who is married to Mr Fred Ho, owner of DeFRED Jewellers. He is in his 50s.
Mrs Ho is quick to state that she is by no means a designer in the strict sense of the word and that she dreams up designs by drawing inspiration from awards and fashion shows.
“I can’t sketch; my sketches are really ugly. I’ll describe elements from gowns that I’ve seen and get Nam Nam to make them for me,” says Mrs Ho, who had her first bespoke dress tailored 10 years ago.
Each bespoke dress costs at least $1,000, she says.
“Sometimes it costs just as much as a designer gown, but I get exactly what I want,” says Mrs Ho, who attends more than 12 balls a year.
Exuding confidence, during the photo-shoot, she works her best angles wearing gowns that her maid Loreta Tablizo, 38, helps to select.
“I’ve been really busy and Loreta knows my closet well,” she explains.
Ms Tablizo, who has worked for Mrs Ho for 11 years, also doubles up as a production assistant by snapping behind-the-scenes shots of the photo-shoot. It turns out that she is also behind many of Mrs Ho’s OOTD or Outfit of The Day photographs on Instagram (shareltanho26).
Mrs Ho, a mother of two daughters aged 16 and 12, is also fond of taking selfies or self-portraits.
“It’s how I found my best angles; I realised that I like my left profile best,” says Mrs Ho, 40.
She has no qualms about being called vain. Neither is she afraid to admit that she relies on monthly radio frequency treatments to lift and firm her skin.
“Women should be vain. Only then will you take better care of yourself.”
Hair by Sam Woo and Justin Ngan for PAVO Hair Studio; Make-up by Benedict Choo using YSL Beaute; Shot in the presidential suite at The St Regis Singapore
MIN-LI TAN: Living her childhood fantasy
It may seem risky to go online and drop thousands of dollars on an evening gown, but lawyer Min-Li Tan has amassed a collection of over 20 gowns in this fashion.
With an astute eye for style and good deals, her online shopping jaunts have reaped gems such as a Zac Posen bustier gown with an asymmetrical hem that was priced a few thousand dollars less due to a technical fault.
Not one to be deterred by sizing issues, Ms Tan has even purchased dresses that are bigger that her size 0 frame.
She notes that odd-sized dresses tend to get marked down and can be altered to fit.
“I never buy any of my gowns in Singapore, because the selection is rather limited,” says the corporate lawyer. She counts Net-A-Porter, Shopbop and Matches Fashion among her go-to e-commerce sites.
In her wardrobe - a bedroom set aside for her clothes and shoes - hangs voluminous gowns from Oscar de la Renta, a lacy Lela Rose number and an embellished Carolina Herrera gown, just to name a few.
She shops online partly because her workdays stretch beyond midnight on some days.
Even though this interview and photo-shoot take place during her week off from work, she responds to work e-mails and takes phone calls while getting her hair and make-up done.
And once the shoot is over, she hurries out of her landed property in the central part of Singapore, and heads to the office.
“Sometimes my job gets really intense because of difficult people and situations. I love it, but sometimes it’s nice to take a break and enjoy the lighter side of life, like fashion,” says Ms Tan, who declines to reveal her age and marital status.
She bought her first gown five years ago when invitations to balls started to come her way. On average, she attends five balls a year and the occasions allow her to live out a childhood dream of dressing up,
“Growing up, I loved watching my mother get dressed up for parties. I would also borrow her fashion magazines and do sketches of gowns that I liked,” says Ms Tan, who is a fixture in glamorous society magazines.
She has taken her passion for fashion a step further by designing a collection with local accessories and ready-to-wear label Mad About Hue. The collection of tops, shorts and dresses is sold on multi-label retailer Gnossem (www.gnossem.com).
Ms Tan says she is not afraid of turning up at a party wearing the same dress as someone else.
“I’ll inject my own style into it,” she says confidently.
“There’s also nothing wrong with wearing a dress more than once especially if you look great in it,” she adds, before rattling off the different ways she can wear her favourite tartan Oscar de la Renta gown.
Her top tips for gown shopping online?
“Some dresses have details or stitching that make them impossible to be altered, so you should always let your tailor have a look at a photo of the dress first,” she says.
And as far as possible, shop from a designer whose cuts you are familiar with.
“It’s really important to buy something that you can have a wonderful time in. I’m really not the sort who gets worried about my dress being stepped on.”
Hair by Ronald Foo from kimrobinson; Make-up by Benedict Choo using YSL Beaute
This story was first published in the April 2015 issue of The Life digital magazine.
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