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Relentlessly Stylish Mr. Chow : Blending boyhood memories of the Peking Opera and a sense of style honed in London, restaurateur Michael Chow created a seductive stage that lured the beautiful, rich and talented.

March 08, 1992|IRENE LACHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Chow also flirted with a Japanese restaurant in London called Game, but the Mr. Chows turned out to be his charm. And with backing from A & M Records founder Jerry Moss, he opened Mr. Chow L.A. on North Camden Drive in 1973. Mr. Chow New York followed in 1979, and Mr. Chow Kyoto, which he doesn't own, in 1987. The restaurant quickly became a lure for artists like Ed Ruscha, such Hollywood regulars as Jack Nicholson, Jane Seymour, Jacqueline Bisset and Beverly Hills bad boys like James Woods, not to mention the music crowd lured by Moss.

The stylish were drawn as much to Tina Chow's own sharp sense of style, which won her a place in the Best Dressed List Hall of Fame in 1985. Tina Chow sported a boyish Eton cut, simple Kenzo jodhpurs and spectacular museum-quality antique clothes.

"Her idea of chic was when everybody is dressed to the nines, what's graphic and compelling is simplicity and effortless ease and everyone else looks artificial," says Harold Koda, director of the National Museum of Fashion at the Fashion Institute of Technology. "Then when everyone else is in dungarees, she was like a fantasy."

Under Chow's tutelage, they came to share a passion for collecting--for Tina, the Greek-inspired pleated silk gowns of Mariano Fortuny as well as old Chanels, Schiaparellis and Balenciagas, which she would sometimes wear so as not to have to choose among her designer friends. The fashion institute will open a show of her collection March 16.

Michael's fervor was Art Deco furniture, and his collection of nearly 100 pieces by Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, Jean Dunand and others was deemed among the finest in private hands. But after the Chows split up and began dividing their assets, Chow put his entire collection amassed over 15 years on the block.

"It was very painful for me to sell, so like an elastic band, you tear it quick," he says. "But in collecting one has to be philosophical in the sense that you are the caretaker of certain pieces. When you're gone, some other caretaker will take them." As Chow grew more introspective in the '80s, he and Tina had drifted apart. New York Magazine reported that their 1987 separation came on the heels of Tina's affair with Richard Gere. Gere's publicist, Pat Kingsley, declined comment.

Tina went on to express her growing spirituality in AIDS fund-raising and jewelry design. Her costly pieces were crafted from bamboo and crystals, whose healing powers had been touted by Andy Warhol. She and Michael stayed close, Ghaleb says, in part because of their children, China, 14, and Maximilian, 17. He was among the family members who were with her at her death.

After Tina died, the family considered it an obligation to warn the public of the dangers of contracting AIDS through heterosexual activity. It released a statement that said Tina's illness may have stemmed from "an extremely brief affair with a bisexual man in Paris who has since died of AIDS." The New York press has speculated that the man was a French restaurateur and journalist. Chow is reserved on the subject, saying only that the family situation is "sensitive."

After the Chows split, Ghaleb says, Chow began to burn out on his hands-on restaurant style, and he eagerly accepted Giorgio Armani's invitation to design his Beverly Hills boutique. Lately, Chow acknowledges, his restaurants, which grossed $2 million a year at their peak, have been hit by recession.

But these days, Chow says he's living his own happy ending. He remarried in January, to Eva Chun, a 36-year-old fashion designer based in New York. Chow divides his time between that city and a 7,000-square-foot home in Holmby Hills that he bought last year for $3.5 million. Like Chow, the Seoul-born Chun came to the West in her teens. And in Chun, he has found his own multicultural reflection, much the way he has in Mr. Chow.

"My theory is if you're totally young, like before 10, and you come here, you become totally Westernized. And if you're very old, after 18, you become Oriental.

"So half that and half the other--two cultures. Inwardly, we're very Oriental. And on the exterior, very Western. There are not very many people like that."

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