CROSSING TO THE OTHER SIDE
There are days, when I look back on that lovely encounter and that serendipitous afternoon, and think, ‘Did I jinx myself?’
IT WAS AN AFTERNOON LIKE ANY OTHER. I had gotten home from school, made my cup of tea and settled on the floor of my parents’ empty bedroom with the newspapers. As a child, a drama club teacher had cast me as Alice in a school production of The Mad
Tea Party, and I had decided, in my already fanciful, pretentious mind, that having tea was the perfect mix of a ritual that was utterly civilized and yet laced with unrecognized lunacy. So I would make myself tea as soon as I got home, read the day’s papers and then move on to whatever book I was engrossed in and then reclaim the day as my own, and not one imposed on me by teachers and parents and other figures of authority. I never pretended that there were white rabbits, Cheshire cats, a dormouse or a Mad Hatter around; I wasn’t that far gone. The madness of the party was in the reading. But the afternoons were, by and large, uneventful, and they passed by, on and on. But one afternoon, I made a discovery that marked all my senses and stayed with me well into adulthood. And like the eureka moments that brought the world the laws of gravity, the Archimedean Principle and countless other discoveries, it came unbidden and unexpected.
On that soon-to-be fateful afternoon, I was scanning the lifestyle pages of the Bulletin Today (not yet the Manila Bulletin), and then there it was. A grainy photograph of a dress of exuberantly distorted proportions, pithily baptized “the pouf.” The designer of this dress that enthralled me so was named Christian Lacroix, and his name seemed to me more suited for a saint than a fashion demigod, as his last name meant The Cross. And so the writer of the review that accompanied the grainy photo waxed rhapsodic that he could be the savior of couture, and though I really could not comprehend at that time why dressmaking needed redemption, I fell hard and fast. I read all I could about him, followed his ascent in the fashion world, as he left the House of Patou, a venerable, old fashion name, to found his own establishment. Every season, fashion editors would swoon, always saying that witnessing and experiencing a Christian Lacroix show felt more like a benediction than just the showing of clothes. The BBC parody of the fashion world, Absolutely Fabulous, named dropped him when the boozy fashion PR Edina cooed to the equally boozy fashion editor Patsy, “It’s Lacroix, darling, Lacroix.”
He often spoke and wrote of growing up in Arles, a town in the South of France that bordered Spain, and his memories of the bullfights and the folk costumes. I hoard memories as well, and unlike Barbra Streisand, I don’t necessarily choose to forget those that are too painful to remember. When I recall stories that may be uncomfortable or unpleasant to friends, they chide me, and say, “You really must get rid of such old memories and make room for new ones.” It fascinated me that Christian Lacroix could weave magic from his memories, whereas all I could do was embarrass my friends.
The year my grandmother died I decided to visit my cousin who lived in New Jersey. She was the eldest granddaughter on my mother’s side of the family, and both her parents were very young when she arrived and so she was sent to be raised by my grandmother. She
actually didn’t even agree to my idea when I said over the phone that I could come over and keep her company. Because she was sobbing so much, she couldn’t speak. When I arrived, she was full of plans. Another cousin lived in Maryland and she decided that we would go on a road trip. When we got to Maryland, my other cousin said that we should go to Washington D.C.
The American capital isn’t exactly like Paris or New York, a romantic urban myth, a setting for novels and movies, a place where people fall in love. It’s not a city that one dreams of visiting. But no complaints from me; I wasn’t there as a tourist. My cousins and I were gathering together to grieve. Maybe we weren’t praying novenas or watching over a coffin. But we had a shared loss and found comfort in reminiscing.
When I noticed the beautiful earrings my Maryland cousin was wearing, she told me nonchalantly, “Lola gave them to me.” I looked to my other cousin and asked if she ever got precious trinkets from our grandmother and she just looked away. I said, “She never gave me jewelry. Every year she gave me books.” And it really wasn’t envy, I realize now. A few minutes in the car and I just thought, she just gave us what she knew we really wanted. For all my obsession with fashion and its attendant accoutrements, reading was and will always be my true love.
My cousin declared that we had to go to the National Gallery of Art because, in Washington DC, entrance to museums is free. I had read that a new extension of the National Gallery had been completed by IM Pei, and I was giddy to experience this new building as I was to explore the art. But giddiness does not make one immune to museum fatigue. Just as I was about to tell my cousins that I was ready to call it a day, I happened to see a well-dressed couple, a man in a linen safari jacket and a woman in a flowing black dress and pointy slingbacks with crystal detailing. I found it so odd that a woman would wear evening shoes for a day at a museum, but I also remembered that I had just seen those exact same shoes at a shoe sale in Rustan’s back home, and remembered that I had coveted them as not only were they marked down, they were by yes, Lacroix. As I gazed at the couple, a realization dawned on me. The man was no other than my fashion hero Christian Lacroix! I followed him around a bit, just to make sure it was him, because he bore a striking resemblance to another Frenchman, shoe designer Christian Louboutin. But of course he couldn’t be, because why would the woman with him be wearing Lacroix shoes if he were Louboutin? (And people think fashion girls are stupid!) When he entered the men’s room, I patiently waited outside, and when I saw him come out, I rushed to him, “Are you Christian Lacroix? You are, aren’t you? I admire you so much! Would you please sign this?” I shoved my museum brochure at him, and he looked flustered and ill at ease but he did sign his name. His wife, Francoise, suddenly appeared at his side, and spoke in rapid fire French and she snootily made the universal hand motion for let’s go, NOW! As he gave me back my brochure, he shyly and softly said, “I’m sorry.” And for some reason I called out to him, “It’s my dream to wear a wedding gown by you! If I ever meet the right man, I will call you!”
