Written by Nancy Wong
It’s easy to forget how petite Jenny Lewis is until you meet face to face. She greets us barefoot, padding about on her Tientsin rugs, sans make-up and jewellery, and in an outrageous outfit – a lace top and harem trousers over leggings. Certainly a far cry from the hard-as-nails businesswoman who made her presence felt in glitter and gold, and who once boasted that her time was worth $5,000 an hour.
For a brief half dozen years during the Eighties, Jenny Lewis dazzled the fashion world with her exquisite Chinese silk gowns, elaborately embroidered, and her beaded and sequined dresses that recalled the gay abandon of the Twenties. Her rise in the fashion world was meteoric, and her shining creations, which cost almost as much as a Paris gown, were worn at the best parties in town.
At the height of her career, Lewis starred at fashion shows in Harrods, & Harvey Nichols attended by royalty the Governor of Hong Kong and the London elite. “My collection was the main focus of all the windows & my beaded dresses were the focus of the finales.I stood there thinking “these are my nights, my England,” recalls Lewis.
She had come a long way for a Convent educated girl from Cheshire, who had been asked to leave school at 14 with no qualifications. Her childhood was unsettled, she explains. Her parents divorced when she was four. She started working at the age of 14 and by 18, she was married. Her husband was an officer in the army, and the young couple soon found themselves posted to Singapore. Subsequent assignments took them to Berlin and then to the Solomon Islands, where she ran a kindergarten and a lucrative business making dresses for the small expatriate community.
They came to Hongkong in 1974, and before long, Jenny Lewis was knocking on factory doors to start her own dress export business. The next step was a boutique at Gammon House, where she sold local designers’ creations, along with collections from Europe. But Lewis was just biding her time. She had been working on her own silk designs, and when she finally brought them out, they were an instant hit. The designer then moved her boutique to Swire House, where her dresses were snapped up at such a rate that she was able to open another three stores within one year.
Jenny Lewis lounges in an red silk brocade antique wedding coat & paneled skirt weighed down by nearly three kilograms of couched gold embroidery.
Then the corruption and debauchery of being involved with running a business in Hong Kong overwhelmed Jenny Lewis. She suddenly dropped out of the fashion rat race. Actually, says Jenny Lewis, she had found Jesus.
“The turning point, I think, came at her daughter’s wedding. I was listening to the pastor giving a sermon on love which relates to a passage in Corinthians and suddenly I was filled with divine love. It was an incredible experience.” In a flash, Jenny Lewis saw how empty her life was. That the main focus of life is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, strength and soul. To God one soul is priceless all the millions we might make are not worth one soul.
“I had terrific energy,” she relates. “Sometimes I didn’t go home and would spend all night working. In the end, I was so wound up I had to drink half a bottle of brandy to relax.” Then I just wanted to go and dance…
For a while, she went on a trip of “ultimate aesthetic lust”. “I reveled in night discos and debauchery. I wore my glitter clothes and put on so much jewelry, I could have been killed or robbed for it. I lacked discernment and attracted corrupted people who were after my aesthetic beautiful world of wealth,” she says. The desperate mood of that period was reflected in her fashion designs: she started to experiment with black leather and sexy lingerie.
It was also around this time that she became obsessed with the Empress Dowager Cixi. “I had to have everything she owned,” says Lewis, who paid the then record price of $250,000 for one of the Qing dynasty monarch’s dresses. Over time, she managed to build up one of the finest private collections of antique Chinese robes, including several belonging to the Empress Dowager.
“At first I was buying for design, but then it began to take over. Wanting to own them became more important than the original reason. I would find the most beautiful treasures and I had to have it all,I walked into the Lust of the eye the Lust of the flesh & the power of life”.
“That was my gold period, when I was into glitter. I would wear my dragon robe and think: Twinkle twinkle big star. See my beads, see me from afar.”
For over a year Jenny Lewis started seeking what is the meaning of life for here she was with what the world called success but the debauchery and corruption of Hong Kong had killed her heart of the passion to design.In the midst of it all, Jenny Lewis’s daughter announced that she was getting married. The groom-to-be was a son of the Tory peer Lord Mayhew, and Jenny Lewis threw herself with characteristic energy into organising the wedding to end all weddings. The best silks were found for the wedding dress, and guests were flown out to attend a party before the wedding at the Dorchester Hotel and the wedding ceremony in the crypt chapel of the Palace of Westminster and the reception was in the House of Lords dining room.
