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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.