Thursday, June 05, 2008


 The King is dead. Bells are clamoring all across Fashion Land heralding a great loss. We all know it would happen one day and we imagined that when it happens, there will be a tremendous mourning for no one has ever reigned supreme. Mere mortals like me, feel that immense void, knowing that we have lost a most incredible artist - a genius in our midst. Mere mortals, like me, know how we have been blessed with knowing this man. He has touched us deeply with his art. Every fashion editor, every socialite, everyone who has ever been in contact with him will have something to say, for he was truly special. He was our revered king. Even if our encounters with him were a mere light fingerbrush of his persona, we applaud in awe and bow supplicantly, knowing we have touched greatness. A mere mortal, like me, can only remember the magic of the late king.  

I arrived in Paris with only one goal and that was to be a star. I was not sure what path I would be taking towards that goal or if it was at all possible for me to be a star. But I was sure of something……I was sure I would never be a star if I did not work for Yves St. Laurent.

He is the undisputed king. The man who brought trousers to a woman’s wardrobe with his famous 'smoking'.  He is an enigmatic king, so beloved by all. 

My first stop when I first arrived in Paris was to go and look at the couture house of YSL on 7 Avenue George V. From across the street, it seemed so unattainable to me then, but I was determined to work there. Many times, I have passed through this street espying the intimidating ‘closed door’ and each time, I tried to conjure and imagine the ways that would make it possible for me to work there.

I was not star struck… was more of a yearning. I yearned to wear those beautiful clothes. I yearned to be one of the most beautiful women in Paris wearing his clothes. I yearned to be Mounia. I yearned to be Kirat. (Yves Saint Laurent’s favorite models in the 80’s) I wanted to be one of the girls that were in full pages of Women’s Wear Daily. It was dream for me and my desire consumed me. I could not imagine that I could call myself a success if I did not work for Yves Saint Laurent.

It did not happen immediately. My entry into the house of YSL went a different path. I was working for other big designers before I started working for YSL. I was what the Parisians called a “mannequin vedette” (a star on the rise). I was unknown until Thierry Mugler put me in his much acclaimed press show. You will find that the French love to discover people. They love to see raw material and they want to mold you into a piece of art. Mugler was my mentor and I would be walking all around Paris in Mugler’s clothes. I was Mugler’s girl. 

And when you are a rising star of one designer, others take notice of you. Soon I got calls from other designers who asked for me particularly and one day, I got the call from the House of St. Laurent. I was not on cattle calls anymore, wherein fashion houses see dozens of girls. I have arrived at a point where I was a special ‘call in’ to be presented to the designers. Though still young and new to Parisian fashion, by this time I was not as impressionable as I was when I first arrived. I knew how to comport myself and look the part – a beauty.

In the couple of months that I lived in Paris, I began to understand that hunger or ‘drive’, a very commendable trait for Americans is not a trait that the French admire. In fact, they abhor it.  Mystery is what attracts the French. The more they don’t know you, the more they want to get to know you. By this time, I have learned to hold back and just be. In my mind, which I had to convince myself every single day, - I am a young, beautiful model and I can shine on any runway. You almost have to walk into any fashion house thinking, ‘You need me more than I need you and it will be your loss if you do not hire me.’ Working for YSL might be the only single reverberating desire that consumed me in my early days as a model, but no one will every know it by my attitude when I walked into the house of Saint Laurent. 

I was shown to the cabine where I met Madame Munoz who ran the cabine. Madame Munoz was the key to working for Saint Laurent, if you were a model. Hundreds of beautiful girls pass through her eyes each and every day. She single-handedly gets to decide who will do the show because you will never get to see Monsieur St. Laurent without her okay. 

I was asked to wear a garment and I was shown into an all white fitting room where Monsieur Saint Laurent was sitting on an armchair and LouLou dela Falaise was hovering beside him. I was asked to step up onto the raised round fitting stall that was spotlighted. Loulou dela Falaise was very friendly and all smiles. Under those thick black-rimmed glasses, Monsieur Saint Laurent was smiling at me too, but he did not talk much.  It seemed to be just a matter of procedure. I could feel that he liked me and I could also feel a sense of excitement in both of them. I think they wanted a model just like me who is new; who can bring a different flavor to their couture show. It is standard for all designers to try one or 2 different new models each season and insert them into their regular lineup of models. It is like debut; a coming out for a new model. Usually, it is someone ‘au courant’ or very hot. It is as if to say to the whole of Paris and the other designers, “If you think this girl is beautiful –wait till you see what she would look like in our clothes. We can make her more beautiful than she ever was before.” Well, it was my time and I was chosen. I get to do the couture show with all the other cabine models and the regular line-up which included stars like Dalma. (The collection is created on cabine models –inspired by them and fitted on them. When the collection is done, clothes are distributed to the whole runway line-up and refitted for minor adjustments).

