Travel & Living

In India with Simon Liberati and Christian Louboutin

In Calcutta we follow our epicurean reporters in their new adventures. Eva has an important mission: design with her friend Christian Louboutin and designer Mukherjee Sabyasachi a collection of dresses worthy of the name “Arabian Nights”. Simon, for his part, surrenders to the Bengali humidity.

I remember very well the day that Eva first spoke to me about this trip to India. It was a few days before she left to join Christian Louboutin in Shanghai. She told me, triumphantly, that we would go to Calcutta in July. I objected, saying that monsoon season was a strange time for sightseeing in Bengal. I had memories of a soaked Rudyard Kipling or Somerset Maugham. I saw curtains of rain and alcoholics on the return in full crisis of gin-malaria. Eva told me that she had already spent several summers in India, alone in the middle of the monsoon season. Besides, she knew of India only in the monsoon. The last time I was in Bombay was in the last century…

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Simon Liberati.
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Eva Ionesco.
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Simon et Eva.
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Christian Louboutin.
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Reduced to the role of accompanist I sat in a chair of the shop reading a German book on Eastern mysticism. I found in Calcutta what I had felt in Bombay: a kind of mysterious and nocturnal envelopment that cuts me off from real time and sends me into an intermediary world.

King of the Maharani Dress

 

The catch of our first class tickets is that we can only carry 40 kg of luggage per person. Fortunately the driver of the van chartered by Emirates was the size of a bodyguard. Eva, who loves luxury with the passion of a child, is in awe of Roissy's VIP lounge, trying everything at the buffet under the astonished eyes of some big Indians. There were no tourists on the Paris / Kolkata flight... Christian joins us at the layover in Dubai (he arrived from London). The Dubai airport is a haven for aging prostitutes and Bedouins wearing Nike size 50. Christian is on the plane. He is accustomed to traveling, so he falls asleep in his seat. An argument with Eva leads us to test the separating flap between our two twin seats. Finally quiet, I watch a remake of Zodiac, or the continuation of Zodiac or something that has to do with the Zodiac (serial killer active circa 1970 near San Francisco). It's raining in the movie as it cries in my heart. I wonder what Calcutta will look like. I am very worried about seeing real lepers. Eva has to work with Christian to develop a capsule collection for Indian designer Mukherjee Sabyasachi, the king of the traditional maharani dress. Christian loves India and the Indian actresses of Bollywood (other customers of Sabyasachi). I'm sure we will have fun, if Eva stops sulking.

Arrival in Calcutta. It rains like in Brittany, about 28 degrees celsius. India is cleaner than it used to be. The old Hindustan Ambassador cars have not changed. The ITC Sonar Hotel has the advantage of being on the periphery near the Sabya factory. It is an oriental palace with bay windows, gardens and carp ... Some Sikhs turbaned for the local color. Our suite is at the top. A short two-hour rest then our appointment with Christian and his staff and Sabya and his staff in the cafeteria open 24 hours.

Sabya is very elegant, with the beard and the battle-dress he looks like Fidel Castro. Easy to imagine that this young and rockstar-type is the Indian Lesage, the favorite of princesses and billionaires. With his soft, deep voice and keen eye, he reminds me of Helmut Lang in Vienna in 1995. He has the same kind of charm. A star that must delight English and American editors. The girls of the staff are very nice, especially Yasmine, a pretty Turkish woman who noticed my penchant for sweet desserts. Sabya thoroughly charms Eva, who is in a continual awe…

A Sublime Aesthetic Shock

 

Together the delegation departed for a quick visit to Calcutta. We stopped at the used book market, huge but disappointing for the discerning booklover I am. Sabya, who has flair, finds a way to find me an old illustrated book on the history of the Tollygunge Club, the most chic country club in the city created by the English. The book smells of an older India: a mixture of dust and mold. Lunch in a small historic restaurant, the king of the kebab. Greasy service, delicious sandwich, heads the hospital, tails paradise. Jump to the temple of Kali, tutelary goddess of the city and local Lourdes, then the factory. End of fun for Eva who now has to work. We leave the periphery and enter a vacant lot full of muddy holes. We go out, protected by the employees’ big umbrellas. The industrial building has several floors. Downstairs, the showroom (a temporary shop until work on the real shop finishes). Unimaginable that such a place is at the bottom of a vacant lot. This is the palace of the Salon de musique, the film of Satyajit Ray ... Huge carpets, dusty portraits, nineteenth-century furniture, on the ceiling a forest of baroque chandeliers illuminates the air saturated with perfume. A sublime aesthetic shock. Eva and I have our mouths open like a carp, discovering in mirrors with a troubled complexion the reflection of this world in trompe l'oeil. The clothes hung around are incredibly luxurious. They look like museum costumes.

The surprises are only beginning. The upper floors have different workshops, more or less obscure, more or less deep and cluttered where dozens of small hands work to make masterpieces. A single embroidery may require a month of work. Craft, the secret of true luxury in general, abounds here, as everything abounds in India. A country of 30,000 gods, some with multiple hands, can not be short of arms. They are not slaves ... It’s like they live here.

We, too, are bidding on work schedules where time is no longer measured. I have not slept for more than thirty-six hours, outside it is the storm. A torrential rain ... The night is opaque, vaporous, the mirrors become even more embroiled and Sabya, whom we have barely known for a few hours, opens a working meeting with the workshop leaders and the indestructible Christian Louboutin, whose built-up strength to resist time differences seems invincible. Eva must help choose models for the capsule collection intended for select shops in the world. Ten outfits designed to reflect the facets of Sabya’s talent but also to be worn in Los Angeles or London or Tokyo ...

It's the Bengali night and I feel like I will never sleep again. Back at ITC Sonar, dinner at one of the hotel's five restaurants in the basement. My friend Yasmine does not forget to order desserts. I drown in the sugar before going to sleep in a deep bed like a tomb.

Priests Shake in the Shadows

 

The next day, work begins again with a shoot for Eva. Reduced to the role of accompanist, I read for hours in a shop chair reading a German book on Eastern mysticism. I found in Calcutta what I had felt in Bombay: a kind of mysterious and nocturnal envelopment that cuts me off from real time and sends me into an intermediary world.

Two days later, at nightfall, taking advantage of an eclipse of the god Louboutin gone to Bhutan to cycle with his friend the king Sabya, Eva and I revisit the famous temple of Kali. Barefoot, sitting in the petals of flowers, I watch the priests shake in the dim light, one of them, a mustachioed man possessed by unknown forces, literally projects the pilgrims against the representation of the goddess, a big evil tongue that comes from the ground like a monster of pranks and jokes. The day before, we visited a group of Jain temples smeared with swastikas that looked like a desert minigolf. Calcutta is a diverse city, full of different neighborhoods, a large park. I recognize the country club of my book. Calcutta is a complicated and conservative city like the whole of India, so English from this point of view. After Kali, we will do laps in the pool of ITC Sonar. A huge silhouette dominates us, a phantom building about fifty floors high. An ultramodern future palace whose colonnades are reminiscent of the old Moscow skyscrapers. It's hot, moist, some big drops of rain falls on our heads. The lifeguard sits in his raised chair, silent and patient.

Eva enumerates me aloud all the dresses of Sabya's collection that she covets. As always with this descendant of Attila, the journey will turn into a plunder.

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Simon Liberati.
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