Style Icon: Tina Chow
Tina Chow by Andy Warhol
Tina Chow was truly one of a kind, in every sense of the term. In the late 1960s, a time when the fashion world was preoccupied with California blonds, she rose pretty close to the top of the modeling scene with her unique Eurasian beauty. Although a muse to many, from Issey Miyake to Karl Lagerfeld to Andy Warhol, she is remembered now, not just as a style icon, but as a groundbreaking designer herself. I struggled whether to feature her as a style icon or as a jewellery designer, but I realized that she embodied her designs: a precise interpretation of a life split between East and West, taking a visual influence of Japanese minimalism and American pop form.
Tina Chow began her design career late in life (sadly, she only lived to be 41) with encouragement from her friend Andy Warhol (past his whole Svengali phase), who introduced her to healing crystals — they became the basis of her creations. And they were magical, just like Tina.
Vogue (August 1987)
in Yves Saint Laurent, Vogue (August 1984)
First time hearing of Tina Chow? Let me rewind! She was born Bettina Lutz in 1950 in Ohio to a German-American father and a Japanese mother. When the family moved back to Japan in the mid-60s, Tina and her sister Bonnie were discovered by a modelling agent and soon became the faces of Shiseido.
Bonnie and Tina Lutz (1970)
She married restaurateur Michael Chow (formerly married to Grace Coddington!) and when the couple moved to New York in 1972, they became part of the art and fashion elite. Tina became a muse to the likes of Helmut Newton, Andy Warhol, Issey Miyake, Karl Lagerfeld, Manolo Blahnik (Tina’s daughter China Chow is his goddaughter), Armani… you name it. There is a pretty amazing story going around: a fashion magazine (either Vogue of Harper’s) was doing a story on designers and their inspirations, and they asked designers to pick their muses to be photographed with. Well, eight out of ten selected Tina Chow!
in Chanel photographed by David Seidner (1984)
It wasn’t her beauty (and she sure was stunning!) but her personal style that everyone was struck by. Karl Lagerfeld credits her with inventing minimal chic: “Nobody looked better in it than Tina did.” Her daytime wardrobe consisted of a very androgynous ensemble of a black Kenzo trousers (she loved them so much, she had them copied year after year), a simple white t-shirt and usually a grey cashmere cardigan. In the 1970s, when everyone was embracing disco glitz and glamour, big hair and sparkles, Tina stuck out with her short cropped hair and her minimal approach to designer fashion. She was a collector of vintage Balenciaga, Poiret, Chanel and Fortuny Haute Couture, a collection that was auctioned at Christie’s after hear death.
in Chanel (1984)
in her own jewellery
She was never a fashion follower, but rather a leader. “Tina had an innate elegance and never needed any designer to do anything for her. Rather, she did a lot for us,” said Giorgio Armani. When she was photographed for magazines, she often just wore her own clothes.
in vintage Fortuny couture (1987)
Her influence is undeniable. If you take a closer look at her jewellery, you will see themes currently used by Martin Margiela (especially!) and Alexis Bittar. Tina incorporated her healing crystals with bamboo using the traditional Japanese craft of basketweaving. The shapes were simple, often dictated by the form of the stone or in her words, “uncut stones are so wonderful, why muddle about with them?”
Harper’s Bazaar (1990)
Along with uncut crystals and bamboo were sculptural pieces, light and elegant — almost ghost-like. Although they were sold at Bergdorf’s to moderate success, the pieces were clearly way ahead of their time. Nowadays, they are extremely difficult to come by (trust me, I’ve tried). I guess, maybe, I’ll have to settle for Margiela (never thought I’d utter those words).
Vogue (August 1987)
A couple of years ago Vogue Paris did a tribute to Tina Chow in a jewellery editorial starring Tao Okamoto (great choice of model!). It really exhibited just how, even though they were produced 25 years ago, they could still be considered cutting edge.
Tao Okamoto as Tina Chow in Vogue Paris (September 2009)
I wonder about all the wonderful things she would have produced had she lived longer. Before she passed away in 1992, she began work on furniture design, in the same organic and minimalist manner. Just imagine.