Radical chic hit Peking yesterday in the form of a Pierre Cardin fashion show held in a revolutionary hall just a few blocks from the mausoleum of Chairman Mao Tsetung. If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, it would have been impossible to believe.
In front of an audience of more than 300 Chinese textile workers and sellers, the Pied Piper of Paris fashion flaunted some of his most outrageous designs for men and women. In China, people measure clothing by the number of cotton coupons they can get from the state every year, which doesn't leave much room for fashion.
See-through blouses, dresses with sufficiently generous slashes down the sides to expose the handsome flanks of Parisian models, gentlemen in thigh-tight pants, space-age shoulder pads - all this and more was displayed to the Chinese, who took it a lot better than most of the foreigners present.
Pierre Cardin and his moving fashion show were easily the most exotic sight that has been seen in Peking since liberation. Disco music blared out in the large Hall of the Nationalities Palace on Chang An Avenue. A white stage and fashion ramp was adorned with Cardin's name in Chinese characters, and the master himself was there to personally handle nearly every detail, including the remarkable feat of persuading Chinese officials to let the uninvited press inside.
Cardin came to China last year at the invitation of several Chinese state textile concerns. Impressed by the quality of silks, cashmeres and other fabrics, his firm has decided to import large quantities for his fashion lines. Also impressed by cheap labor costs in China, Cardin also has arranged to have some of his less exotic lines produced in China for export.
The fashion show was designed to show Chinese textile workers what the world of Western fashion was like, and they sure found out. The Chinese, no doubt fully aware of the propensities of the Western press with a story like this, made sure no journalist got an invitation, and entrance was only possible by invitation. What the Chinese hadn't figured on was Cardin's own love of press coverage nor how ferocious and courageous the Peking press corps can be.
The result was 15 minutes of pandemonium at the entrance gates, as journalists traded insults and threats with the toughest-looking Chinese bouncers you ever saw. In between was Cardin, a mild-mannered and soft-spoken man who at this precise moment resembled nothing so much as the ball in a fierce game of Ping-Pong. At one point, he himself could not get back into the hall because he couldn't produce an invitation. It was at this juncture that the Japanese corps arrived in a solid phalanx and an irreversible forward movement began which could have barged through the Great Wall if necessary.
Earlier in the day, Cardin had unleashed some of his wilder concoctions on the masses. Some of his models were sent into the streets where the people of Peking provided a suitably bizarre backdrop for some fashion display pages in Paris Match magazine.
Foreign residents who saw this scene were outraged at the decadence of it all, and some diplomats who had managed to get official invitations were genuinely shocked at seeing the simple and "honestly" dressed Chinese confronted by this example of Western materialism at its most trivial.
But the Chinese weren't shocked, it appeared from the reactions among the ordinary staff workers of the Minorities Hall (and their friends who they had sneaked in to watch the circus).
For one thing, many Chinese are not quite so enamored of their simple, honest clothing as sympathetic Western friends might think. Young women seemed perfectly capable of separating Cardin's wild, headlinegrabbing costumes from the far more conservative and pleasant-looking clothing that is his main line. They liked some of the plain dresses that had pleated skirts, and all the rest was pure theater - some sort of spaceage version of a Peking opera.
In a deft and sensitive touch, possibly aimed at a future market no other fashion designer would even dream of scratching, Cardin included three Asian models (one was Japanese and the other two Eurasian) who never once appeared in anything outlandish. They wore dresses or skirts that were conservative, decorous and yet with enough flair to give the Chinese ideas for their own infant fashion industry.
Still, it was an extraordinary occasion. There have been some wild sights in China during the past year, as this country reaches out to the West to see what's going on, but it will be hard to beat the front row of comrades of both sexes in their blue cotton pants and jackets on top of two layers of long-underwear watching a slinky model from Paris swish by sans brassiere - in the flimsiest little number this side of Damascus.