Empress and I

April 27, 2024

Like a pair of aristocrats, we sipped on Italian water, debating whether the blanc gomme or gris antarctique Paris loafers were more beautiful as I spoke in French with the Russian woman next to me.

        Roaring down the ancient cobblestone roads that weave throughout the labyrinthine streets of Rome, my mother and I nestled closely in the snug confines of her dear friend Valentino’s crimson convertible. It was past midnight, and we rushed in and out of narrow alleyways and the grand expanse of the once-magnificent marble structures that adorned the city. My eyes etched memories into my mind as we passed the epochal sights of the Roman Colosseum, Castel Sant’Angelo, and 17th-century Baroque palazzos that shone from the dim yellow lamposts decorating the sidewalks. Once we finally stopped in front of a small salon, I inched out of the tiny vehicle and inhaled the crisp embrace of the night. Here we were, amidst the mythical city of Rome, and what was the first thing my mother and I were doing? Getting an expensive haircut. Valentino beckoned us to our thrones of velvet as he caressed our ebony locks of hair, his silver scissors poised in anticipation. Snipping away it took him barely an hour to complete both our haircuts, yet the result was incredible. With each snip of the scissors, my mother shared stories with us as we all laughed and bonded over the arrival of my mother and me in a new city, together.
        Since I was a toddler, my mother has been jetting off to destinations abroad, taking me with her as her little accomplice. I was always encouraged to cherish the finer things – not because of our inherent wealth, but because my mother had a keen eye for beauty and elegance. Growing up with a single immigrant mother, it was a sacrifice for her to be able to take me abroad, yet she treasured my pursuit of knowledge, the importance of understanding different cultures, and most of all – the art of enjoyment. Consequently (but not unexpectedly), I learned the European Fashion Houses before I could even master my multiplication and division tables.
        At home, my childhood playgrounds could be found at my mother’s favorite stores: Neiman Marcus, Mulberry, Ferragamo, and Carolina Herrera. Abroad, we would peruse and play at her other favorites: Brunello Cucinelli, Moncler, and Louis Vuitton. Ushering me to the dressing room, we would try the extravagant garments on together. I would awkwardly stand in front of the mirror waiting for her to examine me, desperately seeking her affirming yesses. A haughty figure worthy of both fear and reverence, my heart shattered when I was met with scorn and disdain rather than praise. Like an empress whose decrees are absolute and irrevocable, my mother’s opinions of the fabrics that clung onto my skin would determine my self-worth and our sentiments for another. Craving her compliments and validation, her adulation for me was often heard when we were both elated and felt at ease from our travels. Shopping made it easy to accomplish that.
        As such, our conversations while shopping always had a deeper subtext – an unspoken dialogue about unresolved issues and unspoken emotions. The way the conversation flowed and the tone of our remarks subtly defined the status of our relationship for the weeks to come, without the need to say our actual feelings directly. “That color is beautiful on you” marked a moment of reconciliation during a phase of aggression, while a deeper indication of an apology emerged when we both agreed that a particular dress was, in fact, rather unflattering despite the designer label. Hence over the years, the dressing room also became a sanctuary of sorts – a refuge of maternal intimacy and connection.

        My mother and I traversed the long winding street daring to enter a storefront gazing through the windows of stores of foreign names, from Goyard to Miu Miu, displaying their newest collections of luxurious delights, At last, we paused in front of Hermes and dutifully waited for our turn to go in. Behind us, a woman wearing noir fur gloves and a stunningly blue purse clicked her boots. Eyeing her bag, I pondered where I had seen the specific design of her purse. Glancing through the pristinely clean glass windows, I realized: it was a palladium blue Kelly bag. A real Kelly. “Welcome to Monte Carlo,” I mused. Observing this woman’s perfectly blown-out hair, thousands of dollars worth of Van Cleef necklaces and Cartier bracelets, I looked at my mother and shared an expression of beguilement. 

        As we stepped into the store, my eyes were dazzled by Kellys and Birkins worth more than the mind could fathom. Rare leathers and silk scarves, carefully handcrafted by artisans, lay there on display for all those who were worthy (and wealthy) enough to look at. Touching the exquisitely soft fabrics of monochrome cashmere, my mother and I quietly commented to one another in a delightful mix of Chinese and English about what we thought to be chic. Like a pair of aristocrats, we sipped on Italian water, debating whether the blanc gomme or gris antarctique Paris loafers were more beautiful as I spoke in French with the Russian woman next to me. Yet as much as I cherished this memory for myself, I must accept that my experience was not solely mine. I often erase my mother as a significant aspect of my favorite experiences when traveling as a defense mechanism and reaction to our fraught relationship. This habit originates from an ingrained fear of ruining a treasured memory with the negative sentiments that I associate with my mother as we often have an unspoken tension between us. But I wish that it wasn’t so. Perpetually yearning for deep, heartfelt conversations with my mother, I long for a mutual understanding and emotional connection with her. Yet, this dream always feels elusive. However, I’ve come to understand that her ways of expressing her love and tenderness for me were always there. In our moments of uninterrupted togetherness such as this, soaking in the opulence of our lavish European shopping expedition, our affection for each other was greater than ever.

        With every fancy dressing room we now shimmy into, I release any harbored resentment towards my mother. Trying on pieces that we know we may never purchase until we inevitably do, naturally brings out her inner critic. But as she presents a better item, I realize that she comes from a place of love and protection. Words are not needed to express the depth of our connection. The silence excavates more about my mother, the lofty price tags a background for my growing appreciation for her. She raised me to relish the finer things and to expect the best because I deserve the best. Our methods of connecting through materialistic means do not diminish the authenticity of our relationship and love for one another. Amidst our materialistic tendencies, I love and appreciate our shopping habits not for the sake of merely adding more clothes or jewelry to my collection, but using these moments as opportunities to unearth more about my mother – and, by extension, myself. ■

Layout: Cristina Canepa
Photographer: Sarah Poliuc
Stylists: Bella Muñoz & Divya Konkimalla
HMUA: Emely Romo & Srikha Chaganti
Models: April Chiu & Kani Manickavasakam

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