A Chinese Heiress Makes a Name on the Fashion Scene


‘In China you are not really encouraged to dress up as a child, and you’re more encouraged to focus on study,’ says Wendy Yu.

‘In China you are not really encouraged to dress up as a child, and you’re more encouraged to focus on study,’ says Wendy Yu.


Photo:

Benedict Evans for The Wall Street Journal; Hair & makeup by Nickee David

Two years ago the Chinese heiress

Wendy Yu

showcased her luxurious lifestyle in a British television documentary called “Britain’s Billionaire Immigrants.” The show portrayed her as a hardworking, socially ambitious 20-something eager to impress her billionaire father. Viewers watched her take courses on how to be a lady as she prepared for London’s party season and glimpsed the massive collection of Barbie dolls inside her sprawling Knightsbridge apartment.

Today, Ms. Yu says, “I’m so done with television.” Now 28, she says that she is taking her life in a more serious direction as an investor and philanthropist, with a particular interest in fashion.

Through investments, donations and attendance at high-profile events, she has catapulted herself into the top ranks of the global fashion scene. Earlier this year, she endowed a position at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Wendy Yu Curator in Charge of The Costume Institute. In London, she has made donations to the Victoria & Albert Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and the British Fashion Council Fashion Trust.

Her firm, Yu Holdings, has taken stakes in the London-based fashion designer

Mary Katrantzou,

the eco-friendly handbag and accessories line Bottletop, and Asap54, a startup that provides shopping information. She has pledged to invest up to $20 million in emerging businesses this year.

As CEO, she personally chooses her investments, which also include the tech firms Didi Chuxing, a ride-hailing app similar to Uber, and Tujia, a Chinese take on Airbnb. She says that she takes particular interest in the management of the fashion firms she invests in. In April she hosted Ms. Katrantzou in China, introducing her to other potential investors.

Her rising profile in fashion has drawn the attention of some of the industry’s biggest names. “She takes a globally minded view of [fashion],” says Vogue editor-in-chief

Anna Wintour,

“and is as well versed in fashion history as she is in knowing who from the new generation of designers is worthy of her support. She’s an absolute lover of culture—and creativity.”

Born in the Zhejiang province of China, an eastern coastal area south of Shanghai, Ms. Yu is the only daughter of billionaire

Jingyuan Yu,

who founded and runs China’s biggest wooden-door manufacturer. She says that her father groomed her to be a businesswoman from an early age.

At age 15, she moved to England to attend boarding school. She excelled in math and became captivated by the fashion scene. “Since I went to England, probably my major has been fashion,” she says. “In China you are not really encouraged to dress up as a child, and you’re more encouraged to focus on study.” She studied Fashion Management at the London College of Fashion and took business courses at the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge and Columbia University in New York.

Ms. Yu has established herself as one of China’s most fashionable millennials.

Ms. Yu has established herself as one of China’s most fashionable millennials.


Photo:

Benedict Evans for The Wall Street Journal; Hair & makeup by Nickee David

Today, Ms. Yu spends about half the year in China and says she wants to be a bridge between Western fashion executives and the evolving Chinese market. “Chinese economic growth and consumer power for luxury and designer goods is going from strength to strength, and there is a rising appreciation for independent designers,” she says.

Traditionally, Chinese luxury goods consumers gobbled up big-name global brands like Louis Vuitton and Gucci. She says that those remain popular but sees younger Chinese consumers exploring smaller brands as well, such as Aquazzura and Supreme, and some Chinese independent designers such as Huishan Zhang, Bao Bao Wan and Xiao Li.

Chinese shoppers are also buying more of their luxury goods at home rather than on overseas trips—though it’s still mostly foreign brands they’re after. Luxury spending inside China grew 20% in 2017, outpacing overseas purchases, according to Bain & Co. “New consumers, mostly millennials, have been major contributors to the market growth,” said the Bain report, noting that Chinese luxury consumers tend to be younger than in other countries.

Ms. Yu hopes that China will one day have its own LVMH-style fashion conglomerate, with brands that appeal to both Chinese and global consumers—particularly millennials interested in newer niche brands. (A spokesperson notes that while she is inspired by such fashion conglomerates, she herself is not looking to replicate them.)

Ms. Yu has established herself as one of China’s most fashionable millennials. She has over 700,000 followers on Weibo, a Chinese

Twitter

-like service. On Instagram, she posts pictures of herself in glamorous poses, such as sitting in a horse-drawn carriage in Cuba, wearing a baby blue fur jacket while holding a pony in Iceland and modeling a long white gown as she pets deer in a Japanese meadow. A Chinese business magazine named her one the 300 most powerful people in China, and the society magazine Hong Kong Tatler crowned her one of Asia’s eight most stylish women.

She lives part-time in London but has offices in Hong Kong and Shanghai. She says that she spends most of her time traveling to meet company founders, fashion designers and the leaders of charitable organizations. In a typical month, she’ll travel to five or six different countries.

“I love when life is moving fast and when you’re really moving toward your vision and your goal because it makes you feel very satisfied,” she says. “I want to create a legacy,” she says. “I love to be the painter who paints my own life.”

Write to Alexandra Wolfe at alexandra.wolfe@wsj.com

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