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?’

Esquire (Philippines) - - NOTES & ESSAYS - LEAH PUYAT Leah Puyat Writer and ed­i­tor

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.

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