The premiers and the seamstresses were called down to bring the garments to be fitted on me. Monsieur St. Laurent did the choosing and after several garments, Monsieur Berge appeared. He is all business and did not concern himself with what was going on. He took a look at me and I see the slightest nod of approval but it seemed that his main concern was the well being of Monsieur Saint Laurent. 

I could never fathom the dynamics of their relationship. Yes, it was a business partnership – the business man and his creative counterpart. One relying on the other to survive and excel. On one hand, you had Monsieur Saint Laurent who looked fragile and extremely shy and who spoke only in a very low voice, almost in a whisper. On the other, is a very assertive man with a booming voice and a very intense stare. The combination of the two personalities struck me as odd, but it reflected a very strong symbiotic relationship. What I felt was much more than a just a business partnership and much more than just friendship. One felt as if Monsieur St. Laurent was in Pierre Berge’s ward. Monsieur Berge’s demeanor was very protective and very concerned with the slightest nuisance. It felt almost like Monsieur Berge was taking care of a child or a sick man. I think this added to the enigma of Monsieur Saint Laurent. He was not ever left alone to fend for himself. There was always Monsieur Berge. 

I thought nothing of the clothes that I was told to wear. I did what I was trained to do and that is, to look beautiful in them.  Normally, I was more aware of what is given to me to wear. When I fitted, I was already studying the clothes to know what I am going to do for the show. But there was such aura in that salon…. such mystery that I was just carried away in the process. I did the motions, but I was floating on clouds, in the midst of my dream. 

Days before the show, I told myself to relax. My dream is happening to me and I have to be ready to accept the near approaching possibility that I will realize my dream. I had other shows that were important but this was special. I am about to do the Saint Laurent show.

I was in a daze the entire day.  Something big was happening to me but I went through the day in a reverie. It was all hazy. I was emotionally invested in the show –having my own little fantasy spinning around in my head. It felt like I was in a movie and I was a Cinderella who was, at last, going to be dressed for the ball.

The show was at the Hotel Intercontinental on Rue Cambon. It was a very more intimate stage because it was a couture show; the long narrow runway was 5 feet high up from the floor. It was a very grand and elegant venue with golden gilded columns and sparkling chandeliers, with the prominent YSL logo on center stage framed by a profusion of flowers while golden chairs with crisp white covers filled the whole space. 

Someone was testing the mike and spouting out numerals in French which I understood to be the numbers of the garments. I arrived  early enough, so I stood in the back of the empty hall,  staring at the runway, imagining myself up there when the music played….
Don’t know why
There’s no sun up in the sky
Stormy weather
Since my man and I ain’t together
Keeps raining all the time.

Life is bare
Gloom and misery everywhere
Stormy weather
Just can’t get my poor self together
It’s raining all the time

When you went away, the blues walked in and met me
If he stays away, ol rocking chair will get me
All I do is pray the Lord above will let me
Walk in the sun once more.

Can’t go on….
Everything I have is gone
Stormy weather
Since my man and I ain’t together
It’s raining all the time

I walk around heavy hearted and sad
Life comes around and I am still feeling bad
Rain’s pouring down
Blinding every hope I had
This pitterin patterin
Beating and spattering drives me mad

This misery is too much for me

Can’t go on
Everything I had is gone
Stormy weather
Since my man and I ain’t together
Keeps raining all the time
All the time

I heard somewhere that pain brought out the creativity in any artist. It is like saying that to make something beautiful, they have to have a lot of suffering. We know this of Vincent Van Gogh, of Mozart and of many other acclaimed artists.  When I heard the song, in Lena Horne’s sultry and haunting voice, which was going to be played over and over again in between musical numbers, I understood him. I understood that there was suffering. I understood that he was in a lot of pain and that that pain can make you beautiful or that it can make you create beautiful things. Haunted by the music,  I was immediately transported in that frame of mind. ‘Yes, I am broken hearted and in pain but in all my suffering,… I am beautiful.’ I don’t think I will ever forget this song. It was a gift that Monsieur Saint Laurent has given to me. This gift is the knowledge and realization that one can transform the pain into creating something beautiful.

My masked pain was my yearning. My desire to succeed has given me a lot of cause for pain. The many things I have given up to be in this position all came back to me and I used all that energy and  desire and let it all flow through me and out of me. I started to really feel my yearning rather than hide it.

