Monday, September 15, 2008

Shanghai | turnSTYLE: Francine Martin, Shanghai Savant

turn·stile –noun
1. a structure of four horizontally revolving arms pivoted atop a post and set in a gateway or opening in a fence to allow the controlled passage of people.

turn·STYLE - noun
1. Justina's snapshot profiles of cool people in Shanghai who are creating and defining China style.

Let's just face it. There are some people who are cooler than we can ever dream to be. Those who ooze style and hipness, regardless of age, regardles of what's "in," regardless of what magazines deem beautiful and au currant. Even more impressive are those hipsters who can be chic even while wearing Naots. (Which are kissing cousins of Birkenstocks, yes?)

See, chic?

Meet Francine Martin, woman of many talents beyond being effortlessly cool: editor, model, professional expat, and Shanghai's most savvy savant who knows the ins and outs of what's hot and hopping in our city shops. After making her home in Asia for the last 25 years, she's sharing her vast insider info

with discriminating shoppers via her East of the Sun treasure-finding excursions.

I had to meet the woman herself after reading about Francine in a recent round-up of the Shanghai shopping scene in The New Yorker. As Patty Marx wrote in her article:

"The tailor whipped up a snappy little dress to Mai’s specifications and delivered
it to my hotel three days later. I wore it to an appointment with Francine
Martin, an American who leads shopping tours of Shanghai, to sites recondite and
renowned ( “Thirty-three dollars?”she said. “Very
nice, but one should never pay more than twenty dollars for a simple custom-made
dress.” (Stall 237 also makes men’s shirts of Egyptian cotton for $15, but Martin probably knows where they can be had for $10.)"

If Chris Buckley (Shanghai turnSTYLE, volume 1, September 12) is right, and we're all collectors of something or another in Shanghai, then Francine's the kind of person I want to collect in my life: she's smart and creative and curious. Full of life. And adventurous. Way adventurous. She's the woman I'd beeline to at a cocktail party simply because of the way she carries herself. In an instant, I'd know: this is a woman who has a story to tell!

Am I right or am I right?

Francine doesn't just live in Shanghai. She lives in the Old Town of Shanghai, calling home one of the historic lilongs. After meeting me at the entrance of her lilong, Francine took me on a quick walking tour of its alleys, pointing out the art deco and traditional features of the buildings. (Families used to have their names carved above their doors.) She simply could not help but share the beauty of her neighborhood.

We took two steps--not even enough time for me to grab my notebook and pen!--before she introduced me to the lifeblood of her neighborhood: the communal sinks (many people don't have running water),

the neighborhood dumpling guy,
the rice vendor outside her door.

And then, welcome to my idea of nirvana: Francine's well-curated abode.

All the details in her home captured her traveling and treasure-spotting spirit--from her collection of delicate teapots to the outdoor courtyard. Where, incidentally, she had set the most charming spread of pastries and tea. I was so touched. And felt so taken care of, which I think must be one of the key reasons why Francine excels at what she does. She makes you feel cherished and assured that you are getting the best of the best.

And that's why (I have to admit) I read her ming pian (business card) and shook my head: "Francine, you aren't a personal shopper. This is just wrong." I can be so rude, can't I? But I felt like I had been catching up with a longtime girlfriend, and we girlfriends are nothing if not honest with each other.

Her eyes gleamed--thankfully in agreement. "I put together creative outings, that's really what I do. I get a vicarious pleasure from giving people an experience or showing them an item they had no idea existed in the world."

Whether you're a knitting aficianado on the lookout for the finest cashmere yarn or an eco-traveler who yearns for a foldable bicycle, Francine is the one to call. (Those people have, in fact, called on Francine.) She's got the research chops from years of being an editor (that's called fact-checking for people not in publishing!). And she's got the connections from living here for decades. And best of all, she's got the negotiating chops. I was so relieved when she eyed my purse, and after I told her what I paid for it, she nodded approvingly: "I'd say you did very well."

What would I say to that? I'd say that I would entrust my own mom and mother-in-law and my best girlfriends with Francine. I would give them time with Francine as a gift. And that is high praise.

Francine Martin
East of the Sun

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