Their Home Had to Be Fashion Forward. But Above All Else, It Needed a Killer Closet.
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Their Home Had to Be Fashion Forward. But Above All Else, It Needed a Killer Closet.

Ralph Lauren meets Tom Ford inside this sleek and sophisticated Chicago house, which cost $1.8 million to build

By NANCY KEATES
Tue, Jan 23, 2024 9:03amGrey Clock 4 min

If Kelli and Fei Wang’s house had a soul, it would be the walk-in closet.

The house, in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village neighbourhood, is designed around the couple’s love for fashion and includes a 300-square-foot custom closet, with charcoal-suede wall covering and cerused-oak shelves, amplified by a vanity within a 40 x 60 inch mirror. There is a separate accessories side room, modelled after a showroom, where Kelli’s collection of designer bags and shoes sit on shelves and where she hangs out on a silver love seat.

In the couple’s previous home in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, they had to change out their wardrobes every season, hauling clothes from their apartment to their storage unit in the building’s basement, because there wasn’t room for it all upstairs.

“I wanted to never do a closet swap again,” says Kelli, 42, dressed in a floaty, cream-coloured shirt dress from Sandro Paris and light pink Manolo Blahnik pumps. “The closet was the first thing I thought about for the house.”

The Wangs bought their Ukrainian Village property for $511,000 in 2016 and tore down the existing 2,500-square-foot, three-bedroom, old brick home on it. The new house, finished in 2021, is 5,000 square feet, has three bedrooms and cost $1.8 million, with about $100,000 of millwork, carpet and furnishings going into the primary closet alone.

To design the house, the couple hired Dan Mazzarini, the principal of New York-based BHDM Design, who was a director of store design at Ralph Lauren for six years and also worked on Michael Kors, Calvin Klein and Kate Spade retail spaces.

Mazzarini knew Kelli from college, and understood the couple’s love for fashion: they’d shopped together many times in New York, where Fei had a special affinity for the Ralph Lauren store on Madison Avenue.

“I wanted to live in the Ralph Lauren store,” says Fei, 46, dressed in a custom-made Pini Parma shirt and a Boggi sweater. “It makes you feel elegant, elevated, and classy.”

As a guide for the house’s overall aesthetic, they decided on “Ralph Lauren meets Tom Ford, a mixture of buttoned up and timeless sophistication and sexy, modern, crisp elegance,” says Mazzarini. That meant a lot of black, white and charcoal.

That mixture can be seen throughout the house. In the living room, open from the kitchen on the main floor, a Ralph Lauren influence can be seen in the classic white sofa, while the angles of the coffee table and the chairs are more Tom Ford, says Mazzarini.

Tom Ford comes out in the kitchen, where the black granite counters, black-matte open shelves and stainless-steel appliances have a “refined industrialism,” says Mazzarini. The dining room has a crafty Ralph Lauren chandelier and white leather chairs.

On the second floor, Fei’s office is “menswear-oriented” It has a modern, crisp, geometric style, with a glass coffee table, an oversize black linen sofa, and dark grey flannel curtains, like a suit, says Mazzarini. The red fox fur and brown velvet pillows, the rosewood desk and the nubby rug add more classic textures.

The primary suite, with its bathroom and the centrepiece closet, takes up the entire third floor. It is designed in part after the Bulgari Hotel Milano, where the couple stayed on one of their first trips to Italy. The furnishings include grey-velvet drapes, an ebony headboard, a leather bench and a large brown-velvet armchair.

When designing the closet, Mazzarini says he asked the couple how many suits, shoes, bags and accessories they had—and that number kept growing as the home-building process progressed, going from around 50 to more than 100 pairs of shoes for each. While the overarching goal was beauty and style, it also had to be comfortable—and to reflect what Mazzarini calls the couple’s “Midwestern warmth and hospitality.”

