Crazy Rich Asians has been praised and criticised for its depiction of Singapore. But if there’s anything they got completely right, it’s the style choices of old money versus the nouveau riche: The nouveau riche can sometimes be guilty of dressing flamboyantly, while old money rarely stray far from classic elegant designs.
In the movie, old money is represented by the regal Eleanor Young (played to perfection by Michelle Yeoh), her imperious mother-in-law (Lisa Lu) and her effortlessly dashing son (Henry Golding). Described as “richer than God”, the three are always decked out in well-tailored understated ensembles, made out of light materials that are right for our tropical weather.
In contrast there’s the nouveau riche as comically exemplified by loudmouth Peik Lin (played by rapper Awkwafina) and her hysterical parents (Koh Chieng Mun and Ken Jeong). Their house looks like an exaggerated Italian mansion; every square metre is embellished for maximum bling. Their clothes are loud and pompous – though it must be said that they seem to be having more fun than anyone else.
Top stylists who have worked with a variety of “crazy rich Asians” say the stereotype is true. Fashion guru Daniel Boey says: “You’d be surprised to know that most of the ultra-rich Singaporeans don’t go to parties and shop only when no one’s looking. There’s a certain amount of sophistication and restraint in their wardrobe, and every piece is well-fitted and made from the best fabrics. When they do go on a shopping spree, they ask the stores to close the doors so there are no prying eyes.”
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At Crazy Rich Asians’ Hollywood premiere, Boey styled actress and longtime friend Tan Kheng Hua in a classy kimono-inspired silk wrap gown by veteran designer Thomas Wee, juxtaposed with edgy accessories by underground designer Kang. Tan plays the mother of lead actress Constance Wu.
Another top stylist Martin Wong, who worked with actor-singer Vanness Wu for his 2016 photobook, says: “The wealthy clients I’ve worked for know their brands really well. They pick things they can wear frequently without fuss, don’t shop specifically for a party, and don’t need to buy the most current designs in order to signal their wealth. They’re happy to wear clothes from seasons ago if the clothes are timelessly chic.”
In one scene of the movie, top socialite Astrid (played by Gemma Chan) gifts her husband Michael (Pierre Png) a rare Paul Newman Rolex Daytona. “That watch is not studded with diamonds or anything; in fact it looks quite simple. But it’s the kind of understated luxury the ultra-rich go for,” says Wong. “By the way, you can’t get the watch in stores. It’s only available at auctions, and the original worn by Newman was hammered off for US$17.8 million in 2017.”
The movie producers had to borrow the watch from veteran vintage watch dealer Eric Ku to shoot the scene. Ku had recently purchased a version of the original timepiece for US$700,000.
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Besides understatement, the other key consideration is fit – many ultra rich individuals opt for made-to-measure services offered by luxury brands. Monograms, hidden or displayed, show personalisation and customisation. Choosing a different fabric from what’s available off-the-rack also distinguishes the ultra-rich from the rich.
That said, some stylists feel the wealthy needn’t be so rigid with their fashion choices. Stylist Joshua Cheung says: “The clients that I’ve worked with are a balance between Eleanor and Astrid – and even a bit of Peik Lin. Some make understated choices, while others opt for the quirky and adventurous.
“If you want to really look like the creme de la creme of Crazy Rich Asians, pick things that are timeless so that five or 10 years from now, you can look back and not regret your decisions. At the same time, I’d also advise you to sometimes bend the rules and let yourself go a little, well, crazy. Have a bit of fun – it can’t hurt.”
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This article was originally published in The Business Times.
Photo: Tom Ford, Dior