The wedding was beyond fantasy. Its setting – an elegant, minimalist wonderland – featured young aspen trees suspended from the ceiling and silver-leaf latticework walls. One guest wore a robe-like dress of pale violet, made from the stems of lotus flowers. The Vienna Boys’ Choir, dressed in white linen, had been flown in for the occasion. And each of the 16 bridesmaids, dressed in pearl-gray duchesse-satin gowns, carried a large, curved cherry-blossom branch, which they lifted high into the air once they reached the altar to form eight floral arches for the bride to walk through. Her dress? A simple, classic design by Valentino, whom she had coaxed out of retirement. Boasting a fitted high-necked lace bodice, long sleeves and a full skirt of silk and lace panels, its 15-foot train was embroidered with 10,000 seed pearls and silver thread, a nine-month labour of love by a team of 12 seamstresses.
The cost of the wedding and reception: $40 million.
This scene of high-fashion jet-set excess appears in a work of fiction, Crazy Rich Asians, but it’s based on experience. Kevin Kwan, who was born into an old-money Singaporean family with whom he immigrated to Texas as a teenager, has written a debut novel that sheds light on the gilded world of Asian wealth and shopping culture that most Westerners only catch glimpses of. “There was a gap in the world of contemporary fiction especially when it came to writing about Asia and these stories I have seen and heard about,” the 39-year-old author, in Toronto on a book tour earlier this summer, tells me. “I was writing that wedding scene two years ago. Just the other day, there was a $150-million wedding in China. My $40-million wedding is a little wedding now.”
The story revolves around three super-rich, pedigreed Chinese families and the gossip, excess, fashion and jealousies on disaplay when Nicholas Young, heir to a massive Asian fortune, brings his ABC (Amercian-born Chinese) girlfriend to a society wedding. The novel aims to be satiric as it reveals underlying truths about the need to uphold the honour of the Chinese family with academic accomplishments, the obsession with fashion labels and whatever big money can buy. The home of one Singaporean character is a mansion that looks like the Petit Trianon at Versailles with one notable exception: a massive four-tiered marble fountain with a golden swan spouting water. The characters traipse through the pages in Alexis Mabille pret-a-porter, Lanvin cigarette pants and VBH jewellery.
“It is shockingly new and shockingly fast,” Kwan says of the rising Asian wealth. “I still meet people in New York that I think literally made their fortunes yesterday and then hopped on the first plane to go shopping,” a phenomenon that leaves him “equal parts fascinated and appalled. There is this complete obliviousness to taste in many ways. They just want to collect the brand names.”
A self-employed New York-based creative consultant and writer, Kwan has worked on books about Oprah and Elizabeth Taylor’s love of jewellery. His idea for Crazy Rich Asians “has been brewing for many years,” he says. How has his family reacted? “So far, they are amused” is all he will allow.
The book has received a lot of buzz in the summer publishing season (Kwan was the subject of a short profile in Vanity Fair), perhaps because it reflects the aesthetic and sensibility of a market that is starting to influence the fashion industry. “Everyone is courting the Asian consumer,” he acknowledges. “The impact on the fashion world has been significant. You see designers changing to a more slender silhouette, and there are some obvious [Chinese] motifs such as dragons on the Parisian runways. And the Asian lust for luxury watches knows no bounds,” he chortles.
Is there one defining Asian consumer preference?
“In general, I would say ornamentation. They want to see the craftsmanship. A beautifully cut minimalist suit is perhaps less interesting to them than something with an amazing hand-embroidered lace that took 16 hours to complete.” Just like the fictional wedding gown? “Yes,” he laughs. “I was writing the truth.”