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Most memorable couture seasons? Perhaps Spring 2000, when Dior’s John Galliano shocked with his infamous ode to the homeless while Karl Lagerfeld showed Chanel at the Bois de Boulogne, just after its lushness had been ravaged by winter storms? Spring 2002, the season of Yves Saint Laurent’s peculiar finale? Or fall 2007, when Valentino staged his two-day 45th anniversary in Rome?
They’ve all slipped a notch on my list. My new most memorable couture season: spring 2014, when I experienced a new venue — lockup — while in the custody of French Immigration Police.
The season began as any other: Five minutes late for pickup. My editor already in the car. JFK. Board the plane. Call to my daughter. Reading. Catch-up TV. Sleep. Morning and a slightly late arrival, but no matter — our first appointment wasn’t until 4:30, and we’d avoided turbulence. At least in the air.
We walked into a happily empty French Customs hall. The Customs officer looked at my passport, turned the pages back and forth, looked up at me. Looked down. Turned page. Looked up. Lather, rinse, repeat. A faint bell of oh, no. Before the last rtw, I’d heard casually that France disallows passports less than three months from expiring. Mine expires on Feb. 20. My former assistant, the recently promoted Lauren McCarthy, reminded me several times to renew. I yessed her, and then promptly forgot. Until now.
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The officer left his half-glass booth, passport in hand. He disappeared behind a door that opened onto a world foreign to me: the wrong side of law enforcement. Foreign, that is, until that morning of Jan. 19, when I was escorted in.
Beyond the door, an elevated desk manned by at least two armed officers at a time anchored a drab civil service office. Uniformed types with “POLICE” on their backs and guns on their hips came and went, often stopping to kiss-kiss or shake hands in greeting and engage in small talk. This as an international array of miscreants crowded a bench, a single chair and cramped floor space. The exasperated countenance of a woman in African garb telegraphed she’d been there a while. A man with an accent I couldn’t place started telling me he’d been detained because of a DUI in the U.S. 20 years ago, his voice thick with surprise and disgust. Sorry to hear that, sir, but I’d like to mind my own business in front of the officers. Still in possession of my handbag, wheeled carry-on and phone (its battery on the wane), I called my editor Ed Nardoza, already downstairs at the baggage carousel. The reception terrible, we started texting.
“For how long?”
“What’s going on?”
The passing time made me hopeful; surely this was being worked out. After 45 minutes or so, an attractive female officer emerged to explain that, my passport unacceptable, I had two choices: leave the country immediately or spend a night at the Police Hotel and try to procure a new passport tomorrow. At first civil, she flipped on the passive-aggressive switch when I asked a question. My first reaction: leave. I wasn’t feeling for the Police Hotel, and the next flight would have me home for the AFC Championship Game. But I was here to work.
“I should speak with my boss first. He’s downstairs. Can I call him to discuss?”
“No! We’re busy here.”
“May I use the restroom?”
“No! We’ve got to work here!”
She disappeared down the corridor and that was that. For another hour or so, I continued texting Ed, who wanted me to stay and try to sort things out in the name of couture. I convinced myself that maybe tomorrow I could get a same-day passport at the American Consulate. Still, I favored immediate exit.
Time passed. Forty-five minutes? An hour? I was directed to a small, innocuous room where two officers, a man and a woman, sat at desks. Their English was fine, but they worked with an interpreter anyway. I was told I was booked on a flight home on the 21st — two days away. “What about the option to leave immediately?” One officer pointed out that I’d said I wanted to stay. No, I’d asked for five minutes to speak with my boss, and now it seemed that the decision had been made for me. I inquired about the likelihood of getting a passport in a day.
“You’re an American. You’re not from a dangerous country. So you can try.”
“What are the odds?”
“Don’t know. You can try. But you just can’t go anywhere. You have to stay at the Police Hotel.”
“But I can’t get a passport without going to the Consulate.”
“You’re not from a dangerous country, so maybe.”
“And by the way, what’s the clientele like at the Police Hotel? I’m used to the George V.”
A piece of paper was put in front of me to sign, saying that I had agreed to leave on the 21st — which I hadn’t. Among the points covered in haste: I was entitled to medical care and a lawyer. There was no mention of the methodology of reaching the outside world once my cell phone died. I was told I could keep the phone and my laptop at the hotel. (Apparently inaccurate.) Once again, the “not from a dangerous country” refrain, and word that if I couldn’t get a passport, I could leave tomorrow, despite the flight already booked for the day after. I hesitated, but rather than irritate the officers by questioning further, trying to decode some of the written details (oh, my shameful lack of French!) or insisting on a translated version, I caved to the unsubtle pressure and signed.
It never occurred to me to ask for a lawyer. This passport snafu was a mistake — my mistake — but an obvious mistake by someone who’s visited France four times a year for 15 years. They know I’m not dangerous. They know it’s a mistake.
The next several hours turned into my own little “Midnight Express,” only the issue wasn’t hashish in Turkey but an inadequate U.S. passport in France. I waited and waited, at first in that oddly populated outer room. At one point a tall redheaded man working a low-key arty look came in. “I can’t begin to explain what’s happening to me,” he said into his phone in American English. “I think you and I are in the same club,” I told him when he hung up. The man, decorator Douglas Little, had come to Paris for a client installation; his passport was two days short of the three-month minimum. Where the various other detainees all fell on the security scale, who knew?
