Wei Sun Christianson is responsible for all aspects of Morgan Stanley’s operations in China. Under her leadership, the company has expanded its footprint there to include domestic securities and bonds underwriting, commercial banking, asset management, trust services and private equity investing. Christianson first joined Morgan Stanley in 1998 working in the company’s investment banking division. From 2002 she served as Chairman for China for Credit Suisse and subsequently for Citigroup Global Markets. She rejoined Morgan Stanley at the beginning of 2006 as Chief Executive Officer for China. Before starting her investment banking career, she was an Associate Director at the Hong Kong Securities and Futures Commission. Prior to this, she was a lawyer in New York with Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe. Christianson was named on Fortune’s International Power 50 list, on Fortune’s China Top 25 Powerful Women and one of 12 women in the Financial Times’ Women of 2013. She is a member of the Advisory Committee of the Securities and Futures Commission of Hong Kong. She serves on the Board of Trustees of Amherst College and the Board of Estée Lauder.
Portrait courtesy of Wei Sun Christianson
How closely do you follow fashion?
I have strong interests in fashion. My job provides me with unique opportunities to get to know CEOs, business owners and fashion designers globally. I also have the fortune to be friend a few of them. I subscribe to a number of fashion magazines to keep myself updated. As I don’t have much time for it when I am working, so I splurge when I am on the plane travelling or when I am on vacation or holiday.
Do you read a fashion magazine on a regular basis?
Kind of. Please see above.
Do you consult fashion blogs?
When did you become aware of fashion?
I grew up in China during the Culture Revolution period. Fashion and stylish clothes were considered bourgeois and non-revolutionary which could land you in big trouble including jail. My mother who was a Communist Party official, however, didn’t entirely subscribe to this line of thinking. Although she had to wear military uniform or plain blue or grey jackets, she used to wear high heels with permed stylish hair before Culture Revolution. She suffered a great deal during culture revolution and one of the major criticism was her life style. After she became partly paralyzed as the result of mass criticism and torture, my mother picked up sewing partly as an exercise of her hands, partly to sew for us clothes that were just a bit more stylish than what was generally available, but not over done to get us into trouble. So while from the outside, we may have all been wearing military outfit or drab Mao suits during the Culture Revolution, I always felt a bit more stylish than my classmates. I think my search for style has its origins in my mother’s strong desire to look at her best and to modestly challenge the Chinese system.
How would you describe your relationship with clothes?
Although we should not be defined by the clothes we wear, I believe what we wear is the extension of ourselves. I select my clothes very carefully so I hold strong sentimental value to my clothes as it often reminds of how I was at certain period of time of my life.
When did you develop your own ‘style’ - do you feel that you have one - what is your basic 'look'?
As a dedicated professional woman who was a lawyer, securities regulator, till now a senior banker and senior executive, most of my clothes is the office wear with the professional touch.
Do you have a preference for particular shapes, colours, fabrics or textures?
I like quality tailored suits that enhance femininity. I love variety of colors or textures, but floral prints do not suit me.
Who are your favourite designers and why (historical and contemporary)?
Escada for suits, jeans, Chanel for suits, St. John for suits, Dolce Gabana for pants suits, MaxMara for pants suits, Christin Dior, Fendi for cocktail wear. Roberto Cavali for casual wear. For Chinese traditional outfit, I wear Shanghai Xu tailored qipao and I start to wear a young Chinese designer Xia Zi Chen’s cocktail dress.
Do you use a personal shopper?
No. I like the experience of buying my own clothes. It is about knowing yourself. Trying different things is part of the fun.
How much do you involve your partner in clothes buying?
He does not care much to shop with me, but he is a great sounding board for helping me choose the right clothes for different occasions. He is particularly helpful on choosing jewellery - he should be good at it since he has purchased virtually all my jewellery for me.
What percentage of your income goes on clothes purchases annually?
I never go on dedicated shopping trips. I shop when I have time and am in the mood for it. Often during business trips in NYC, Paris, London when I have a few hours free time. I am not an outrage spender on clothes, but I want to make sure each piece of my clothes suits me and is high quality.
How many pairs of shoes or handbags do you have?
That is the secret that I would like to keep to myself.
How important is hair and make-up to you?
I believe hair is as important as one’s outfit. I pay a lot of attention to my hair and get my hair washed mostly at the hair salon, partly because I really value a hair style that I feel fits my personality, but also because my hair salon is a place where I can relax and unwind. Skin care is something I take seriously and always constantly in search of better products. As a board member for Estee Lauder Group, I am fortunate to have great access to the best skincare, makeup and hair products. I love to collect makeup products from various brands (especially the brands under Estee Lauder). However, I do not wear much make up during a regular business day. Because I am always on the run, even when I apply on more make up for especial occasions, I tend to do my makeup in the car. Having a driver in an environment with a lot of traffic jam, is a huge benefit.
Do you buy seasonally or when the need or mood dictates?
I only shop when I have time and am in the mood. So my shopping is entirely unpredictable and spontaneous.
Is there a difference between your public and private wardrobe - if so, what are the reasons behind this?
Absolutely. My public wardrobe is about professional style and presentation. My private wardrobe is less formal and comfort with style.
How do you view fashion and clothes in relation to your professional standing?
When I started in the financial services sector at a law firm in New York City, I wore very conservative outfits - dark suits with long skirts. They had a kind of masculine feel to them. When I moved to Hong Kong, I started to work at the Securities and Futures Commission. I noticed that HK professional women tend to wear more bright-colored business suits. This inspired me. During those years, I found I liked color and texture and cut. I decided that while I was working in a man’s world, I was not going to suppress my femininity in an attempt to blend in. I was fortunate to have bosses that cared more about performance and substance than conformity. I hope that I can inspire other women in my profession to express their style and individuality through what they chose to wear and how they wear it.
To what extent does your professional role inform your fashion choices?
My role as the CEO of the regional business provides me with access to senior government and corporate clients all over the world. Therefore, the good exposure to these caliber of people helps me to refine my style from time to time.
Does fashion empower you? What outfit would most empower you and why?
Fashion absolutely empowers me. I believe fashion can be a secret weapon for not just women but also for men. A right outfit can be a strong statement about one’s self esteem, confidence and presence. For me, as a senior executive/banker, business suits (whether pants suits or skirt suits) help me to deliver the image and message.
What does fashion in the future need to do to help women / to empower them?
I think the key is not necessarily for the fashion industry to design more stylish clothes but to help women to cultivate their own taste/style that is best suited for them. Often times, I find women chasing for the latest fad without the judgment whether it suits them. In addition, fashion is about full presentation from head to toe, therefore, women need to be educated about how to match clothes with the right hair style, the makeup and the accessories.