At what seemed the height of her career, Jenny Lewis found herself beset with problems. ” I wasn’t able to breathe. Manufacturers were at me all the time – where was the work I promised them? My clients were at me for new designs. My staff could not cope with the demands. It was as if they were all whipping me and I had to keep everyone happy.”I never had enough time.
But Jenny Lewis could have had it all.
Swiss trading giant Cosa Liebermann offered to make her the Channel of Asia through a deal in which she would design for fashion outlets around the world; she stood to gain as much as $50 million a year.
Jenny Lewis’s interest in the material world began to fade when she heard a sermon in church. These were the words:
Jenny Lewis told Kurt Schaerer, the firm’s No 1, who had flown in from Switzerland to clinch the deal, that she couldn’t accept their offer.
“I looked out at the harbour from my penthouse roof at the ships taking freight all over the world and thought, for what? There wasn’t even the challenge, because I had done it all already. It would all have been responsibilities, deadlines and more pressure. I realised what I wanted was time on my own to get to know my spiritual path with Jesus,” she recalls. “Schaerer was flabbergasted; he couldn’t understand why I didn’t accept the contract. He said it was one of the best deals Lieberman’s had ever offered.”
The Swiss businessman understood even less when at a lunch party which he gave for some of Hong Kong elite to tell them why she had said no to this deal.Jenny Lewis explained that she had been a bird in a cage that Jesus had opened the door & set her free from all this.
She bought herself a big Bible and sought the help of evangelist Jackie Pullinger, who showed her how to pray and told her to ask Jesus for forgiveness.
“I didn’t know what she meant at the time. I thought I was wonderful. “I had no idea how hard, shameful and shocking I was,” says Jenny Lewis, who became a born again Christian in 1985.
Since then, Jenny Lewis has been quietly building a new life. In January last year, she closed down her last boutique; her heart was no longer in the work. But at the age of 45, the reborn Jenny Lewis seems happy enough and bubbles with enthusiasm for her new way of life. Hers is the face of one who has experienced life, but the lines have softened and laughter comes easily.
Financially, she has few worries. Shrewd property investments in Hong Kong have ensured that she can live out her life in comfort, and she still has the 15th-century house where she was born in Macclesfield, Cheshire. The antique robes and other treasures that she collected have also proved to be a profitable investment. A great part of her collection has been sold to director Bernardo Bertolucci for his production of The Last Emperor. Originally, the plan had been for Jenny Lewis to redesign the costumes for the film, but in the end there were so many problems with pre-production and budgets that she sold them the originals.
Much of her vast collection has also been sold, probably for a nice little sum, for despite her evangelical zeal, one suspects Jenny Lewis hasn’t lost her commercial instincts.
At a recent sale in her 3,000sq ft pent house flat in Robinson Road, which she has now leased out, Jenny Lewis disposed of most of her aesthetic antiques and the bric a brac of her former life. Some are sensational, like the empress dowager’s skirt, which is embroidered with nearly three kilograms of gold, and a wall-hanging that holds a record price for one of the most expensive pieces of hand-embroidered fabric ever sold.
“I once thought I would never sell them, but, looking at them now they are just false gods and bits of fabric,” she says. Jenny Lewis wants to cleanse herself of the past, and has no intention of going back to her old ways.
For now, she is content to work on what she calls her eternal investment. The former glitter queen now lives in a small, simply furnished flat, overlooking Junk Bay. She spends her time quietly, with days set aside for prayer and meditation, and for church visits and counseling. A day is kept free each week for her regimen of beauty and exercise.
In the meantime, Jenny Lewis has also started to write her life story. “I can see it – black cover, with the title, Lust, printed in gold,” she says.
Investing for the eternal life: The born-again Jenny Lewis sets aside time for prayer and meditation.
Investing for the eternal life : the born-again Jenny Lewis sets aside time for prayer and meditation.