Couture Revolution

A tribute to madame song, the pioneering force of Chinese fashion

Text by Aric Chen

Photography by John-Paul Pietrus

Styling by Tim Lim

Tank _vol 7issue 165

Most people have probably never heard of Song Huaikuei, or Madame Song, as she came to be known. but when the history of fashion in post-economic reform China is written, it will probably begin with her.

Madame Song was a pioneer: as the Chinese representative of the French avant-garde designer Pierre Cardin, at a time when fashion in China meant Mao suits; as the hostess, at Cardin’s Maxim’s restaurant in Beijing, to china’s emerging beau monde; as an icon herself. More than two decades before du Juan, Liu Wen and Sun Feifei would grace the covers of French Vogue and other international titles of note, Madame Song started China’s first modelling school. In 1983, she organised the country’s first fashion week. This extraordinary woman created a sphere of worldly elegance and glamour in 1980s Beijing that foreshadowed China’s modern emergence as the world’s second largest, and fastest growing, luxury-goods market.

“She was very elegant, Madame Song,” Cardin told me in 2009. “She had style.” Tall and thin, with round eyes and long, soft features, Madame Song was born in Beijing in 1937. Her father, the editor of a literary magazine, once served as a secretary to China’s nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-shek. Amid the chaos of World War II, with warlords, nationalists and Communists all vying for power, the Song family travelled around China with the army as they fought against the Japanese invasion. civil war followed Japan’s surrender in 1945, and in 1949, the Communists took control of the country and declared a “New China”.

Five years later, Madame Song enrolled in Beijing’s prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts to study painting. There, she met and fell in love with Maryn Varbanov, a young Bulgarian artist who was one of Communist China’s first foreign students. Even as the government controlled its citizens’ private lives ever more closely, Madame Song managed to get permission from Mao’s Premier, Zhou Enlai, to marry Varbanov. In 1956, the two became what many consider the first Chinese-foreigner couple allowed to wed in post-revolutionary China.

In her own, understated way, Madame Song continued to be a trailblazer. After following her husband to Sofia and then Paris, she returned to China for good in 1981. The move was prompted by an encounter with Pierre Cardin, who met the couple while admiring Varbanov’s sculptural tapestries at the FIAC art fair in Paris. “We were at a dinner party at an Italian restaurant,” Cardin recalls. “It was just the moment when I was starting Maxim’s restaurant in China. And I said, ‘Would you like maybe to go back to your country?’ And she said, ‘Oh, it’s a dream, but we have no money and never are going back to my country. We are so sad.’ And I said, ‘If you would like to work in China’ – and she said, ‘Of course I’d like to go back’ – ‘I’ll give you the opportunity to be my director for my business in China and for my restaurant.’”

Cardin, who had captivated the 1950s fashion world with his space-age designs, was by then in an expansionary phase of his career, busy pioneering fashion licensing and entering new markets. “I was the first in Japan, in the 1950s,” he says. “I was the first in Mexico, I was the first in Africa, I was the first in Australia, I was the first almost everywhere – in America. I like to be the first.” Cardin’s initial foray into China was in 1979. Only three years had passed since Mao’s death and the end of the 10-year terror of the Cultural Revolution. China, under Deng Xiaoping, had just started to open its doors, but no one who saw the sea of bicycles that filled every street could ever have imagined that the country would soon be the world’s biggest automobile market. No amount of ration cards could get you a Birkin bag, and the only models to be found were model workers. Yet Cardin came anyway, with his colourful bubble dresses and hoop skirts, and mounted fashion shows in Beijing and Shanghai.

“All the press came. It was the first show by a foreign designer in China,” says Maryse Gaspard, Cardin’s longtime muse and model, and now his director of haute couture. “It was spectacular. You can imagine: Pierre Cardin’s collection surrounded by people only in Mao suits.”

Madame Song, Varbanov and their two children settled into the Beijing hotel, one of the few places where foreigners were permitted to live. In 1983, she oversaw the opening of the Beijing branch of Maxim’s at the Chongwenmen Hotel— a flicker of art nouveau decadence in Beijing’s gray communist austerity.

Maxim’s immediately became the focal point for visiting dignitaries, artists and celebrities, alongside their Chinese counterparts, who were just beginning to discover new international influences. With Madame Song presiding each night, clad in elaborate Cardin showpieces, Alain Delon, Madame Pompidou and Elizabeth Taylor all stopped by. So did Rudolf Nureyev, who was in town directing a Chinese ballet production of Don Quixote. Bernardo Bertolucci was also a regular while shooting The Last Emperor. In one of that film’s most memorable scenes, a trio of dowagers finds their leisurely boat ride interrupted by the sight of the teenage emperor partaking of his wet nurse. playing the top dowager, the Empress Longyu, was Madame Song herself.

Maxim’s was more than just a magnet for Western artists, though: it soon became a hothouse for China’s own still-nascent creative scene. Cui Jian, now worshipped as the father of Chinese rock – a rebel within an authoritarian system – first performed his legendary song “Yi Wu Suo You” (“Nothing to My Name”) at Maxim’s. There were jam sessions, fashion shows, costume revelries, gala dinners and movie wrap parties. Maxim’s was as close as one could get in Beijing to Studio 54, with its potent mix of personalities from disparate worlds. “There were so many well-known people, from both the creative and government realms, making it an unofficial centre of both politics and culture,” Madame Song’s daughter, Boryana, says. She handled the restaurant’s public relations and also helped organise Yves Saint Laurent’s first exhibition in China, in 1985.

“It was a very special period, when the cultural circle in china was just emerging and hungry for outside information,” the musician Liu Yuan adds. “Maxim’s was like a window: here was the information. It was a small group, but we came together to play and perform, and every time it was like a big party. Every day was a holiday.”

Though she eventually grew apart from Cardin, Madame Song remained active until her death in 2006. (Varbanov passed away in 1989.) As a cultural ambassador, she organised and toured Five Dynasties, a live performance chronicling Chinese history, to audiences around the world that included her friends Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone. in 2002, she collaborated with John Galliano when he included Shaolin monks in his runway show. As for Maxim’s, it is still open for business, though it lost its lustre long ago, passed over by the next generation of artists and leaders for the infinite delights of what is now a booming, cosmopolitan city. Nevertheless, it is a reminder of a woman whose story mirrors that of contemporary China, and whose legacy remains very much alive. §


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All clothes from Madame Song’s vintage archives, vintage Pierre Cardin tailored for Madame Song in the 1970s and 1980s.

Hair: Chen Tao at Tony Studio / Make-up: Daniel Zhang / Model: Ling Tang Thanks to Boryana Varbanov, Shaway Yeh, Aric Chen