Tuesday 7 October 2014

China Flash: Benedicte Bro-Cassard, Beijing fashion photographer, on the Chinese luxury market, sugar daddies and sugar daughters

This is a greatly expanded version of an article which first appeared in Time Out Beijing.

Archive: Marpessa by Bénédicte Bro-Cassard

Bénédicte Bro-Cassard is fashion. Occasionally going by the pseudonym Gabrielle Bonheur (an in-joke for fashionisti - Gabrielle Bonheur was Coco Chanel’s formal name), Bro-Cassard is the brains and eye behind the style site Fearless In Beijing. Fearless combines stingingly hip street shots of the highly styled, label-toting girls of Sanlitun with fresh profiles of new designers and sharp commentary on modern China and modern fashion, boosted by all the wisdom gleaned from her thirty year fashion history in New York, London and Paris. Fearless In Beijing currently features in Le Monde, Vogue China, Louis Vuitton’s City Guide and mega Chinese tech site Sina.

The roaring 1980s, Alaia and his 'best girls'
by Bénédicte Bro-Cassard
Whether it’s scouting beautiful girls on the Chinese capital’s streets, covering the kitsch wedding photography industry, hunting down hilarious fakes or finding forgotten rolls of classic supermodel shots in her basement, discovery is the name of Bro-Cassard’s game. Beijing is soon to enjoy two exhibitions of around fifty of Bro-Cassard’s photographs both from her current Beijing adventures and her 1980s student days at Parisian fashion school Studio Bercot, when she hung out at the ateliers of Alaia, Montana and Dior, shooting the designers and models clowning, preening, draping and creating. I ask why Bro-Cassard almost never features herself in these images and she’s adamant: “I have four hundred pictures from my early days and there’s only one shot of me. It’s with a camera in front of my face, in a refection in a make-up table, when I was shooting one of the girls. I’d have my picture taken with my friends who were supermodels, they’d look at it and marvel, ‘Wow. You reject the light.’”

The images are notable for their classiness, the womanliness of the models and the sense of maturity, camaraderie and sleek but unexploited hedonism they exude. Some of the prints have been eroded and nibbled in at the edges by time, but the women are as chic as ever. As Bro-Cassard tells me, “Back then the cabine [the stable of models] was incredibly diverse and not so white on white as it is now, and the 'girls' were aged 17 – or 16 in the case of Stephanie Seymour – up to 34 and older, like Mounia, Janice [Dickinson] or Alva [Chinn], even pushing 40 like [Farah] Zulaikha – and 40 was pushing back hard. I have pictures of Grace Jones and Azzedine Alaia and the supermodels of 1985 playing around backstage. It was truly different then.”

Archive: Katoucha by
Bénédicte Bro-Cassard
From those early days in Paris, Bro-Cassard moved to New York where she spent fifteen years as a fashion manager, stylist and sales executive for the likes of Romeo Gigli, Fendi and Anna Molinari, “Back in the days before Sex and the City became a documentary and no longer something to laugh at for entertainment.” Next came a move to London, where Bro-Cassard was in charge of international buyers for London Fashion Week. Among her clients were commercialism-savvy design wunderkind Christopher Kane and the crisp, clever Boudicca. A move back to Paris saw her working as a fashion consultant for the Brazilian government, working with them to develop their fashion industry.

A change in family circumstances saw her coming to Beijing a few years ago, after a very brief stopover in Geneva, “where fashion goes to die.” In China, Bro-Cassard has witnessed a country in the middle of extreme and rapid transformation: malls springing up on every corner, the breakneck development and expansion of major cities, prestigious French and Italian brands unveiling glossy new boutiques and advertising campaigns, the high taxes on luxury items hardly deterring a young and newly rich populace hungry for everything their parents never had. Bro-Cassard was immediately captivated: “I spent a year studying the streets, going everywhere that there’s a market selling clothes, to find out what the Chinese wear, what makes them tick. And I just fell in love with these girls, because they were so cool. I began documenting the girls and the fashion habits of the young Chinese. They’re free. It’s not even like the Swinging Sixties here. It’s the Roaring Twenties, where money can be made overnight. They party, they have fun, there’s a curiosity. They’re fearless – that’s why I named my site after them.”

