“We want[ed] to build a courtyard house in the sky,” says Veronica Chou, the Hong Kong textile heiress, as she waves her manicured hands around her spacious Beijing penthouse.
Chou’s family pad – shared with her father, the billionaire tycoon Silas Chou – has an unusual genesis. In the years running up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics the Chou family decided to buy an apartment in the same complex (and designed by the same developer) as the Pangu 7 Star Hotel that overlooks the Olympic Park. There was, however, one tiny hitch. While they wanted a panoramic vista, they also wanted a home in the traditional Chinese style, with rooms encircling an open-air inner courtyard.
“We are Chinese and we’re, I guess, proud to be Chinese. Once China started developing we wanted a real authentic Chinese place. They redid all the blueprints and changed the whole structure of the building so they could accommodate us,” Chou explains as she begins the tour.
Beijing’s picturesque courtyards, highly coveted by the wealthy, are located in the city’s old town, buried in a maze of snaking alleyways. None of them have striking views. Chou’s 23rd-floor courtyard property overlooks the Bird’s Nest stadium and the National Aquatics Centre, also known as the Water Cube.
An elevator opens directly on to a large quadrangle dotted with winter rose trees and a pond where koi carp swim lazily. On one side of the open-plan living space, a dining room and lounge decorated with chandeliers and intricately carved wooden Chinese screens opens on to a large balcony; on the other is a steaming indoor swimming pool.
Above the entire two-story structure (the bedrooms are upstairs) is a glass ceiling, which allows light in during Beijing’s sub-zero winters. With a flick of a button, this pulls apart noiselessly to reveal the sky and a rush of cold air. The technology was first developed for the Bird’s Nest but, according to Chou, when it was not implemented in the stadium the family enlisted the same engineers. In the evening, lights on the floor reflect on the glass to look like stars – a luxury in a city where light and air pollution often smother the real thing.
Born in Hawaii, Chou, 29, spent her childhood in Hong Kong where her family founded one of Asia’s largest textile suppliers and the airline Dragonair; her father was also responsible for the rise of fashion groups Michael Kors and Tommy Hilfiger.
With her glossy looks and candyfloss voice it might be easy to dismiss Chou as just another society girl. But as president of Iconix China, a Hong Kong-based company that launches US fashion brands into the Chinese market, she wields a wide-reaching sartorial influence in China.
Today, a chilly Saturday afternoon, Chou is wearing skin-tight Balmain leather trousers, fierce-looking Alaïa stiletto boots, a chinchilla-fur gillet and a chunky Rolex watch. “These are pieces I wear all the time,” she says. “I wear leather pants, whether to a club, or a restaurant, or during the day on an airplane.”
Chou’s extravagant lifestyle does not stop at designer clothes. In 2012 she married Russian entrepreneur Evgeny Klyucharev in an opulent two-day ceremony in Hong Kong. The sit-down dinner was attended by 1,000 guests and a further 500 were invited to the after-party at which Cirque du Soleil performed in a custom-built Russian palace.
Chou is now preparing for another function. US pop star Katy Perry is in Beijing to perform at a corporate event and Chou has leased her apartment for the after-party. In the kitchen an army of chefs makes canapés while thumping beats burst periodically from the interior balcony as DJs test their equipment. One woman in sunglasses speaks urgently into a headpiece as she directs staff. “Honestly,” says Chou in her American twang (she went to high school and university in the US), “this house is made to be a party house”.
Chou describes her role as a “matchmaker” who pairs up labels such as Madonna’s Material Girl and Badgley Mischka with Chinese companies. In China, the purchasing power of the middle classes is escalating and Iconix China has been quick to target second- and third-tier cities where shopping at the local malls has become a favourite hobby. “The people in third-tier cities, if they get to come to Beijing, it’s already a luxury,” she says. “They are the ones who aspire and want a piece of the west.”
Since it was founded in 2008 the company has set up 13 joint ventures and its brands can be found in about 700 stores around the country, with new stores opening daily. It is part of the larger clothing brand licensing company Iconix Brand Group Inc. of New York, and China is one of a number of international joint ventures (including Latin America and India) that the umbrella group has formed since 2008. This year, the group expects revenues from its non-consolidated joint ventures to be about $44m.
In a culture inundated with fakes, authenticity is key. While Chinese consumers have distinctive tastes (baby pink is in, as are down coats), they are beginning to hanker after a more casual, simple look, epitomised by US style. “The idea of America is not just the product but a whole brand: it includes the whole American dream, freedom and choice. It’s more open,” says Chou, curled up on a chair in her lounge, a space decked with classical Chinese furniture and nicknamed “the opium room”.
Chou was attracted to fashion from a young age and worked as a sales girl at Tommy Hilfiger as a teenager. When she floated the idea of fashion school to her father “he said I had no talent,” she recalls. She pauses then adds: “In a way, it was true.” When she graduated from university “I asked my Dad, ‘Hey, can I come and work in one of your companies?’ He said, ‘No … you’re very opinionated. We have our CEOs and management: don’t touch them’”. Instead, he sent her to Citibank and now Chou’s role at Iconix China is strategic – working to connect different brands – rather than creative. She is also responsible for managing the company’s finances.
Does she feel pressure in attempting to follow in her father’s footsteps? “Oh yes,” says Chou, “but I’m also much luckier than some people who wanted to do it because I have two generations of experience that I can tap into and learn from. Because there is pressure, I really need to try as hard as I can. It’s not like I have money and I don’t have to work, I have to work extra hard.” She leans forward, twisting a black plastic band around her fingers as she talks. “Michael Kors is so successful. I can’t say I want to be half as successful, I have to be more than that.”
Chou and her husband divide their time between homes in London, Beijing, and Hong Kong, where they stay in a serviced apartment in the Four Seasons hotel. Here, in Beijing, traditional Chinese touches are mixed with modern technology (the toilets have heated seats) and lavish details, including a vast multicoloured Swarovski ceiling sculpture.
Chou mentions in passing that the rose trees in the courtyard are replaced in warmer months with different species that flower in summer. I ask who digs them up. “I don’t know,” she says, furrowing her brow. “Sometimes I just come and say, ‘Wait a minute, the tree looks different from when it was here last time’.”
Staff from the Pangu 7 Star Hotel, in their smart red-and-gold embroidered uniforms, regularly service the penthouse under a “special arrangement” made only for the family, and Chou admits that she is “spoiled”.
It is time for the photo shoot and Chou begins by positioning herself next to the swimming pool, thrusting her hands into her pockets and posing like a pro. Spotting beads of sweat forming on her brow, her butler leaps forward with a tissue and dabs her forehead gently. He then takes her iPhone and photographs the photographer photographing her.
Chou says the automatic roof is the “coolest thing” in the house but opts for the spacious standalone bathtub upstairs as her favourite thing. While soaking in the bath she can enjoy sweeping views of the city’s Olympic Park.
“During the Olympics I was relaxing here and looking out and it was all grey except from the [Olympic] fire which I could see from the stadium. It was a huge, huge, huge flame,” she recalls fondly. “It was the typical grey Beijing day, rainy, and that was the only colour. It was just so simple – but so beautiful.”