With nothing to do but think, I wondered what marks someone as a potential security threat, and the distinctions, official or otherwise, made between “safe” and “dangerous” countries. Is merely hailing from one of the latter cause for lesser treatment? Though I obviously didn’t sit in on anyone else’s questioning, I wasn’t witnessing gradations of treatment. We were all treated equally, if unpleasantly so.
In the moment, a more visceral human rights issue prevailed. After my initial request, over the next three hours I would ask three more times to use the restroom. Each time, I was refused because, “we have to work.” The last time came after two female officers took me into another back room where they donned plastic gloves. For a horrific second, I saw a cavity search in my immediate future. Instead, the officers went through my handbag and carry-on. They opened my makeup case, inspecting each item more than once, particularly fascinated by a brow compact the size of a half-dollar. They pulled out my travel blanket and new Prada bag, tossing them on the floor. They unzipped the lining of the suitcase, attacking its innards. They demanded an explanation of my Aetna card. They counted out my U.S. cash to the penny (less than $20), but missed the envelope with 1,000 euros until I pointed it out upon realizing that this was a pre-confiscation count. The blonde officer lingered over a “Downton Abbey” DVD, pointing to her favorite characters on its cover. I was told I could keep my phone but not my laptop.
Back to the bathroom: Privilege denied — no, make that usage denied; voiding is a bodily function, not a privilege. The “Downton” fan said, breezily, “Not now; maybe later.” For the first time, annoyance (and abdominal discomfort) trumped fear. “I have been asking to use the bathroom for three hours; I’ve had to go for longer. If you don’t let me go, I’m going to have an accident.” “OK,” she shrugged, and walked me no more than 10 steps. “It’s there.” By 11:30 a.m. the bathroom was already disgusting, a lock-less cubicle with no toilet paper and the festering smell of urine. The convenient location drove home that there’s only one reason to deny someone bathroom access: because you can, and the only reason to do that is to dehumanize her or him. Appalling, particularly as it seemed a systemic policy rather than the call of a single cop with a shoulder chip. (Later in the day, a guard proved more amenable to bathroom requests. The toilet paper was never replaced, and the smell became revolting.)
I went from les toilettes to la lockup — a filthy holding cell shut off from the outer office by a large metal door with a small window. According to Douglas’ best professional estimate, the room was about 18 by 18, with a grim tile floor and metal mesh ceiling that exposed all kinds of infrastructure what-have-you. The decor was grime and graffiti in numerous languages with varying degrees of depth and artfulness, with quotes — “No One is Stranger in This World”; “Every Body Say No” — and drawings that ranged from the African continent encased in a heart to a leprechaun head that looked like the Notre Dame mascot. An ancient, germ-infested phone hung on one wall. (No one explained that it was for the detainees’ use; you had to figure it out once you got past the fear. You also had to hold the cord just so, and even then, the static was near impossible.) I so wanted to take pictures, but feared a cop would look through the window at exactly the wrong time and I’d do hard time.
I shared the cell with a Mexican woman, a man from Jordan and a woman I assume was also from Jordan. Only the Mexican woman had anything other than the clothes on her back and a phone; she managed to retain possession of an issue of Hello! magazine with Charlotte Casiraghi on the cover. Later, an African man arrived. The Jordanian man spoke English. He told me he’s a famous singer back home, and that he’d been traveling from Amman through Paris to the U.S. He’d made a last-minute destination change — either from Houston to New Jersey or the reverse, I couldn’t discern which — which didn’t sit well with security. “I’m a singer,” he maintained with indignation. “Don’t take it personally,” I told him. “I’m an American who comes to Paris often, and I’m here with you.” “That’s what I told her,” he pointed to the woman with whom he’d conversed. “I said, ‘Look at her. Pure American, and she’s here.’” He was pulled out for his flight back to Jordan, after which came a long silent stretch (but for various phone calls on the wall atrocity) as language barriers prevented communication beyond sympathetic glances. At least until Douglas arrived, and he and I played jailhouse getting-to-know-you.
About 15 miles away, in the center of Paris, Ron Wilson, who runs Fairchild’s European offices, was calling the U.S. Embassy in search of weekend contacts. Our divine driver Gerard tried a contact he had — a friend in Customs — to no avail. Ron would inform me that the Embassy observes U.S. holidays. With tomorrow Martin Luther King Day, hope waned.
At 4:15 or so, Ed and Miles Socha set out for Rue Cambon, Chanel and our seasonal up-close dose of the wit and brilliance of Karl Lagerfeld. I was conspicuous by my absence.
The explanation: “In custody.” According to my colleagues, I can claim the honor of Karl proclaiming my situation “a cultural scandal!” Followed by, “But what can I do?”
Meanwhile, I, along with several of my cohorts in lockup, was called out for transfer to the Police Hotel. Only Douglas stayed back; he’d opted wisely to go home immediately and was now booked on the 7:10 Air France. Out in the lobby, I asked why that option had been taken off the table for me. That triggered another you-chose-to-stay-no-I-didn’t exchange until I was told, “Go to the hotel and you can tell my colleague there if you want to leave tonight.”