As soon as the words escaped from my mouth, reason took over. Why did I say that? Even if the right man was waiting in the IM Pei-designed hallways, there was no way I could ever have the means to have a couture gown. And if I did, I am sure, better sense would prevail and that money would go to a house, or at least a retirement fund. Perhaps, his physical presence unleashed all those hours of staring at his heartstoppingly gorgeous dresses, and my subconscious just had to express this deep, yet unacknowledged longing. I always told myself that I had admired those Lacroix dresses just as I had a Brancusi sculpture or a Frank Lloyd Wright home, but never with the covetousness or presumptuousness of ever possessing such a work of art. And yet it seemed a primeval part of me did want to wear a Lacroix.
There are days, when I look back on that lovely encounter and that serendipitous afternoon, and think, ‘Did I jinx myself?’ By presuming that one day, I would meet The One, and dare to ask Christian Lacroix to make my wedding gown, did I anger the fashion gods or the romantic ones? For I remain, for better or worse, blissfully unattached.
Or did I jinx Monsieur Lacroix? In 2009, his couture house closed. Unlike many designers who live happily ever after on the windfall of perfume sales, he was never able to create a classic scent. He will do a special project or two, such as design for an opera or a ballet, now and then, all to the rapturous praise of his still significant fanbase, mostly editors and dedicated followers of fashion. He also did a one-off collection for the House of Schiaparelli, a tour-de-force of such breathtaking dresses that again made the fashion press swoon and long for his full-time return to fashion. The one regular thing he does is Christian Lacroix Papier, designing notebooks and note paper as sumptuously and richly intricate as his couture creations. And just as serendipitously as my Washington encounter with the master himself, several friends and relatives have given me Lacroix notebooks that I treasure as if they were gold. Or the children’s stories my grandmother gave me.
A little band of gold note paper encircles the notebooks of Christian Lacroix Papier. It reads: “Since its inception in 1987, the House of Christian Lacroix has electrified the fashion world with its collections inspired by Gypsy and Provençal traditions, and by the flamboyant Haute Couture scene in Paris and London during the swinging 60s. We invite you to share in the celebration of the singular French joie de vivre.” And when I do take out these meticulously designed journals and join my scribbles onto the pages with the Lacroix name, there is a frisson I feel, that an object that came from the brilliant imagination of a hero of mine is somehow united with my mundane, meandering thoughts.
Why is it so thrilling to meet one’s idols? As a writer, I often do celebrity profiles, and I see the visceral ecstasy that fans feel when they come close to their idol and either get that longed-for selfie or better yet, when they get to clutch an arm or embrace that elusive star. Scholars who have studied the celebritization of our culture cite Alexander the Great as the first “celebrity” because not only was he unique, but he wanted the world to know he was unique by commissioning artists and writers to immortalize his persona and his glorious deeds. But couldn’t we go back even further and categorize the Greek and Norse gods as early avatars of what we now call celebrities? Was not Demosthenes, the Greek orator just as much a celebrity as the reality stars of today? With all due respect to the American Constitution, or at least more respect than the current president of the United States has shown, all men are not created equal and we are deeply, innately aware of that. So we seek higher ground, and perhaps feel someone better-looking than us, or more intelligent or more creative can show us the way.
When he arrived in New Mexico, the novelist DH Lawrence wrote: “the moment I saw the brilliant, proud morning shine high, something stood still in my soul. There was a certain magnificence in the high-up day, a certain eagle-like royalty.” The Carmelite mystic John of the Cross famously wrote of the “dark night of the soul,” which would be the polar opposite of Lawrence’s experience. If the drudgery of day to day living can be like one long dark night of the soul, can an encounter with someone we have put on a pedestal then bring on that bright stillness? And if so, why do we need to reach that bright stillness?
As the most freshly crowned Academy Award-winning actor Casey Affleck said in his acceptance speech, “I wish I had something more meaningful to say but all I can say is thank you.” I never did anything extraordinary to meet the man of my dream (dresses), but I did. But I always look back on that memory with a smile, an awareness of its wonder and gratitude that it all happened, and sometimes think (still fancifully and pretentiously), my grandmother was just sending me another gift.