Wednesday 24 April 2013

52 FLOWERS; Japanese Cherry

south kensington, london 02 

The cherry trees are in bloom all over Kensington. It is a London spring moment, when the city’s ornamental trees burst into flower before anywhere else: golden forsythia, waxy magnolia,  sugary pink almonds. In the parks and private gardens, the bushes and trees hold a grand ball, throwing their gorgeous colours against the white painted houses in the sharp spring air, as the lowly daffodils and narcissi dance beneath their grand Oriental display.

On one of these glorious days I go walking across the parks of London and find myself in South Kensington at a dress shop. I am standing in a changing room wearing an outfit I once beheld in a dream: an elegant jump-suit made of crinkly dark grey material. It is the kind of dress a fashionable extraterrestrial might wear, or a modern Joan of Arc. It fits like a glove. I am amazed by the coincidence. I have always wanted to wear a dress like this. But as I stare into the mirror I am shocked I cannot find myself. “I” have disappeared.  It feels as though the dress is wearing me, and not the other way round. I suddenly feel very uncomfortable.

This warrior outfit has been designed by the visionary Japanese fashion designer, Issey Miyake. Years ago I was invited by Issey Miyake to visit Japan as a honoured guest, with several other  fashion editors from around the world. We were entertained like royalty. I had never been treated so well in the whole of my life. Everything was paid for: our hotel bills, our expenses. When we walked into clothes shops we were told to help ourselves. Beautiful meals were constructed in our honour, elaborate courses based on the theme of autumn, adorned with small maple leaves and twigs. We were chauffeured everywhere, put on luxury trains that took us to all the major cities. We  slept in mountain lodges with paper windows, sat in cedarwood baths, visited red and gold temples.

Meanwhile, as the purpose of the visit, we attended the conference on the future of fashion where Miyake talked eloquently about the earth and the fabrics that demanded such a high price from the natural world - things which at that time I had never considered. The fabrics of Japan are unique, as are their designs. The Japanese attitude towards the material of life is quite different from that of Europe. It has a rigorous abstract aesthetic that Miyake felt was being undermined by the coarser narrative and glamour of the West. This aesthetic is expressed in a myriad ways - from the simplicity of their Zen gardens, to the innovative and elegant way parcels are wrapped, the reverence with which everyone sits underneath the cherry blossom at Springtime. The Japanese are also phenomenal consumers of rainforest wood. Rayon is their principle fashion fabric, so it was apposite that these things were being discussed.

One night in Kyoto we went to a traditional restaurant with various business men.  We sat on the floor and behind each of us kneeled a geisha girl in rigorous attire. Occasionally they would serve us food and pour out sake in perfect silence. Their stiff clothes and their painted faces and submissiveness made me feel quite uncomfortable. All the visitors exchanged glances at each other, not knowing quite how to respond to this part of our show. I am remembering this moment as I stand here in South Kensington in my fashion suit.

No one except a Japanese craftsmen could have created this kind of suit. It is made from the fabric that made Miyake famous in the West. Only Mario Fortuny in the 1920’s had worked with this crinklecut before. Evening dresses that could be squeezed into a small shape in your hand, that never need ironing, that always make you look like a million dollars. The material hugs the body instantly and lends your whole physical being a certain elegance and shape, making you shimmer in the metallic hues of gold, silver, copper, bronze, like a classical statue.

My dress was pewter-coloured, just like my dream. It fitted perfectly. It was not even very expensive. But as I looked at myself, I suddenly felt overcome with something I could not name. When would I wear such a garment? I thought.

It was then that I saw myself in a vision. I was paused on a stair, held in a certain moment. It was the stairway of a grand hotel, and there was a dark man on the dining floor below. There was a place set for me, and he was waiting. It was the moment when he saw me, would then rise, greet me and allow me to sit down.

But I am not that woman. I was never that woman and moreover, I had never wanted to be that woman. This dress was designed for someone who would serve a man, and whom a man would formally make a place for, as she descended the stair, shimmering in all her metallic colours, in all her jewels. There was an ancient agreement between them, except that I have never made it.

“It’s beautiful,” I said to the shop assistant. “But I am going to leave it.”
“It looked good on you,” she said simply.
“Yes,” I said, “I know. But I don’t have any occasion to wear it.”

That was the last time I considered fashion. For years I had worked in this world and known it in so many ways. And now it had suddenly lost all its meaning, all its alllure.

Later I walked home through Holland Park.  There was a peacock amongst the cherries and camellias and as I walked by, he opened his glorious tail. There is such beauty in the world! I thought and was filled with all the excitement of Spring. The cherry tree is an ecstatic tree. Like all the rose trees – apple, hawthorn, almond, plum and all the soft fruit trees - it has a profound effect on the way you feel. Its masses of pink blossom and its autumn-red leaves, give you, as you stand beneath its branches, a great soaring hope and inspiration for life. I have made a tincture of wild cherries, and found that one sip can give you this feeling as well. Its scented bark is a traditional remedy for the lungs, helping you to breathe more freely. Everything about this tree lifts you up, opens things up. When the peacock unfurls his tail of rainbow colour, the blossom of a tree appears at the end of a street, and as you put on a new dress, you feel for a moment transcended. And it is at that moment you find yourself on that imaginal stair.

There is a lot of power in that moment. It is a moment that millons of women fantasise about. That one moment of blossom, where the man is waiting, beholding you, finding you beautiful.
Millions of dresses pour out of the factories all over the East to fulfil that one moment. The geisha moment. It is repeated again and again. Never quite reached, never lived out. Then the tail descends, the bloom fades, the dress doesn’t fit, and you search for another, and then another. 

I am not going to be in that moment.

If we could be beautiful like the peacock, with simplicity. If we could unfold ourselves, each with our own natural beauty. Not just for this one Spring but always. Because our beauty in a cage is not real beauty. It is a glamour, a moment wherein we are stuck and doomed eternally to repeat; beheld by another, but possessing no qualities of our own, except that we adorn and serve some business that is not ours to question. Real beauty is something inner, something deeper, something more lasting. It is in the whole tree, its roots, its branches. And that whole tree has its own mystery. It is intact.

Somewhere miles from here there stands a wild cherry tree in a wood and the tincture I will make from its fruit one year later is delicious, rather like sloe or damson gin. Except I put no sugar in it, so it has an aftertaste of bitter almonds that all roses posses, a taste that lingers on your tongue, long after the fragrance has gone, that is not covered over with artificial sweetness. That taste is prussic acid. It is the poison of the rose.

This poison says that no matter how beautiful you are on the outside, no matter how many dresses you wear, or how many times the man does, or does not wait for you at the bottom of the stair, there is a price to pay, and some day you will have to pay it. That if you are smart you will pay this now. While you can. You will put your dress aside and think about the inside of your being, what treasures lie in your bones, what kind of wild beautiful hope you carry in your cells, what kind of rosy fire that will exalt us all - not just to illuminate a private fantasy, but for real.

from 52 Flowers That Shook My World - A Radical Return to Earth

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