Fei was born in Shanghai and grew up in Chicago, where his father was getting a Ph.D. in chemistry. Living on a teacher assistant’s budget didn’t leave much for buying designer clothes, but Fei says he “always had an eye for fashion—it was innate.” He says his parents, who grew up when many Chinese people wore blue worker’s suits, weren’t interested in subsidising his passion, so he started working in a clothing store when he was 14 years old. The first suit he bought himself was from Banana Republic.

He graduated from Illinois State University in 1999 and then from the University of Chicago with an M.B.A. in 2004. He went to work in asset management at Morgan Stanley, then to J.P. Morgan Asset Management and UBS before landing again at Morgan Stanley in 2021, where he is now a senior vice president in family wealth management.

Kelli also remembers a passion for fashion from a young age. Growing up in Piqua, Ohio, north of Dayton, she couldn’t afford to buy designer clothes, so she mixed and matched, she says. She graduated from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and went to work at J.P. Morgan Asset Management before moving on to Merrill Lynch and Centric Wealth Management in 2018, where she is currently director of financial planning.

Fashion is central to the couple’s relationship. When they first met in 2008, when they were both working in J.P. Morgan’s wealth management unit in Chicago, each noticed the other’s clothes. “She was chic and classy,” says Fei. “I pay attention to style.” Kelli remembers the first time she saw her now-husband walk by in a suit. “He looked the Wall Street-financier part,” she says.

After their wedding in Lake Como, Italy, the couple honeymooned at JK Place (now called The Place), in Florence, a hotel that also influenced the design of their home. They started traveling to Italy and France every year because they love traveling and shopping together, and they both appreciate the goal of having the best experience possible, whether it is food, art, clothing or design. “The downside of that is there’s no voice of reason,” jokes Fei.

The Wangs say they have passed their fashion appreciation on to their 2½-year-old daughter, Gemma, who loves to hang out in the accessory room of the closet, where she tries on her mum’s shoes. In Gemma’s own bedroom, a shelf is filled with miniature designer bags: Gucci, Chanel, Prada, Louis Vuitton. “She has a better sense of style than both of us,” says Kelli.



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They Were About to Move In When the Ocean Almost Washed Away Their New Home

Gail and Ron Fink’s property in Jupiter Inlet Colony sustained major damage during an unusually windy day. ‘The whole backyard is shot. All the landscaping is gone.’

By E.B. SOLOMONT
Fri, Feb 23, 2024 8 min

Gail and Ron Fink weren’t home the day the ocean swallowed their backyard.

The Florida couple, who are in their 70s, were a few miles away on Feb. 6—an unusually blustery day in the Sunshine State—as waves pounded their beachfront property in Jupiter Inlet Colony, sweeping sand, dirt and trees out to sea. When it was all over, the Finks’ newly-built, roughly 10,000-square-foot home was intact; so too was their free-form swimming pool, improbably balanced on exposed concrete-and-steel pilings.

“That’s what saved the whole thing,” said Ron, founder of an air- and-water purification company. “The pilings are holding up the house and pool.”

Gail and Ron Fink recently finished building a roughly 10,000-square-foot home. PHOTO: JAMES JACKMAN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Drone footage and pictures from local photographers and the Finks’ builder show the severity of the destruction, which left their pool suspended in the air, with pipes protruding from the earth. Town officials said erosion claimed 7 to 10 feet of sand and created steep drop-offs in front of about half-dozen homes, including one belonging to Kid Rock , the rapper-turned-country rocker, who paid $3.2 million for the property in 2012. Conair heiress Babe Rizzuto also sustained damage to her property down the street, which she bought for $6.3 million in 2015 and currently has listed for $22.5 million, according to Zillow.  Neither responded to requests for comment.

But the Finks house, located just past the end of a granite revetment wall—a kind of sea wall—bore the brunt of the heavy wind and waves.

 

“The whole backyard is shot. All the landscaping is gone,” said Ron. Also gone are fully matured Palm trees and an ipe-wood deck. “It’s out floating in the ocean someplace.” Ron is self-insured and the repair work will be quite expensive. undefined

A New Jersey native, Ron is an engineer by training who worked at nuclear-testing sites in California and Nevada before moving to Florida in the 1980s. He is the founder of RGF Environmental Group, which makes air- water-and food-purification systems.

