Late Chinese artist, influencer and Pierre Cardin collaborator Madame Song celebrated in slightly overdone M+ museum exhibition in Hong Kong

The approach to M+ museum from Elements mall is currently lined with a series of posters, which begin with the question: “Who is Madame Song”?

Further posters provide answers: “Artist. Entrepreneur. Fashionista. Influencer.”

Song Huai-kuei (1937-2006) might have been puzzled by some of those labels but, in its latest special exhibition “Madame Song: Pioneering Art and Fashion in China”, M+ is keen to position her as a strong woman for our times.

Her life, however, was undoubtedly shaped by two men – her husband, Bulgarian artist Maryn Varbanov, and the French fashion designer Pierre Cardin.

Song Huai-kuei in a Pierre Cardin evening dress at Maxim’s Beijing in the mid-1980s. Photo: Yonfan

Varbanov, who specialised in fabric sculpture, met Song in 1954 when, as a student, he came to Beijing where Song was studying at the Central Academy of Fine Arts. Their marriage in 1956 was the first between a Chinese citizen and a foreigner since the founding of the PRC.

By 1958, they’d moved to Sofia with their daughter, Boryana, and later had a son, Phénix.

M+ museum shines spotlight on Madame Song, early Chinese fashion influencer

The exhibition includes a late 1960s painting she did called Family Portrait: shadowy adults in the background, two beaming children in front. The caption describes how the parents are offering a protective screen but, at least to this viewer, the woman looks distorted and sombre.

She was certainly seen as “the other”; the show has brief clips of her exemplifying the exotic female in Bulgarian television dramas.

At the same time, she wrapped herself (literally, judging by a 1971 photo from the 5th Lausanne International Tapestry Biennial) in fabric artworks co-created with Varbanov.

Although the show includes a few of her own fabric works, and some mid-1970s sketches that resemble female genitalia and may indicate feminist stirrings, to claim – as the title does – that she had a pioneering role in China’s art world is a bit of a stretch.

Song Huai-kuei’s “Composition in Rose” from her “Butterfly” series on show at M+. Photo: May Tse

It was Varbanov who established the Institute of Art Tapestry Varbanov in 1986, at what is now the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou; two years later, the Institute organised a contemporary Chinese tapestry exhibition at the Hong Kong Arts Centre’s Pao Galleries.

One of her works (Composition in Rose) was displayed. It’s in the M+ exhibition along with another work from her “Butterfly” series. The title reinforces a suspicion she never fully emerged from her artistic chrysalis.

Fashion in China, on the other hand, was beginning its post-Mao flutterings. In December 1980, Cardin hosted a show of Varbanov’s work in New York and asked Song to represent his brand in China.

Some of the outfits on show in the exhibition. Photo: May Tse

Cardin had started his licensing business, to the horror of high-end fashion, in 1968 and was a shameless pioneer of capitalist opportunism. His quote – “If I could manufacture a button for every person in China that would be 900 million buttons” – sums up eternal Western calculations.

M+ has a 1979 photo of Western models, posing on Beijing bicycles, in Cardin jackets with extravagantly jutting pagoda shoulders. Cardin evidently had a thing about shoulders, and soon Madame Song, as she became known, was wearing his one-shouldered or padded-shouldered or sequinned-shouldered creations around town.

Many – rather too many – of these are in the exhibition. (M+ received 125 garments from her estate.) Initially, it’s fun to match the dress to the archival images of Madame Song clad in it but, by the final room of mannequins, the sense is that, like the shoulders, the exhibition is too padded.

Visitors view a range of dresses from the exhibition. Photo: May Tse

Madame Song herself still feels unknown. She had a tiny role as Puyi’s mother in The Last Emperor, to which a section of the exhibition is devoted but, again, she’s lost amid the fabric.

There’s a four-minute video of comments from those who knew her, including Boryana and Phénix (“very ambitious … dynamic”). There’s a 36-second clip of her speaking at Maxim’s de Paris in Beijing in the mid-2000s. Cardin’s company owned the Maxim’s brand and he’d installed her as manager when the Beijing branch opened in 1983. In the clip, she talks about planning an exhibition of family work including, poignantly, “the paintings I drew to feed my urge to create”.

What she really became was a facilitator. There are photographs of her with Air China stewardesses in their Pierre Cardin uniforms; there are letters from government officials grateful for Cardin production lines; there are images of the models she trained, the fashion shows she organised, the successful functions at Maxim’s.

But in its determination to track an influential line from Madame Song to 2023 China, the exhibition gets rather carried away with itself. The inclusion of the video of China’s winning bid for the 2008 summer Olympics feels a baffling step too far.

Perhaps Song’s spirit is best conveyed by John-Paul Pietrus’ lively photographic homage to the clothes and by his short film Beijing Love, which he made in 2010, four years after she died. Song is played by Chinese supermodel Ling Tan, who wanders Beijing in a selection of her Pierre Cardin outfits.

Song was heavily involved in fashion, and organised a number of runway shows. Photo: May Tse

By the 1990s, as other high-end Western labels moved in, Cardin’s ubiquitous belts and wallets – for men – were already being viewed as a joke. China was striding ahead. A May 1993 clipping from Women’s Wear Daily notes that Cardin had 43 franchised boutiques; also that “there was a state-approved ceremony recently in Tian Tan Park in honour of the first Ferrari ever acquired by a Chinese citizen”.

Cardin and Madame Song’s commercial combination lives on, however. Should you wish to own a limited-edition doll, whose face is inspired by Madame Song and who is dressed in one of the 12 “iconic looks of Pierre Cardin” from the exhibition, M+ is happy to oblige. Each one costs HK$4,800 (US$615).

“Madame Song: Pioneering Art and Fashion in China”, West Gallery, M+, West Kowloon Cultural District, 38 Museum Drive, Kowloon. Tue-Thurs and weekends, 10am-6pm; Fri 10am-10pm. Until April 14, 2024. Tickets from HK$70 to HK$140.


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