Image from Fearless In Beijing
by Bénédicte Bro-Cassard

Image from Fearless In Beijing
by Bénédicte Bro-Cassard
Bro-Cassard tells me that her appreciation of these young women is genuine. They are not the empty, uncreative consumers they are represented as in the international media. “The gorgeous thing is that they’re never vulgar, never cheap. The [pejorative] fantasy of these young Chinese women is that they are logo hungry, stupid rich girls. But I think they’re more fun, more clever than that. They take more risks. Then I go back to Paris and everyone’s dressed in black.”

Despite Bro-Cassard's positivity, I’m disturbed by some of the young women I see in Sanlitun. While some are the cool, creative, independent type that can be found in any major city in the world, others are dolls - which I Freudianly mistyped there as 'fools'. They are in designer labels, perfectly coiffed, photo-ready, made up, silent, styled and accessorised, just walking slowly from one end of the Taikoo Li shopping ‘village’ (trans: huge black futuristic mall) to the other. They don’t sweat, even in the roasting 100-degree summer heat. Apparently they have nothing to do, no studies, no work, no projects. They don't talk or laugh with their friends. They mill about, gorgeous and passive, waiting to be noticed, photographed or picked up - and when Bro-Cassard and I stop them to ask for photographs, they offer themselves up as passive objects to be snapped, without a single word. They don’t ask us what blog it is, who’s running it, who’ll be reading it. They don’t tell us anything about themselves as people, nor do they ask questions of us as people, nor do they crack jokes. They’re not confident, they’re not coy, they don’t simper, they don’t frown, they don’t laugh, they down clown around. They simply pose, like hollow plastic mannequins, inert and endlessly compliant. When we ask one girl to pretend to be texting, because we want to get a shot of her iPhone case – Moschino, rubber, styled to looked like a packet of McDonald’s fries, available in the shops maybe only last week – she does, without a word, putting her thumbs to the blank screen and pretending to concentrate. When we say thank you the girls drift away, down the escalators.

Image from Fearless In Beijing
by Bénédicte Bro-Cassard
Where did these girls get their money from? Why are they copying their looks wholesale from fashion magazine spreads? What do they do all day? Beijing is the first place I’ve seen teenagers walking on the street wearing real Chanel from head to toe. Who are these girls waiting for, going to or coming home from? “Their daddy, or their boyfriends, or their sugar-daddies,” says Bro-Cassard. We stop another young woman, striding in spindly gold high heels and a long printed chiffon dress, clearly in a rush. “Er – she was late for a date. That she was being paid for,” says Bro-Cassard after quickly snapping a shot.

She tells me not to judge: “Years ago, nobody had food. Twenty years ago, nobody had money. They’ve had famine, purge, cultural revolution, which is the earth opening up and everyone falling into hell. So there is no concept of nouveau riche. Nobody ever had money. I’ve been to the countryside in China, it’s fucking poor. It’s real, it’s a favela. I went to our ayi’s [maid’s] house, it was 2 rooms, no kitchen, no bathroom, far out of the city beyond the ring road, but it has pictures, it as a light. [Internal] migrant workers are even worse off, they’re like the untouchables in India. In summer they sleep in the streets. In winter they sleep in parking lots. But because it’s China, it’s all behind closed doors. I once wandered into the back corridor of a shopping mall and there were people living there, ayis were sitting knitting.”

“Whatever money you have, you know that little brass ring is gonna burn your finger sooner or later, so enjoy it while you can. Of 1.4 billion people, only a tiny amount will make it. Because they are so scared, they know they can lose it at any moment. So these girls live to spend. And they have no religion, although the government is beginning to address that: how do you give values to a society that has no value except money? As far as these girls are concerned, they’ve made it.” Bro-Cassard reminds me, “This is the first generation that gets to dress how they please. They are expressing themselves with their clothes. Their mothers were raised by their grandmothers, who looked like their grandfathers.”

Image from Fearless In Beijing
by Bénédicte Bro-Cassard
"One thing I’ve realised, living here," she says, “is that if someone seems rich, he’s even ten times richer than you think. Imagine, you’re a young woman, your father was just a farmer. He sold his land for a factory to be built on it, now he’s worth so much.”

Despite this sudden spike in wealth creation, I balk at the gender politics and power structures of the newly moneyed world and the way it has warped girls’ and women’s lives and led to such demeaning survival strategies. “Men have the power here,” states Bro-Cassard. “Girls hang out looking for sugar daddies. This is the second-largest market for plastic surgery in the world, after Brazil. Their mentality is that they need somebody to pay for their life. If you’ve come from poverty and suddenly your boyfriend or father gives you a credit card with no limit, you burn through it.”