Tatler's esteemed columnist names the women who have had the most impact on him—from a treasured childhood teacher to Donatella Versace

I grew up in a household of women: there was my mom, my five elder sisters and me. I was raised to respect women always, and throughout my entire life and career I have met the most amazing women who have been teachers, mentors, bosses, friends and supporters. These women probably have no idea how much they inspired me—professionally and personally. Here are just nine of the most amazing women who have impacted me.

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Margaret Gwilliam

I moved to Victoria, British Columbia as a kid, and my parents enrolled me in an all-boys private school called Glenlyon in 1977. I was the only Chinese kid in my class and one of only two in the entire school, so mom told me to learn to be tough. I was very shy and spoke limited English. Mrs Gwilliam was my grade three teacher and when we met on the first day of school, she said she knew about Hong Kong and that was an icebreaker. She taught music and choir, too, which helped me break out of my shyness. She gave me a special sportsmanship award at the end of that year and I was so proud, but she had to explain to me what “sportsmanship” meant as I didn’t understand that word in English.

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Wendy Barlow Pattenden

My mom was the typical Chinese parent, and academics (plus maybe classical music) were the priorities, with extracurricular activities, especially sports, frowned upon. When I was 13, I began playing tennis with my sisters, and I saw Wendy coaching a group of girls at the local recreation centre. I had no idea who she was (Wendy was a former top 100-ranked professional and 12-time national champion) but asked if she would take me on as a student. Wendy was my first competitive tennis coach, and I began my 6.30am training sessions three times a week with her and the other girls, who were all much better than I was.

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“Peter was a very focused teenager, with a very strong work ethic and pure love for the game. He was a great competitor, well-liked and respected by all his peers and, of course, always showed up on court impeccably dressed,” she says. Wendy has continued to be an inspiring coach to many and is currently the CEO of the Canadian Sports Institute Pacific, which offers world-class Olympic and Paralympic training at campuses in Vancouver, Victoria and Whistler.

Josephine Siao Fong-fong

A lot of my friends know that I have supported the End Child Sexual Abuse Foundation for over 15 years but they might not know why. I first met Fong-fong when I was working at Dior back in the early 2000s and we sponsored her charity. We became friends when I got enough courage to confide in her that I had lost a close high school friend to suicide after she was sexually abused by a person in her household from a young age, which I only found out about years after she died. Sexual abuse was such a taboo subject then, and still is now, and it was not easy for me to talk about my friend. It was difficult dealing with the guilt of not knowing about her abuse for decades. I only felt safe to confide in Fong-fong, and through our correspondence and letters she wrote to me, she helped me come to terms with the tragedy.

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Mara Hotung Khan

Mara and I met as kids who spent every day of our Hong Kong summers at the Country Club. All day and night, a bunch of us kids would be dropped off there and we formed quite the gang. Mara and I became very close friends at 14 and, after the summers, we kept in touch with lots of letters and sometimes long-distance calls, racking up big phone bills. When we both moved back to Hong Kong in the mid-Nineties, Mara was a jewellery expert at Sotheby’s and encouraged me to interview for a position there. I knew nothing about the world of auctions but she encouraged me.

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Having a friend who has known you for so long, knows everything about your upbringing, your past, and your best and worst traits is so special and rare. We are complete opposites in many ways. Mara is so softly spoken (until she laughs out loud!), elegant and gentle, and she has not changed since we were kids. On my 50th birthday in 2018, Mara flew to Hong Kong from London for one night just to be at my party. Who does that? My oldest friend.

