April 18, 1950: Tina Chow:
“It was the 1950s and the early-1960s and people believed in everything. They believed that god did bless America. The only problem was that I wasn’t all-American, and there was no alternative to being all-American. Everyone was a cheerleader or aspired to be one… I never went on a date, was never asked out, was never asked to dance.“
A striking union between East and West, masculine and feminine, Tina Chow’s stunning features and unique fashion sense fused Japanese minimalist aesthetics with American pop culture. Remembered today for her glamorous tomboy style, she wore inexpensive garments found at flea markets mixed with haute couture pieces won at auctions. She blended femininity and masculinity to impeccable effect. Not only was Chow a beautiful woman, she was also generous, a philanthropic soul, who after losing many friends to the virus that would later claim her, became an outspoken, devoted HIV/AIDS activist.
Chow was a supermodel, jeweler designer, clothing archivist and historian, who tossed aside the rulebook and made a lasting impression on the fashion world.
While everyone else back in the 1970s and 1980s was doing the disco thing with its glitz and glamour, Chow stood out with her handsome mannish cropped hairstyle and her minimalist approach to fashion. She owned hundreds of designer clothes, yet jeans and tee-shirts were her favorite outfit. She was never a fashion follower, but always a leader and a trendsetter.
Born Bettina Louise Lutz in Ohio, she married to restaurateur Michael Chow in 1972 and became known professionally as Tina Chow.
Half Japanese, half American-German, she moved to Japan at 16-years-old and was first discovered by an agent and then modeled for Shiseido, a leading cosmetics company in Japan. Still a teenager, Chow worked walking the runways at fashion shows, appearing on the covers of major magazines, and was featured in numerous advertisements.
The late Karl Lagerfeld credits Chow as the inventor of minimal chic, and Kate Moss names her as an ultimate style icon. Praised by fashion magazines for her distinctive sense of style, Chow won the hearts of many celebrated designers and artists, including Giorgio Armani, Yves Saint Laurent, Issey Miyake, Andy Warhol, Helmut Newton and Antonio Lopez.
It was Chow’s unique, arresting beauty and fashion sense that made her stand out, but her enthusiasm for her modeling work and her respect for the designers’ craftsmanship made her especially unique.
Miyake, who met her when she was a teen in Japan when she modeled for his very first show, wrote:
“She stayed until the middle of the night. She was not only interested in modeling, but also in the spirit of the clothes and in being a medium of expression for the designer.“
“Tina had an innate elegance and never needed any designer to do anything for her. Rather, she did a lot for us.“
“She worked for me as a model. She did it for her own pleasure. I really liked Tina Chow.“
Her husband Michael Chow was the son of Peking Opera grand master Zhou Xinfang and founder and owner of the Mr. Chow restaurant. Unlike other Chinese restaurants in the Western world in the 1970s, Mr. Chow restaurants, with branches in London, California and New York City at that time, were not filled with tacky, fake orientalism, but offered Chinese fine dining experiences within a Western environment.
Chow worked with him in running his Mr. Chow restaurant in London. Later they moved to Manhattan, opening a branch of the restaurant on 57th Street, and then to California to create a third branch in Beverly Hills.
The fashionable restaurants featured Peking cuisine. The NYC spot became a hip hit gathering spot for artists and fashion folk. Mr. Chow acquired cult status. Painter Kenny Scharf wrote:
Tina made the restaurant our club.
When Michael bought her a tattered, jewel-pink pleated gown by Mariano Fortuny, she enjoyed taking it apart to see how it was made and then restoring it. Doing this with other items of vintage clothing, especially her Fortuny collection, became her passion.
Chow’s unique designs were frequently the subject in pictures by the very best photographers like Cecil Beaton, Helmut Newton, and Herb Ritts.
In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Chow claimed that in the mid-1980s:
“I lost several friends to AIDS and I felt my life slipping away while I continued to party.“
She threw herself into AIDS charity work, focusing on meditation and other forms of holistic healing. She embarked on a series of affairs, first with Richard Gere, who introduced her to Tibetan Buddhism and the Dalai Lama, later with the French bisexual aristocrat Kim D’Estainvillle. In 1985, Chow learned that she had contacted HIV, the first prominent heterosexual woman to have AIDS. No one has ever officially confirmed that Chow got the virus from D’Estainville; after her death, her family publicly said that she could have contracted the virus from a bisexual Parisian man who had already died of AIDS. But D’Estainville was taken by the plague only two years before Chow, and reports of their fling caused people to connect the dots.
Described as a “bachelor-retailer-restaurateur-journalist-sportsman,” D’Estainville was in Chow’s social circles. However, Chow’s friends refused to say anything about her relationship with him. He had formerly been attached to Helene Rochas of Rochas perfumes, but after he had an affair with a man, that relationship fell apart. One of d’Estainville’s friends say that he spiraled out of control afterward, going to NYC and contracting the virus there. Before he knew he was infected, D’Estainville had a number of affairs.
After the Chows divorced in 1989, she was encouraged by her good friend Andy Warhol to turn her attention to jewelry design. She incorporated healing stones into bamboo using traditional Japanese basket weaving techniques to follow the shapes of the uncut stones. She was a trendsetter for her use of quartz and other crystals as amulets and rings in a variety of settings and as pendants on silk cords. She had outlets in leading stores in several cities, including in Manhattan at the late, great Bergdorf Goodman. She shifted into abstract and organic sculpture in crystal and furniture design.
She was diagnosed with AIDS in 1989. Before she even became sick, Chow had already attempted to heal herself with crystals, macrobiotics, teas, and similar somatic modes of healing. When she was diagnosed with HIV, Chow refused to take any of the medicine her Western doctors recommended. Instead, she opted for a holistic approach. After Chow had made her illness public, she continued to work with HIV/AIDS organizations, especially Project Angel Food, which delivers food to HIV/AIDS patients, delivering over 10 million meals in the past 30 years.
Chow lost her life from complications from HIV at her home in Pacific Palisades in January 1992. She was 42-years-old when the plague took her. Before her death, the media still fixated on her affair with Gere. A tabloid ran the headline: “RICHARD GERE HONEYMOON AIDS SHOCKER: FORMER GIRLFRIEND DYING OF GAY PLAGUE“.
While her brilliant life may have ended 29 years ago, her influence on the world of fashion never will. Regularly listed as one of the best-dressed women in the world, Rizzoli published a book on her collection of vintage clothing in 2017. In 1985, Chow was initiated into the International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame.
Tiny tidbit: her sister, Adelle Lutz, is the wife of musician David Byrne.