For almost 40 years, the Finks—who have three adult children and eight grandchildren—have lived in Admirals Cove, a gated community in Jupiter about 5 miles from their new house. They paid $180,000 for the Admirals Cove lot in 1987 and built a roughly 6,000-square-foot house, Ron said. The Finks also own homes in the Cayman Islands and Bahamas.

Until now, the Finks have lived in Admirals Cove, about 5 miles from their new house. PHOTO: JAMES JACKMAN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Ron said they began looking for property in Jupiter Inlet Cove years ago. “It’s a neat place, just a closed little colony right on the ocean, low key and quiet,” he said.

About 20 miles north of Palm Beach, Jupiter Inlet Colony is at the southern tip of Jupiter Island. The town, founded around 1959, has approximately 240 homes and is surrounded on three sides by water—the Atlantic Ocean, Jupiter Inlet and the Intracoastal Waterway. Long a destination for wealthy homeowners, homes in Jupiter Inlet Colony tend to trade for between $2 million and $5 million, although one sold for $18.6 million in January, according to real-estate brokerage Redfin. Last year, a home on the Intracoastal sold for $21.4 million, a record for the town.

In 2020, the Finks paid $4.9 million for a vacant beachfront lot and subsequently built a coastal-style house with a copper-and shake-style roof, covered loggia, pool and outdoor fire pit. “You know, it’s kind of a dream home,” Ron said. “We have built quite a few homes, but this is the end of the line for us, hopefully the last one.”

He said the property originally belonged to the singer Perry Como, one of the town’s first residents. A prior owner demolished Como’s house, and when the Finks bought it, there were concrete-and-steel pilings sticking out of the ground.

Ron Fink said he never removed about 60 pilings, he simply added roughly 30 more. “Now I’m glad I did,” he said. (Pilings are based on the design of a house, so Ron retained some pilings that he didn’t necessarily need.)

John Melhorn of design-build firm Thomas Melhorn, which built the house, said the Finks were a final review away from obtaining a certificate of occupancy when the backyard was destroyed. “They were right there at the goal line,” he said.

The Finks’ house and pool are standing on about 90 concrete-and-steel pilings. PHOTO: JAMES JACKMAN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Melhorn said the erosion began in late October amid unusually high winds and ocean swell. During the first week of February, sand beneath a row of sea grapes that stabilized the dunes between the house and ocean began to wash away. By the evening of Feb. 6, the plantings disappeared. The yard was gone by the next morning.

Melhorn said a pre-existing, low wall between the ocean and house—described as a cinder-block retaining wall on land surveys—also washed away, as did a walkway and steps to the beach. But he said the 2-foot-high wall was less of a retaining wall and more like a curb between the street and sidewalk. In this case, a prior owner used it to hold sea grapes back from encroaching on the property. The Finks replaced the wall with decorative stone, now lost to the ocean. An outdoor fire pit is still there, cantilevered over the ocean. “We tried to pull as many things out as we saw the erosion coming, but we lost a lot,” Melhorn said.

In Florida, erosion is increasing because of more frequent, more severe storms and sea-level rise, said Cheryl Hapke, a research professor at the University of South Florida and the chair of the Florida Coastal Mapping Program. But she said it isn’t just hurricane-level storms that cause major damage. “One thing I have found about barrier islands [like Jupiter Inlet Colony] is that sometimes a series of smaller events can have as big an impact as a major hurricane,” she said. “But people get caught off guard. It’s something they don’t think of.”

In Jupiter Inlet Colony, longtime residents said this month’s erosion is the worst the area has seen in years, possibly ever.

Mayor Ed Hocevar, who has lived there for 17 years, said it has been a particularly cool and challenging winter with an abnormal number of Nor’easters. On Feb. 6, local news channels warned of high winds, with gusts between 40 and 50 miles an hour. (There were also reports of an earthquake off the coast that week, causing high waves.)

