On what would turn out to be the coldest day in May, Liu Wen, China’s proudest Supermodel export, is waiting patiently on the corner of Houston and Lafayette for her ride up to Brimfield in Massachusetts. She’s about to embark on a 3-hour trip to “the largest outdoor antiques show in the world“, a place as vast and impenetrable as twenty three cow fields, that stretches over a mile long and a few hundred yards on each side of Route 20, with over 6000 dealers and 130,000 visitors per show. Liu is used to the crammed little vintage shops in the city, but what I have in store for her today is a far cry from her tomboy uniform of boyfriend jeans, motorcycle T-shirts and leather jackets. This will be a die-hard initiation into a world where beads, feathers, sequins, colors, folklore and pretty dresses reign. Besides her shiny red shoes, there will be nothing left standing.
If it had been warmer I fear we would never have found parking, but the man with the $3 sign waves at us like a raving lunatic, making sure we don’t pass up his luscious backyard for the $5 parking lot closer to the field. It’s as good a bargain as any, I say, and a comforting indication of the kind of cheap shopping we’re about to experience. And so we’re off, headed straight for the Fashion Tent, appropriately located by the entrance. As soon as I introduce my team to the first vendor, asking if we can shoot a look on Liu, word starts to travel. Tales of Endearment is no stranger to these people, and neither is Vogue magazine, who have graciously decided to cover our trip on their home page. We sail through the Tent like celebrities, braving every bit of vintage square meter we can cover. We grab a few pieces from each vendor and run to find backdrops at furniture dealers. Everyone is surprised but delighted to hear our story. No explanations, just smiles, cheers and a lot of instagrams.
“I never imagined there would be so much to see and buy!” laughs Liu when we break for a lobster roll lunch. “From clothes to furniture to the most random items, anything I can think of is here!” Vintage is not big in China, but it’s becoming more popular, “especially in Bejing,” she declares. “There have been a series of vintage shops that have opened to cater to the vintage shopper recently. One of my favorites is DDR Vintage.” Liu is from Yongzhou, a small town – in Chinese terms this means a mere six million inhabitants – three hours South of Bejing. She entered a modeling competition at the request of her mother, “to improve my posture” and because “the grand prize was a laptop.” A few years later she is the face of Estee Lauder, the first model of Chinese decent to walk the Victoria’s Secret show, and has campaigns for Calvin Klein, Dolce & Gabbana, Alexander Wang and Oscar de la Renta under her belt. “I still feel like a normal person,” she says quietly, “but I have to admit that nowadays in New York, Beijing, or Paris, a lot of people seem to recognize me on the street. It’s always pretty surprising when it happens, and I am still very shy about it every time.”
What’s so great about Liu Wen though is not her apparent beauty or impressive career. As the day goes on, and the cold gets worse, I find out that she’s a grounded, educated girl, with impeccable manners and a fantastic sense of humor. Even though learning English was her biggest obstacle when she moved to New York, she’s overcome any of the translation issues with infectious enthusiasm and confidence. She bursts out laughing every time we find some funny piece of antiques, talks to the vendors and other shoppers and loves every wacky outfit I put her. (Did I mention her favorite colors are black and white? There’ll be none of that today!) The energy never dwindles, even though I’m asking her to change in make-shift dressing areas in less-than-favorable temperatures. She’s having fun and it shows! By the time we leave the fields she’s managed to get a present from a generous vendor – a black suede crochet cardigan from Almost Antiques – and a slew of new fans. Back in the car she tells me: “I had soooo much fun! Before I went to the antiques fair, my idea of ‘buying vintage’ was always from a tiny store. However the Brimfield market completely opened my eyes.” I know we only skimmed the surface – it’s impossible to do the entire market in one day – but it was a mission well completed.
Many thanks to Chris Gay at Marilyn Agency, Daniel Lutz for driving and carrying all our stuff, all the vintage and furniture dealers in Brimfield for being so generous and helpful, and Meredith, Caroline and Kori at Vogue for supporting our story.