Three cops escorted the motley offenders out of the airport and into a van. In less than 10 minutes we arrived at our supposed place of lodging, gated by about 20 feet of iron bars. An officer directed us to the rear of the van to fetch the carry-on baggage that had been returned to us. I took mine, walked around the left side of the van and got yelled back; I was supposed to walk to the right of the van.
The lobby was so depressing, smelly and dingy, I couldn’t imagine what the rooms looked like, let alone their likely infestation situation. I knew I couldn’t stay there. A young officer called my name. We went over the whole story: the bad passport; “you’re not from a dangerous country”; “the law is the law.” I told him I wanted to leave tonight, and that someone at the immigration office said that could be arranged from the hotel. “Once you come here,” he said, more polite in his delivery of bad news than others had been, “you stay for four days.”
That was it. I finally woke up and said the magic words: “I want a lawyer. I come here four times a year. If I were a threat, I’d be on a watch list. Everyone acknowledges that I made a mistake, but I’ve still been treated like a criminal all day long, and told different things by different people. I want a lawyer, and my company will help me get one.”
Coincidence or not, within 10 minutes I was booked on the 7:10 to JFK. After another bag search and a recount of my money, I was taken back to the airport immigration office, where they didn’t return me to lockup. Instead, I sat in the waiting room’s lone chair; an Arab family of five — parents, grandmother and two toddlers — had claimed the bench. I’d been able to charge my phone for a few minutes at the hotel, and texted my family: “I’ve been sitting all day, and will be going home in an hour.” My brother Michael answered with the advice to “walk the aisle,” as excessive in-flight sitting can lead to a fatal embolism. Thanks, Michael. My day wasn’t crappy enough without layering in fear of death by embolism?
Around 6:40, Douglas (fresh from lockup) and I were reunited as we set out for our flight home, each with our own police escort. “At least we should breeze through security,” I said. We did. As we neared the departure gate, one of the cops got a call. “Brigitte Foley,” He repeated my name, “Brigitte Foley, oui, oui. OK,” he stopped us. “You, go,” he motioned to Douglas to go with the other officer. “You, come with me.”
Back at the immigration office, I waited for an hour or so. “What’s going on?” I asked of the desk officers. “We’re waiting for word from Paris.” One let me charge my phone at the desk. He was — nice.
And then came the word “from Paris”: “You can go.” Eleven hours into this most bizarre day, I was handed my passport, released and directed toward an exit. Along the way, I found a restroom, where I experienced the haute luxury of toilet paper. I walked through baggage claim, strangely empty for 7:45 p.m., and into the dark night where I took the only taxi in sight. I was greeted warmly at the hotel — “We heard you had some trouble” — and settled into my room, spent but just in time for the opening NFL kickoff on a French sports channel.
What happened? Karl’s declaration of “What can I do?” had not been rhetorical. The answer: whatever was needed. The man brilliantly designs umpteen collections a year for three houses. He maintains a serious photography career. Oversees a book-publishing house. Creates countless one-off design projects. Makes short films. And, as of Jan. 19, Karl Lagerfeld dabbles in diplomacy. Two days before the Chanel couture show. During fittings. Models dressing and undressing, seamstresses pinning, Karl approving the fit of each corset and the selection of each indulgent haute sneaker.
In the midst of it all, he conspired to unleash Chanel president Bruno Pavlovsky and Mme. Marie-Louise de Clermont-Tonnerre, the house’s directeur général des relations extérieures (and the last word in chic), on the government of France. Suddenly I had all of the power, influence and kindness of the house of Chanel lobbying on my behalf. While details remain vague, I now know that late on Sunday afternoon, Mme. de Clermont-Tonnerre spent upwards of two hours negotiating on my behalf with the cabinet of France’s Ministre de la Culture et de la Communication, Aurélie Filippetti. And I know that it worked. At Dior the next day, W’s Stefano Tonchi, whose Chanel preview followed WWD’s, was still incredulous. “What’s that movie where they get the people out of Iran? ‘Argo’! It was like ‘Argo’!” he proclaimed.
My personal takeaway: Should I ever be stopped by law enforcement personnel for anything, for crossing against the light, my first words will be: “Officer, I’m so sorry.” And my second: “I want to call a lawyer. Or Chanel.”
On a larger scale, no bathroom, no answers, no option but a four-day stay in the Police Hotel. I experienced how dignity can be stripped away.
What of my fellow detainees, especially those not from “not dangerous countries?” Some may have posed genuine security threats, or maybe someone had a 20-year-old DUI still on the books from his teen years. Most had no choice but to be pushed through the harsh bureaucratic pipeline and into the Police Hotel. After that, who knows?
The couture season proved strong, but I looked forward to going home. On Thursday morning, I approached Passport Control armed with my brand new emergency documentation procured the day before. “You have a new passport,” the officer said. “There was an incident…,” I started to explain before realizing that here sat one of my captors. “I know,” he nodded before waving me through, smiling like an old friend.