The best of East and West meet in a Beverly Hills mansion to create the highly cultured, perfectly curated, wonderful world of Chow.
Eva Chow is giving a private tour of her Los Angeles mansion, the one she and her husband, Michael, spent seven years designing down to the hinges, the one that has a special closet filled with Hermès Birkin bags and Vivienne Westwood couture, the one with a vintage Bentley convertible sitting in the garage, the one that houses some of the most impressive contemporary art in the world, with pieces by Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Julian Schnabel.
Around the corner—past the installation by British artist Keith Tyson, which features a tabletop of perfume bottles and a huge mirror with the lipsticked words the passage of time is perfumed with your presence scrawled across it—a splash of color interrupts the minimalist decor. It’s coming from the all-white laundry room: a bright orange box with the word "Tide" on it. At first it looks like a Pop Art Warhol.
Turns out, it is a box of detergent, but in the elegant world of Eva and Michael Chow, even the mundane appears strategically curated.
"We have to live to the fullest," Eva says. "That’s all I know. Try to be beautiful every day. Every day is designing."
Eva recalls the neighborhood reaction to the house, with its expansive rooftop terrace, heavy wooden doors taken from a Spanish monastery, 400-year-old Moorish columns built from stone, soaring 28-foot-high indoor courtyard, 16th- and 17th-century Florentine ceilings that Eva restored herself, separate guesthouse, and underground movie theater.
"People were so negative and jealous: It’s only three people. Why do you need such a big house? It’s like a hotel. You’re going to have staff problems," Eva says. She laughs at their concerns: "To make something from nothing—that is what we are born to do."
Who said the jet set was dead? The Chows are back. Or rather, they never went away. The name Michael Chow is synonymous with the Swinging Sixties and Seventies, when Bianca Jagger toted a walking stick and men wore scarves and the beautiful people were just that. Like Paris in the twenties, London was then a mecca for artists and parvenus. With his long hair, exotic looks, and Yves Saint Laurent suits, Michael seemed to be at the center of a roving band of rich, young hipsters whose passport to fame was knowing whom to court and how to court them. He opened the first Mr.Chow there in 1968, and it was a constant carousel of chic. It still is. In the nouvelle vogue for all things chinoiserie, Mr. Chow has never been more hip. Walk into Mr. Chow Beverly Hills and there is Balenciaga designer Nicolas Ghesquière, Elton John, Heather Locklear; at Mr. Chow New York on 57th Street there’s Jay-Z and Beyoncé. A new Manhattan location opened downtown last May with a party that included Uma Thurman and Marc Jacobs. Eva is designing her own jewelry line. Michael is making a movie with Brett Ratner. How do you maintain couple-of-the-moment status for close to two decades? Watch them.
The Chows have been married since 1992 and have a 12-year-old daughter named Asia. Style icons, the two have outlasted the past decades to ascend to the top of Hollywood and New York, a position few couples have the taste, energy, love, or money to maintain. Even as individuals, they would be in a category by themselves. As a couple they are unstoppable.
Born in Shanghai, Michael, 67, is the son of one of China’s most famous actors, who was also a star of the Peking Opera. He was sent to boarding school in England at the age of 13 and never saw his father again—his wealthy family lost everything after the Cultural Revolution. His father was imprisoned, his mother killed.
Eva (pronounced Ay-va) Chun arrived in America from Korea at 17 with her mother, whom she describes as the world’s chicest woman. Her father, a banker, had died. "I trained as a painter," Eva says. "I was the protégé of the two greatest masters of Chinese painting." She attended Otis College of Art and Design and met Michael at Gianni Versace’s. "I was a huge fan," she says. "Michael was an icon." She was nervous on their first date, but "there was an instant comfort level. We’re very compatible. We are both very opinionated, especially aesthetically."
Eva also knew Tina Chow, Michael’s former wife, a fashion muse and jewelry designer. They divorced in 1990. Michael has two children from that union, China and Maximillian. (Tina later died of AIDS.)
Michael is diminutive, with exaggerated architectural glasses and a faint mustache. There is a dimple in his left cheek and his hair is lopped short around the bottom and spiky on top. Extremely shy and phlegmatic, he speaks slowly, with a slight British clip. All his suits—all of them—are custom-made in Paris by Hermès. His soft honey-colored leather shoes are by G. J. Cleverley in London. "See, 1980," he says, slipping off one shoe and showing me the date stamped inside. "These are more than twenty years old."
Eva is chic and take-charge, with a curtain of ink-dark hair, crème fraîche skin, high cheekbones, and arched eyebrows over chocolate eyes that train on objects and people with the same scrutiny. Mediocrity is her enemy. She can spot a fake YSL Muse bag from a mile away ("Look at the stitching," she says), designs her own jewelry, draws, sings, does Pilates, gets acupuncture done on her face to stimulate circulation, cooks like a Tuscan chef, and often teeters about on designer mules while overseeing the Eastern-inspired, cultured world of Chow.
It’s a fantasy universe where perfection is reality, from the stark aqua swimming pool with built-in rain fountains to the Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann furniture to the organic tomatoes on the counter.
