Saturday, November 5, 2011

Chanel et Moi

I've had my first reporting adventure, covering an opening of a Chanel exhibit for Women’s Wear Daily. These are not words that one would normally associate with me. Maybe Target, Payless, Ann Taylor, Talbots. But not Chanel, and not the bible of couture.

But thanks to the lovely Kate McLaughlin, the queen of freelancers in Beijing, I had an assignment as a stringer for WWD.

The adventure began with getting a cab during rush hour on a Friday evening. I was rocking a Calvin Klein dress, Nine West boots, and some glass beads I picked up at Ten Thousand Villages in Alexandria. That was the best I could do with the limited offerings my suitcases could provide. Remember, we’re still living out of those suitcases from August.

To get to the National Museum of Art China, where the exhibit was held, I accosted at least three cabbies, all of whom seemed to be gesturing to me that since my destination was in the other direction, I had to cross over a major street and get the cab on the other side. Finally I found a cabbie who deigned to at least consider taking me as a fare. “70,” he said. In RMB, that’s only $11, but in Beijing, that’s highway robbery. As Bob says, no cab in the inner city costs more than 20 RMB.

“20,” I countered.
He laughed. “60,” he responded.
“You’re ripping me off!” I said. He laughed again.
“30,” I offered.
“70,” he responded. (Whoops, we were going in the wrong direction)
“Okay, 60,” I answered.

I got in the cab, steaming but also worried that he’d try to get even more out of me when he landed me at the museum. He turned out to be good for his initial ripoff amount.

I entered the throng of beautiful Chinese people flowing into the museum until I was stopped by the guards. “Press pass? Invitation?” they asked. I had neither. Heck, I had been in the country for all of three days.

I tried to call Chanel’s PR person but her phone didn’t seem to be working. “Sorry lady,” the guard said.

And then this is where I passed one of my biggest hurdles so far in China: I actually bullied my way into a press opening. I doubt very much a Chinese person would have been able to convince the guards, but I think they figured I was western and I looked determined, so, what the hell, wave her in.

In I went, into a throng of more beautiful Chinese people and a small handful of westerners. Now the task was to find the Chanel PR person. I did what any normal westerner would do: I walked up to a couple of young non-Chinese women and asked them if they knew the PR person. Of course they did. And yes, they would point her out to me when she came by. So I waited, drinking champagne and watching the crowd. Nearly everyone was wearing black, and there was a scary amount of Chanel on the thin frames of the beautiful people. The air was thick with Chanel No. 5.

After a while, I realized that standing around was getting me nowhere, so I again accosted another couple of western women, who turned out to be with Chanel and who were expecting me. After that, the evening was golden. I spoke French with the Chanel folks, including the handsome curator who wanted to wax eloquent about the artistry of Coco Chanel. I interviewed an impossibly tall actress who played Chanel in a French movie. She was beautiful but painfully thin, with a voice that made her sound more like a transvestite than a woman. Must have been lots of cigarettes.

The Chanel PR person assigned to me painstakingly walked me through the entire exhibit, and I tried to enjoy the experience even as I knew I only had 200 words to devote to the whole evening, and that I had to file those words that night.

After I made my apologies and slipped out, the next hurdle was getting a cab to get home. I raised my hand, a cab started to pull over, and a Chinese guy started to walk toward MY cab.

“Oh no you don’t,” I said, and jumped in the cab before he could steal it from me. Then I had to convince the cabbie, who was quite possibly illiterate, that the piece of paper I was holding was the key to getting me home. He was clearly confused. Meanwhile, the guy who tried to steal the cab from me was waiting for me to give up and give him the cab. I called Bob: “Can you talk to this guy?” Bob made it more clear where I wanted to go, and the cabbie somewhat sullenly started to drive.

I got home, paying less than half of what I paid to get to the exhibit, wrote my 200 words, filed the story, and had a small snack. All in all, it wasn’t too bad an evening, kind of a debutante ball for my first official soiree in Beijing’s high places.

The next day I got up at dawn and hiked the Great Wall, wearing an outfit that could only be described as very much not WWD. But more on that later.


  1. hey, i remember this photo...i won't tell anyone that we were all actually really grouchy and jet-lagged that day! Nice job on the blog so far...keep it comin'! xoxo

  2. Deb and haute couture!! How cool. Ah, Coco Chanel, the great Nazi lover. Did you know this about her? Really horrible woman, though I do like what she did for women's fashion. Did you know she was a "prostitute" or she would probably say she was a "kept woman" - something like a concubine - early in her career. In an earlier posting I wrote that I am impressed by how resourceful you are. You amaze and impress me. Hope you get lots more work! Susan