I went backstage to sit for my make-up where the fabulous embelliseur from Columbia, Jose Luis, started on my face.  I was a blank canvas and I just let him transform me into the St. Laurent girl. To any new model, the backstage of any designer is sacred. When you walk backstage, you will feel whether you belonged or not and that would affect the entirety of how you performed in the show. As a model, you had to imbibe the house’s character trait. You had to be loved or at the very least, be liked by the premiers and seamstresses who were dressing you. Fortunately, I did feel I belonged. Once in a while, Monsieur Saint Laurent and Loulou de la Falaise would approach and check the make-up and they looked pleased.  I finally looked at my reflection in the mirror when Jose Luis was done and I was also pleased with the result. He did a great job. There was a lot of make-up which was on the side of heavy colorful side but I looked really expensive and exotic.

Then the magic happened. I donned on my first garment and I saw a reflection of myself on the mirror. I have never seen myself this beautiful! I looked so expensive,.. so unattainable,.. so beautiful. I can only speak from my experience and this was by no means my first couture show. I have done several for many big names but honestly, I saw with my own eyes the transformation that the clothes did for me. It is his magic. It is his vision of a woman and I must admit, Yves Saint Laurent is a designer who loved women. (Even after 25 years of working and thousands of shows, I will remember this day.)

YSL couture show

It was funny but just before we were about to walk out, Loulou came to each and everyone of the models and handed us a diamond-encrusted  anklet. She instructed us to put it on our right foot if we were ‘taken’ and the left foot, if we were available. I got thrown off by that request. Even though I had a boyfriend at that time, I did not feel like I was attached, so I put it where I instinctively felt I wanted to put it…on my left foot. It is funny how that worked because it must have put all of us, the models, in the mood of seduction, whether we were aware of it or not. Of course, I was not analyzing at that time but looking back, it was indeed a clever play on the subconscious.

(Diamond encrusted anklet on left foot)

When the show started, the real movie began but for me everything was in a haze. I know that every time I walked out, the people were applauding and I was happy that I held my own beside the Mounias and the Kirats. All I remember was “Stormy Weather” over and over again and once in a while, “Numero Vingt-cing”, as we walked down the runway.

YSL couture show

YSL couture show

I also remember the ‘damn’ chandelier in the middle of the runway. We all had to make a mental note to ourselves when walking down the runway to clear that; because if you walk straight down the middle, you would have lost your hat. So I would walk down dead center of the runway but around the chandelier, I had to veer  slightly  to the right then go back to the center, after I cleared it.  It is a very subtle adjustment, but when one is nervous, it is a big task.

YSL couture show

I remember the end when Monsieur Saint Laurent walked out to take his bow during a very intense and prolonged applause. He was beside Mounia wearing the bridal number and all of the other models on stage, when someone handed him a beautiful bouquet of white lilies. The whole show was a success, except for the fact that the pollen from the flowers stained Monsieur Saint Laurent’s suit. After we all got backstage, Monsieur Berge railed at the assistant who was in charge of the flowers. He was not going to let anything happen to Monsieur Saint Laurent – not even a dash of pollen.

Celebrations all around and the backstage was in a very triumphant mood. The atelier was very happy and I knew I will be coming back.  What I did not know was that I was chosen to shoot the Saint Laurent ad with one of the biggest photographers of that time. At that time, it was between Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton. I was to shoot the ad with Helmut Newton.

Call time was a 7:00 a.m. and make-up started. Violetta, a Spanish model, a favorite of Saint Laurent was there with a German model, the other newbie like me. She was a very tall with big breasts and a square jaw. They did the German girl first, maybe because she was German and she would be a shoo-in with the famous German photographer. But minutes after she left the van, she was sent back and I was called to the set.

(Cocktail dress to be shot for the YSL ad.)

The mood of the shoot was foul. It started badly and everyone on set was on edge. My first garment was one of the garments in the show, actually one of my favorites. It was a cocktail dress made of black palette (sequins) and burgundy taffeta sleeves.It was nerve racking for me because Helmut Newton was known to have a kinky side to his pictures. He was into S&M (sado-masochism) and I did not really know how this style of his would translate into a YSL beauty ad. I also really did not know what to expect, as it was my first time working with him. However, my desire kicked in and I really wanted to please Monsieur St. Laurent. It was a great honor to be chosen above all the rest of the models to do the ad campaign.

I had on a feathered hat or accessory that looked like a giant sea urchin on the middle front of my head. And the sleeves of my garment looked like insect wings. Helmut Newton put me on a ledge and I spread my arms to show the shape of the sleeves. And then I did the unthinkable. When models are in front of a camera, the first thing they position is their faces so it will show them in a good light. But I knew that this photographer would not want a normal photograph. So I posed with my head down so the hat partially covered my face.  I think I caught Helmut Newton’s attention and he started shooting silently. Never did I show my eyes or my full face to him. I gave him the details of the garment and I had a feeling he was delighted that he will be able to take good pictures, after all.