When asked what they each would take if stranded on a desert island, Michael says he’d want a Swiss Army knife. Eva? "Dom Pérignon Rosé, my iPod, sunblock, great-smelling shampoo, and a Fendi Russian sable."
"Very elegant, a little exotic" is how the sculptor Robert Graham describes Eva. (Graham, married to Anjelica Huston, is doing busts of both Eva and Michael for their home.)
Sitting in the living room flanked by a soaring John Chamberlain sculpture underneath an 18th-century Murano-glass chandelier, Eva wears jeans and a 20-carat Deco-inspired emerald and platinum ring she designed. The furniture is by Pierre Chareau. "We designed the house incorporating what Michael had," Eva explains. "We collect everything: Chinese antiques, Art Deco."
She herself has prepared a lunch of pasta with fresh tomato and basil along with veal scaloppine with lemon, one of her signature dishes. A bottle of chilled Chardonnay is produced. There was a Gucci party the night before at the Hotel Bel-Air and there’s a picture of Eva with Lindsay Lohan in Women’s Wear Daily.
Each day is a blank canvas, ready to document the dinner parties, charity balls, auctions, restaurant openings. It is clear that Madame Chow is no pushover. "Whatever I want to do, I do now," Eva says. Friends say she’s the one who brings out her husband, who is not fond of introspective interviews.
Eva checks her BlackBerry.
"No matter how crazy you are about your husband," she says, "you order him around."
Michael is sitting by the fire one night in a cozy den off the sleek white and stainless chef’s kitchen several weeks later. The chairs are soft leather. A black-and-white photograph of the family rests on the mantel. It was a birthday gift from Helmut Newton.
"Eva and I do everything from A to Z. It’s personal and universal at the same time," he says, explaining their passion for detail.
Their working relationship is as solid as the home’s 24-inch-thick stone walls. "Mostly it’s good. Sometimes I like things she doesn’t like," Michael continues. "For this house, Eva did everything. Almost everything. It appears to be effortless. Work and life merge into one." He’s part Scottish but apparently did not inherit the frugality gene. "Quite the opposite," he says laughing.
Michael Chow was already an icon by the sixties. A former art student, he opened a London hair salon, sold it to Twiggy, then opened Mr. Chow to bring the cuisine of his homeland to the rich and fabulous. The Beverly Hills branch opened in 1974. Michael was also a painter. Before that he studied architecture. "After my studies at architecture school I burned all my work," says Michael. "I don’t know why. Maybe moving on...a certain purification to become a painter. I was and am a minimalist." He says he is now ready to start painting again.
He is also preparing a movie about his parents. He has written the screenplay and plans to direct the film. "I didn’t have a family," he says. "I left them when I was very young and never saw them again." Sadness shadows his face. "My whole life is about searching for a bridge between China and the West. It’s a part of establishing what I have lost. I am perpetually searching for that."
Cascading into the film business has been a natural progression for the Chows, who have many friends in the industry as well as in art, fashion, and music. They entertain with élan, rosé (always rosé) Champagne flowing. Guests perfume with their presence until midnight, a rarity in Los Angeles. A recent dinner at home for Claude Picasso (in town for a show of his father’s work) included Larry Gagosian, Mick Jagger and L’Wren Scott, Ed and Danna Ruscha, Angelica Huston and Robert Graham.
Michael says he is less sociable than the missus "I prefer dinner parties to cocktail parties," he says. "I don’t like standing around talking. But Mr. Chow is the most social restaurant in the world. Every night is a party there." At a West Hollywood screening of Apocalypto a few weeks later, Eva gets a bear hug from Mel Gibson.
"Eva’s not a follower," says Malissa Feruzzi Shriver, a painter and the wife of Bobby Shriver. "I find her quite regal and very iconoclastic," she continues. "They are always celebrating, every single day."
To watch Eva work the room at Mr. Chow Beverly Hills is to understand her authority, her warmth, her charm, her charisma. The paparazzi lurk outside. Inside, David Spade and Heather Locklear have a corner table. Eva asks, "How do I look?" Balenciaga designer Nicolas Ghesquière shows up with three friends. The room is packed; it’s more like a disco with food.
"Ricardo, put Nicolas and his friends here, then move them to that table," Eva suggests to the maître d’. "Is there a private room upstairs?" Elton had been in earlier that night, as had Stevie Wonder and Usher.
In a black Prada jacket and knee-high leather boots, Eva frets that her stand-in maître d’ doesn’t recognize Ghesquière. "Very few people would make me jump up from my table," she says, "but he’s one of them."
"Darling," she says over the din to Danna Ruscha, "you’re doing good? Talk to me tomorrow." She tells the waiter to deliver a bottle of Champagne to Ruscha’s table. Then he fills Eva’s glass with pink Laurent-Perrier. She looks stricken. "Let me show you how to pour it," she says. "It’s very vulgar to pour Champagne all the way to the top."
Glasses clinking and air kisses blowing around her, Eva nibbles on chicken satay and shrimp dumplings and sips her pink bubbly. A bottle of Krug is sent to Ghesquière.
The waiter returns, nervously pouring the Champagne. Ricardo is ordered to deliver Ghesquière appetizers.
Eva, it appears, has done it again. Perfectly.