Being Mama: Eva Chen
Instagram’s fashion queen – with two tots in tow – talks unfiltered on working hard through motherhood, post-baby hormones and the lessons she hopes to impart through her first children’s book.
Eva Chen is at the dry-cough end of a month-long cold. “I’m gearing up for this book tour and I’m so excited, but I’ve also had what feels like the flu. So when people are like, ‘you have it all!’ I’m like, but I also go through four boxes of Kleenex a day.” We’re on the topic of ‘having it all’ because Eva meets the conventional criteria. She’s the Director of Fashion Partnerships at Instagram (with the wardrobe to match). She’s married to Tom Bannister, a talented British television producer. She has two, criminally gorgeous offspring – Ren, who will be four in December, and 18-month-old Tao – and now she’s gone and written a children’s book.
“There’s an expression from Lord of the Rings about feeling like butter spread over too much bread,” says Eva, quoting wisdom from a middle-aged hobbit. “In this day and age women are trying to do more and be more. It’s amazing, but it’s hard, because we’re juggling so much. When people talk about ‘having it all’ it creates a lot of pressure for perfection. I think the most important thing is transparency and honesty and talking about what you’re struggling with, too. As mothers, we have to support each other.”
When Tao was 11 months old and still waking at torturous, three-hourly intervals, Eva aired her woes on Instagram Stories and was overwhelmed with responses. On her account (followed by one million of us, at last count), in amongst her tête-à-têtes with Gigi Hadid, David Beckham and Anna Wintour, you’ll find Eva riding the subway, trawling the supermarket and goofing about with her face-pulling family – who outshine even the haughtiest of couture. “There will be pictures of me wearing this @prada skirt to #nyfw parties,” she captioned a recent snap, “but this was the moment that mattered to me!! When I put on the skirt, Ren ran and got her tutu to match me and then we had a dance off and she made me laugh like crazy!”
Back on the phone, as she slips out of a cab (where, naturally, I’d imagined her stretched across the back seat, designer footwear, purse and piece of fruit artfully placed against the inside passenger door, in the quirky composition of her signature #evachenpose), she points out that, “It’s six o’clock and I’m standing in the lobby of my apartment building doing an interview because I know that I can go home, play with my kids for two hours before they pass out from exhaustion, and then open up my laptop and continue.” She’s lucky, she says, to work for a progressive company that treats parents well.
Entering her apartment, as the “ambience” of her brood sets in, she remarks that Ren and Tao have just started playing with each other. “Seeing Ren really blossom into the role of big sister and meeting Tao in such creative, joyful play – it makes me so, so happy.”
On her current struggles she says, “I underestimated the adjustment from one to two,” and advises fellow mothers, where possible, to automate their lives (Eva uses Amazon Subscribe & Save to keep essentials stocked up – “You can never have enough Kleenex, especially for me right now!) and pull in support. “Whether it’s a neighbor, a friend, a parent or a whole bench of babysitters and nannies… whatever you’re able to have. And don’t feel bad about using it. That’s something I really struggled with early in motherhood. I felt like if I wasn’t doing everything, I wasn’t a good parent.”
Raised in Downtown New York, Eva’s parents aspired for her to become a doctor, and so the self-professed “science nerd” studied pre-med at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. During this time she found two loves: her husband, on a stint abroad at the University of Oxford; and magazines, by way of an internship at Harper’s Bazaar. Roles at Elle and Teen Vogue would follow, and then Lucky, as the youngest editor-in-chief in the magazine’s history. In 2014, she posted a photo of a tiny pair of sneakers and mini Chanel bag on Instagram, and left Lucky to have her first baby.
“I was one of those annoying people who just loved being pregnant,” she says, and had barely transitioned to flats when Ren made her swift entrance, a month early. Early motherhood rendered even-keeled Eva a sobbing mess. “I wasn’t prepared for the hormonal after-effects and how much I would be crying. It was insane. If someone brought me soup I would be like, oh thank you so much! I was just very weepy and happy.”
Hormones still raging, Eva was invited to be Instagram’s first Director of Fashion Partnerships (“it was a dream role for me”), and so became the liaison between the Silicon Valley giant and models, designers and brands across the fashion industry. “I was just running around so crazily it was almost like I forgot I was pregnant!” she says of her second time around with Tao, and although she didn’t escape the exhaustion of tending to an 18-month-old while expecting, she just kept on running.
“It would take me back to a story my aunt told,” she says. “When my mom was pregnant with me she was redecorating the living room, and my aunt told me she walked in on her hanging something really heavy. My aunt was just like, ‘damn, your mom just does not stop!’ I guess I am my mother’s daughter.”
Eva’s parents emigrated to the US in 1975 – her father from Shanghai and her mother from Taipei – and started a textile business. “My mom was such a huge figure in my life. She worked, and she worked really, really hard,” says Eva. “I hope to pass that message on to Ren – that a working mom is something to be proud of and that mommy is working for her.”
Earlier in the day, as they rode in a taxi to school, Eva told Ren about the purple sparkly shoe she’d designed as part of a collaboration with Janie and Jack. “I told her, ‘I made them for you, everything I do, I do for you’. And it’s really true. I made those for her, I work for her, I wrote this book for her and my son – my family – and I think all of us moms are doing it for the children we love and the families we love.”
Eva’s book, Juno Valentine and the Magical Shoes, is something of a modern-day Cinderella tale. Juno is not a princess; she’s a spirited young girl who happens to lose her favorite pair of shoes, and on her magical search to find them, slips into the shoes (and worlds) of iconic women throughout the ages, like Jane Austen, Serena Williams, Cleopatra and Frida Kahlo.
“It’s taken a lot of iterations of me to figure out who I am,” says Eva. “I’m now in my mid-thirties and feel confident in my own skin, and I know who I am and what I like and what I feel comfortable with, but it took me a long time to get there. I want girls to know that it’s okay to try a lot of different things and ultimately tell your own story, forge your own path and create your own magic.”
Across fantastical pages illustrated by Derek Desierto, Eva has scattered “fashion Easter eggs” for parents to find. “Whether it’s the Vivienne Westwood shoe that Naomi Campbell famously tripped in, to my favourite pair of Chanel heels, to a little shout-out to my parents or Chiara Ferragni, another mom icon,” she says. “I wrote it keeping in mind that a mom is probably going to have to read this book, sometimes three or four times a night, to their kid.”
Eva will soon embark on a ten-city book tour, and while her work sees her traveling, a lot, she’s usually not away for more than a few days at a time. “We count down the sleeps and FaceTime in the morning and the evening,” she says. “I know a lot of the books that I read the kids by heart, so if they hold up a book I’m able to read it from memory. Certainly that will be the case with Juno Valentine, it’s seared into my brain!”
Before signing off, Eva divulges how anxious she is about this new venture (“I’ve never felt as nervous about launching something as I do with this book), and how excited she is that, for a few stops on the tour, Ren will be by her side. “I traveled a lot as a kid and it’s definitely formed my worldview. It made me realize how small each person is, but it also made me realize how important it is to make a contribution. I hope that I can pass that on to my daughter.”