I’m in Paris existing on hope, without a store, without a lease, without Charles.
The designers are showing the spring/summer collections in the gray of Europe’s October, rainy and so much colder than I am used to in Los Angeles. In this month, in this year, stock markets around the world will see the biggest one day drop in history. Black Monday, 1987. Maybe not the most prudent time to be beginning again, but then again, prudence is so overdone.
Wrestling my luggage from the baggage carousel at Charles de Gaulle Airport, a purse and coat on one arm, camera bag and briefcase resting on top of the bags, my thin layers of cashmere wrinkle and droop after the sleepy flight. I fell dreaming before I could take off my black boots and now my feet are swelled. Like this I trudge through what feels like miles of corridors only to stand and wait in the customs area.
What I have to declare doesn’t interest the officials. I declare I am on my own. I declare I know how to create a store that will be a fashion experience unlike any other, because I love this and need to do this. Nobody promised us a rose garden, so we’ll grow our own damn roses. Pink-washed walls because that will be pretty, and places to sit, and heaps of jewels to touch, mirrors everywhere that are back-lit.There really is a place for a rose garden.
The possibilities running through my head pop like bubbles in champagne, making me giddy even as I stand in this crowded line on aching feet. I have to stop and remind myself it’s not certain anything will fall into place. It’s not certain I can compete with the buyers from Barneys, Saks, Maxfield, Fred Segal, with all those expensive boutiques that blonde Texas wives open and then close. And most importantly, with my ex-husband, Charles Gallay. Fashion magazines once called us the Fred and Ginger of prêt-a-porter. But that dance has ended.
Finally I step into the cold, damp Paris air, lifting my face to feel the moisture. A Mercedes taxi pulls up to take me to my small Left Bank hotel. Happy that this driver stows my luggage carefully in the trunk and happy that there is not a large, helpless German Shepherd curled on the passenger side floor as so many other taxis I’ve been in through the years. I love dogs but I always wonder, don’t the dogs feel uncomfortable in the car for so many hours? Paris is a city of dogs, companion dogs on the floor of taxis, dogs laying under the tables in bistros, toy dogs carried like a fine purse, fluffy dogs on leashes held by wrinkled old men.
The driver’s radio squawks. He chain smokes and chatters in a French that sounds like old 78 records, careening past other cars as if being chased, leaning on his horn in staccato beeps, imposing his desire to drive as fast as he can and squeeze into better positions on the highway. Familiar, this routine. Charles and I did this together for so long.
Truth: I’m used to this and not used to this. Charles navigated our trips, holding our passports and tickets, credit cards and cash in a few currencies, carrying my bags, carefully counting how many bags we had and writing it down, meticulously attentive to the details of travel. He liked to take care of me; it was essential that I needed him.
Being on my own is new and delicious, but I cannot forget that I do not have a lease yet for the empty Sunset Plaza store next to Le Dome, the one across the street from Charles’s new store. Charles took over a year working with two architects to build out his store, and the property managers doesn’t want to risk another Gallay doing the same. Not that I would. I need to work.
My stomach tightens as I sit in the coffee shop at the Saint James & Albany Hotel, watching John Galliano move into his space. It’s the first day of the exhibition and I’m early, remembering nervously that I am the only buyer here without a place to sell the collections. I quickly drink a few cups of the petite espresso before gathering my camera bag, brief case and purse, holding my coat on top of the lot--wishing I had an assistant to move the heavy stuff--and move over to John.
This is years before he takes the reins of Givenchy and then Dior, yet he wasn’t ever just John. Even exhausted John was flamboyantly breathtaking, twenty-eight years old then; sunny skin, a wicked smile, dark golden hair. Others worked tired, too--gorgeous, skinny helpers hanging frocks. The whole lot of them probably hadn’t slept in days to get John’s collection pulled together, what with late fabric deliveries, pattern makers and sample makers, model fittings and ironing, price lists and then packed for the selling. John had only started four years ago, straight out of St. Martins College. He’d just been named British Designer of the Year, and he was still struggling to find backers to produce his sinuous, bias cut creations. I thought John was like Coco Chanel, like Azzedine Alaia. The bias cut, indolent quality is his signature, and at this fashion moment, it is anathema to the stark black minimalism that was so a few seasons ago.
“I’m Madeleine Gallay and I love what you do,” I say, breathlessly. Nothing matters except convincing John that I adore his clothes.
I’m looking at the most beautiful clothes I’ve ever seen and I’m helpless, coveting these languid, delicate evening dresses that are impeccably cut and tailored, sinuous and simultaneously evoking screwball comedy, Lauren Bacall and Thin Man movies. John’s working with stock fabrics to save money--he’s on his own without a backer and half-broke, but that doesn’t matter. His collection is in black and navy crepe, and lilac, cream and black silks; sensuous, all delicate. There's a purity in recognizing something that transcends the ordinary. It's strong in me, not a religious ecstasy but not dissimilar to Stendahl Syndrome, either. I would die without something beautiful and that is very different than mere style and fashion. It's euphoric and the highest human something before you worry about delivery dates or payment terms or whether the finished product will fit well.
John Galliano was what I wanted the most when I started this whole journey, and now his eyes twinkle at my extravagant oohs and aahs, not the usual thing an important fashion buyer does. Usually buyers are cool, saying, “oh, it’s beautiful” or “nice collection, John.” They promise him big orders and don’t send him orders, thinking his collection is beautiful but not “commercial” enough.
I remember to ask him business questions, “Do you have any accounts in Los Angeles or West Hollywood? I love what you do so much and it’s exactly perfect and I know, Mr. Galliano, that this will be so good. My store opens for spring, across the street from Charles Gallay. Yes, I know it’s amusing that we’ll be across the street from each other, but my store will be pink and have a rose garden. My side of Sunset Plaza is perfect for you.”
I may have said this without breathing. John leans against a table that I’d scooted my ridiculous amount of working things under. He listens patiently to my rambling. Somehow he completely understands what I say. Other stores would try to change him and make him more commercial but I would no more do that than I would ask Picasso to please tone down the cubism. I will have my store, I will have John Galliano, I will sell his fashion fantasy.
If only I had a signed lease, it would be perfect.
We grin at 9 a.m. and he says yes, and make a working appointment for an hour later. I will have a headache for the rest of the day but it doesn’t matter. I know genius and I know damn well that I’m looking at one.
I leave most of my things that are wearing me down under his table. I look better unburdened and happy. It’s been a long time since I’ve been either.