Modern Minimalism: Tina Chow and Beyond

Sarah Commane discusses the style icon Tina Chow, a lady who pioneered the minimalist look, providing inspiration to Maison Martin Margiela and influencing masses of fashion followers.

‘Yes I’ve been naughty’ was Tina Chow’s response to questions of her battle with HIV; she never hid her illness nor the fling with notorious bi- sexual playboy Kim d’Estainville, during which she contracted the disease. She became the first well known hetro-sexual woman to die from AIDS and her death, like her life, could be seen to defy stereotype. She was an androgynous beauty who thought out the 70s and 80s were both personally and sartorially progressive. She has become known for her gender-bending per- sonal style and her stunning design aesthetic.

Bettina Louise Lutz (aka Tina Chow) was born in Ohio in 1951 to a Japanese mother and German- American father, and they moved to Japan in the 1960s. Both Tina and her sister Bonnie became successful models, becoming the faces of Shiseido. Tina went on to become the muse of many including Karl Lagerfeld, Issey Miyake and Andy Warhol. It was Warhol who encouraged her to design, considering her an equal and much more than just a muse; he recognised her creative vision and intro- duced her to healing crystals. Healing crystals along with bamboo were the two main materials used in her work. Her parents were obsessed with collecting bamboo and her childhood home was filled both inside and out with it. Her work was deeply personal blending her Japanese heritage, with her personal experiences of pop culture in New York.

Tina blended the formal aesthetics and cultural nuances of both east and west to create a beautifully progressive and enduringly modern design vision. She was the antithesis of the 80s that we have all come to know, rejecting garish colours and metals and embracing crystals, brass and bamboo. Chow summed up her design aesthetic and personal style by saying ‘I like the idea of wearing very personal jewellery and not much decoration.’ Her Jewellery design incorporated traditional Japanese bas- ket weaving techniques and uncut healing crystals. Tina refused to cut the stones arguing that ‘uncut stones are so wonderful, why muddle with them?’ While Chow was, and still is, a widely respected designer, her personal style was equally inspiring. ‘Tina had an innate elegance and never needed any designer to do anything for her. In fact she did a lot for us,’ said Giorgio Armani about the style icon.

Her personal style was a blend of minimalism, masculine tailoring and elegance all actuated with statement jewellery. She played with the idea of borrowing from your boyfriend before anyone else; she was often seen wearing menswear and had a particular love of black Kenzo trousers which she had remade every season. Her uni- form was typically a plain white t-shirt, tailored trousers, a mas- culine cardigan, and a few piec- es from her extensive designer jewellery collection. She also collected Haute Couture cloth- ing; she was especially fond of Balenciaga, Dior, Vionnet and Fortuny, all of which was auc- tioned off after her death. Tina was so respected as a style icon that when a fashion magazine (either Vogue or Harper’s, the details are unclear) asked ten design- ers to pick a muse to be photographed with, eight out ten picked Chow. There’s a really great anecdote that emphasises her popularity in 1980’s New York: she created a craze amongst gay men to side- part their hair and don her uniform of white tees, a grey cardigan, flat-ironed Kenzo trousers and ballet flats and exclaim ‘today I’m Tina Chow.’

While during the 1980s it may 123 have been mainly gay man rec- reating her style, today fashion houses like Martin Maison Margiela and Alexis Bittar borrow a lot from her. Margiela is especially topical as they are collaborating with H&M in a much anticipated diffusion line including both clothing and jewelry  which is set to launch on November 15th. If some of the most recent MMM collections are anything to go by, there will be huge inspiration sought from Tina.

The now retired Martin Margiela is considered one of the most innovative and progressive designers of the past 20 years. He is also an enigma within the fashion industry, having never been photographed or interviewed, much to the chagrin of fashion journalists worldwide. He, like Tina Chow, never followed trends; his collec- tions were conceptual and included frayed materials, ice cube jew- els (which melted to discolour the clothing they were paired with), exaggerated shoulders and trompe l’oeil effects. Margiela, like Chow, is a designer with a distinct vision and strong conviction of design, who clearly admires Chow’s designs. His collections often feature Chow-inspired jewellery such as Lucite bangles, minimal- ist cuffs and neck-pieces adorned with crystals. The creative direction of his label is now managed by a design team.

What will be their take on Margiela for H&M? ‘We are very happy to present Martin Maison Margiela pieces with H&M, offering a new interpretation of our vision. The democracy of our fashion has always been at the centre of our creativity, and the collabora- tion with H&M allows us to push this instinct further. We will bring together the contrasting universes of the two houses in ways that will surprise all,’ said an official spokesperson. The pieces from the H&M collection will not be hitting Cork stores, so minus a trek to Dublin or joining the hordes that will inevitably crash the high street stores website, just how can you achieve Tina’s look?

Online retailers offer a wide range of jewellery that I think Tina would approve of, and unlike the originals have a price point that is student friendly. Some of my favourite finds include a multipack of cuffs (1) (€16.94) and a stunning three stone cuff from Free People (2) (€19.76), both available from ASOS. Etsy is an online haven of independent designers and once off finds – simply searching ‘crystal necklace’ produces hundreds of re- sults, including this stunning raw crystal necklace (3) (€10.31). Street style blogs like Stockholm Streetstyle offer hundreds of images showcasing contemporary minimalism in a very acces- sible manner. Some of my favourite looks include boyfriend jeans, a well cut blazer and a plain white t-shirt –simple, chic and affordable. I recently picked up a pair of Boyfriend jeans in TK Maxx for €11! also stocks great vintage Levis that would be perfect for the look. I certainly recommend in- vesting in a great blazer; it’s a wardrobe staple that will never let you down (check out Aisling’s guide for some great Lee-side shopping destinations).


Tina’s look may seem very accessible in 2012, but in reality she was one of the first to experiment with ‘minimal chic.’ Karl La- gerfeld credits Chow with inventing it, claiming that ‘nobody looked better in it’, and I think he’s most definitely correct.