Sharie Ross-Tse

I met Sharie in 1996 in Lan Kwai Fong club California. When we were first introduced, I was holding court at my usual back corner table, with pitchers, shots and bottles of champagne, and lots of hangers-on around. She asked me bluntly, “Why are you buying drinks for everyone? Actually, why is your poor father buying drinks for everyone? Do you even know all these people?” I didn’t, and we became instant friends. It was Sharie who proposed to her parents, the former publishers of Hong Kong Tatler, that I be their new social editor. It was a very high-profile position and I had no idea what I was doing but Sharie always had my back and gave me lots of encouragement. Sharie is that “You might not like what I am going to say, but…”, tough love kind of friend who tells it like it is. She once told me a new person I was dating was “a complete a****le” and she was right.

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Nansun Shi

Nansun is like a big sister to me (and to lots of others). An acclaimed film producer, She was a jury member at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011. She heard that I was going to be in London for business and invited me to join her in Cannes. Going to Cannes is one thing but going to Cannes with Nansun, a jury member, is quite another. She said, “In your line of work, you should see and experience these things like Cannes close up.” Hotels are usually fully booked during Cannes, so Nansun told me to crash on her sofa in her hotel suite. She arranged to see an evening screening during my visit, so we could walk the red carpet. (Well, she walked the red carpet as a juror; I was just kind of told to shuffle along behind her quickly.) Upon arriving at the “Green Room”, Nansun breezed in. “Hey everyone, let me introduce to you some of my friends from Hong Kong. Jude (Law!), this is Peter.” Then a gentleman tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Hello Peter, I’m Mick (Jagger!).” Thanks for letting me see “these things” close up, Nansun.

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Donatella Versace

When I joined Versace in 2008, all fashion brands were pushing aggressively into China. Fendi held its Great Wall Fashion Show, and so with one of my first meetings with HQ, I was not surprised to be asked to plan for a large, Milan-scale fashion show in Beijing later that year. What was a surprise was that Donatella didn’t just want to do a show; she wanted to find a way to raise funds to help the children of Sichuan who were affected by the devastating earthquakes that year.

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I was not sure how to do it, but in the end we partnered with Jet Li’s One Foundation and helped raise funds to build temporary schools for displaced children. The road to a village affected by the earthquake was dangerous but Donatella insisted that she visit before the Beijing show. We went with Li, whom the children were gobsmacked to see. I asked the children to perform a fashion show and the laughter, joy and sheer beauty of the connection that Donatella had with the children moved many of the team to tears. Flying back to Beijing, Donatella and I had a quiet moment where she thanked me and the team and said, “I will never forget today.”

Hilary Jordan

When I was 17, I was selected along with 11 other teenagers for that year’s High School Fashion Council. This was 1985 and each year teenagers strove to get a spot on this council, hosted by the department store Hudson’s Bay, as it offered a lucrative part-time retail job, gave exposure and training as fashion ambassadors and models. We were thought of as the best of the teens in the community. For 30 years, Hilary was the coordinator and driving force behind the council.

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What vision she had to encourage teenagers, choosing a diverse group, and offering them the best opportunities for self-development, employment and career development. It was my first taste of a future career in fashion and retail. “It was a labour of love and so much fun. I look back with the fondest memories, and feel blessed to have impacted so many young lives, especially yours, in such a positive way,” she says. Hilary retired from the Bay in 2007, but is still active with a modelling agency, and in 2013, became a certified personal trainer and owner of the fitness studio Vibes Oak Bay.

Catherine Renier

When I joined Van Cleef & Arpels in 2010 as regional marketing and communications director, I was completely out of my comfort zone in the world of high jewellery. In the first month, I went to Paris for my first budget meeting and leant on Catherine a lot. Then the regional commercial director, Catherine later became my boss as the Asia president. She had an amazing team spirit that not only brought incredible commercial results, but fostered a team spirit that I have never witnessed in any of the other luxury brands I have worked for. When I decided to start my own consultancy, Catherine gave me her full support, and I will always remember her saying “Peter, not many people can do this. You can.” Catherine is now the CEO of Jaeger-leCoultre—the first woman to lead the company and a rare female global head of a luxury watch brand. I am so proud that she continues to set new benchmarks and bring people together.

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