Since the 1980s, Jupiter Inlet Colony has had a granite rock revetment wall that extends from the northern end of the community past 11 oceanfront homes. “But we’ve got 28 homes along the beachfront, so it isn’t complete,” Hocevar said. “Where the wall ended is where the significant damage occurred.” Hocevar said he doesn’t know why the wall wasn’t completed, although local lore is that homeowners building the wall ran out of money.

Last week, the town hired a local mining company to bring in 7,000 tons of sand to replace what washed away. Hocevar said it would cost about $500,000, which will come out of the town’s reserve fund. Long term, he said, extending the revetment wall isn’t a strong possibility.

Hapke, the coastal geology expert, said that in recent decades, sea walls and hardened structures have fallen out of favor as scientists discovered they are detrimental to the environment around them. “Storm water wants to flow, so it will redirect water to the area without a sea wall,” she said, adding that the most ideal long-term solution is to move homes away from the coastline.

 

Hocevar, 67, who has been mayor of Jupiter Inlet Colony for about a month, said the town is working closely with the Department of Environmental Protection on its response. He said the DEP’s recommendation, should erosion like this occur again, is to bring in more sand. Hocevar emphasised that the community is rallying together. “Think about it as a fortress and your wall has been breached,” he said. “You want to protect your neighbourhood and that’s what we’re trying to do here.”

Holly Meyer Lucas of Compass, who represented the seller when the Finks purchased their property, said Jupiter Inlet Colony is a “special little enclave” where sales exploded during Covid. “Listings sell after a day or sell off-market,” she said.

Lucas said the consensus among local real-estate agents is that property values will hold, despite the erosion. “I think this is a really rare, weird, fluky event,” she said. “I’ve sold everywhere up and down the coast and I’ve never heard of anything like this.”

The couple were close to getting their certificate of occupancy for the newly-built home. PHOTO: JAMES JACKMAN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Babe Rizzuto, whose house is two doors down from the Finks, listed her house for $24.5 million in December 2023 and cut the price to $22.5 million on Feb. 6, according to Zillow.

“She’s going to continue to sell,” said Milla Russo of Illustrated Properties, who is marketing the property with her husband, Andrew Russo. “Even though the timing isn’t great, it is what it is.”

Russo said there has been erosion in the past, and during hurricanes residents of Jupiter Inlet Colony are the first in the area to evacuate. But in general, people are not preoccupied with the weather. “Maybe because we live here, when the hurricanes come, we all have hurricane parties. We go to people’s homes and we barbecue and grill. Of course we’re careful and we lock up and all that, but weather is weather,” she said. “We’ve never been terribly scared.”

(The Russos were also involved in selling the Fink property. However, in 2020 the closing agent on the deal, Florida-based Eavenson, Fraser & Lunsford, PLLC, sued Milla Russo and Illustrated Properties as part of a commission dispute. The seller, Michael Cantor’s Range Road Developers, was named as a defendant and cross-plaintiff in the suit, in which a judge ruled in favor of Eavenson, court records show. Milla Russo declined to comment on the suit. Eavenson declined to comment beyond the judge’s findings and Cantor did not respond to requests for comment.)

Ron was also matter-of-fact about the state of beachfront living. Bring a life jacket, he jokingly told a photographer who inquired last week about taking his picture.

However, the Finks are facing weeks of costly repairs. Although the town is bringing in sand to replace the decimated beachfront, the couple is self-insured and will be on the hook for the cost of rebuilding. Several major home insurers have pulled out of Florida, and Ron said insurance on the house would have cost $100,000 a year. Now, he estimated they could face about $1 million worth of repair work. “We gotta eat it,” he said.

The couple, who was supposed to move into the house this month, has put those plans on hold—for now. An engineer recently inspected the property and deemed the house safe, Ron said. “We’re doing wallpaper today,” he said. “We can put it back together again.” The patio and pool area, meanwhile, are roped off while the area underneath is backfilled with sand.

Ron said being near the ocean makes it worthwhile. “I just love the ocean, we both do. It’s important to us,” he said. “It isn’t easy to look at, but I’ve been through a lot worse.”

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