Helmut Newton YSL ad 

When the shoot of that garment was over, I was brought back to the van and dressed in the garment that was on the German model while Violetta was doing her shoot. This time it was a pink dress suit with black piping.  Helmut pointed towards a beautiful sculpture of a naked woman lying on her side indicating that I should pose there. I decided to sit on her shoulders. I did not cover my face but I did not give Newton a full frontal either. I only gave him my profile. Now, I could feel the mood lifting on the shoot. There were about 6 garments. It was probably planned for us to have 2 per girl. But all of the German girl’s garments were put on me and I got more pages than anyone.  

Helmut Newton YSL ad

The pictures came out strange but they were beautiful in their strangeness. And in the next month, when we had to prepare for the ready-to-wear season, I was chosen, together with Violetta to do the season’s preview cover of Women’s Wear Daily.

The photographer was Guy Marineau of WWD. I wanted this cover so badly before and now I have it. While I was doing them, I did not remember that there was a time when this was one of the things that I really wanted to have happen to me. I am on my way, for now I am a Saint Laurent girl. I am a regular and I am treated like one of them by all the other Saint Laurent girls.

(WWD page by Guy Marineau)

(WWD page by Guy Marineau)

It is good that I have a quiet demeanor when I am working and I stay in my corner and am oblivious to the other girls. I am not perceived as a threat in a cabine that is full of rivalries and intrigue. The biggest recurring one is the drama in the cabine as to who will wear the wedding dress. Every season, it is the same story. Mounia has always held this honor but she is in constant battle with the atelier. They sometimes threaten to take it away from her but I was told that she does everything to keep it – tears, voodoo, threats. There has always been a big rivalry between Mounia and Kirat, as they were the 2 front runners. I am always caught in the middle, as I travel with these girls constantly from Rome to Paris for the couture collection. Mounia was my roommate when we were working in Rome but Kirat is a close friend who calls me ‘Anna Banana’. Maybe because we are both Asian, she has taken to me and even so brazenly told me to leave the stoic Asian group and be in the ‘sexy group.’ For the longest time in all the fashion shows, I was partnered all the time with Toko, a very tall Japanese model and the walk was always stoic. Kirat wants to claim me and put me in the sexy group with her and Dalma. We always have a private laugh because she tells me that she is always threatened by Mounia with ‘pins and dolls’ but she laughs loud and remarks, “We Asians have something stronger than any voodoo because we don’t believe in it. Isn’t that true, Anna Banana?”.  Yes , it is true, we Asians were not afraid of voodoo, we had our own ‘mojo’. That nonsense is only as strong as how much power you give it.  Asian models were always a big mystery to the French people and a staple in almost every fashion house because the one thing that Asian models provide that others can’t is exoticism.

Norman Parkinson YSL Photo shot in Barcelona

There is another trivia that I discovered about Saint Laurent and I was very amazed at this finding. You see, designers do not know our birthdays but one day just chatting with the girls in the cabine while waiting for fittings, we discovered that Saint Laurent is partial to models born between December and January. Everyone in the cabine and everyone who was working at that time for St. Laurent was either Capricorn (Mounia, Kirat, Amalia) or Sagittarius (Nicole, Dalma, Violetta, and me). Now, how could he possibly know our Zodiac signs? It was too exact to be a coincidence. The ready-to-wear show is, of course, a different story for there are 50 models hired, as opposed to 10 or 12 for couture. I am really perplexed…but maybe I shouldn’t be. After all, I am one of them who saw the magic of this incredible man.

Another big campaign I did for Saint Laurent was with David Seidner. I was the principal and had almost all the shots and I remember the most memorable shoot in the Gare du Nord. I was all made up and ready in the garment but for some reason we were not starting the shoot. We were on hold for about 45 minutes even though everyone was ready. David was very apologetic and informed me that he was waiting for a basket of violets. Huh??? Then it hit me. I am to play Audrey Hepburn, as the flower vendor in "My Fair Lady". I am very ecstatic to have done these many campaigns for YSL. 

David Seidner for YSL

There were many more shows and even trips for St. Laurent and each show was very special for me. I might not have gotten very close to him as I have gotten close to Thierry Mugler and Azzedine Alaia but I don’t think any of the other models were that close either. You could sense that Monsieur Saint Laurent lived in a different world. He is on a very high pedestal. Where we in awe? Yes. Was he treated like a god? Yes. Was he protected from interactions because of his extreme shyness and his fragile nature? Yes. He was always surrounded by a cordon of protectors and we all respectfully kept our distance.

It did not matter that he was inaccessible.  For me, it was a wonderful and special privilege to be touched by his magic. Monsieur Saint Laurent inspired me to work through my emotions and accept whatever I was feeling and still look beautiful. As a mere model, that was an important thing to learn. There was beauty. There was art. There was creativity. I can only be extremely thankful to have had the chance to work for him.  And, I bow.....