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  • Writer's pictureGrahame Peace

A Journey into Fashion (The Dressing Room)

Here is the first chapter to my new book coming soon worldwide to Amazon.


July 2000

The Party

The Kylie Minogue song ‘Spinning Around’ was playing so loudly I couldn’t hear myself speak let alone hear anyone else. But I didn’t care because after months of planning it was finally here, the big night, the party to celebrate the first year of our successful new enterprise. We’d expanded our fashion business, with a luxury hair and beauty salon, owned by a top celebrity hairdresser. Along with an exclusive floral art department and uber stylish café bar. The guests had all dressed to impress and were looking ‘très chic’ and thankfully appeared to be having a great time.

It was one of those rare still hot English Summer evenings, and we were using the elegant and spacious top floor at our new premises Westgate House, which was cool and airy due to the high ceilings and large art deco windows. It was in the final stages of being transformed into our bespoke bridal department, which we hoped to promote as part of the night's events. Due to the open windows and town centre location, you could just hear a slight humming of road traffic in the background, but it wasn’t intrusive.

By the way, my name is Christopher Graham, but everyone calls me Chris, welcome. I was undecided how I felt about the evening, part of me was full of pure excitement and pride, but another part was working hard to suppress what you could call ‘first night nerves’. But then again, fear of failure had always kept me going, contributing to the perfectionist side of my nature. A section of the room had been set up with soft lighting and round tables covered with layered heavy white and gold tablecloths, with chic gilt chairs and tall crystal candelabras, all hired from one of John Moore’s contacts.

John owned and was head chef at his contemporary ‘654’ Hotel and Restaurant, and he was also the owner of the café bar here at Westgate House. He’d kindly made delicious canapés and desserts for the evening. John’s partner Sebastian Andreu, who was their hotel manager and restaurant sommelier, had cleverly created a mirrored art deco style bar area, and as an accomplished mixologist, he was busy seducing guests with his incredibly intoxicating cocktails, that while delicious, I knew needed to be avoided, or I’d be drunk before the party had fully started, which would never do. Sebastian had created several cocktails, especially for the evening. There was ‘Frisson Bon Marché’ which was an exotic mixture of secret ingredients known only to its creator. It sounded very chic, particularly when Sebastian described it with his thick French accent, but it translated into English as ‘Cheap Thrill!’

Another concoction was a highly addictive mixture of cream, hazelnut vodka, chocolate liqueur, Tia Maria, vanilla, and his secret herb and spice mix. Which was called ‘Vilain Mais Gentil’, translated this apparently meant ‘Naughty but nice.’ Which it most certainly and very potently was. I said to them both jokingly while gingerly sipping the heady mixture, ‘This should carry a health and calorie warning,’ I then said smiling, ‘do remember that we’re dealing with figure conscious fashionistas, who live on a diet of low-fat yoghurt and a seedless grape!’ We all laughed.

John looked happy and relaxed and had a golden tan that suited him from his recent gastro tour of Italy with Sebastian. John’s tan was accentuated by the immaculate long sleeved, crisp white Jil Sander shirt he was wearing, which showed off his muscular physique. He wore this with a pair of Dolce and Gabbana jeans (fitting him in all the right places), a Hermes belt, and highly polished Jeffery West Brogues. John was a handsome man, and had the confidence to go with it, but not in an arrogant way. Whenever his name was mentioned, it was often followed by the word gorgeous, but more frequently ‘what a waste.’ The girls had nicknamed him ‘Mr Wonderful’, and although John wouldn’t admit it, he secretly enjoyed his Mr Wonderful status. Who wouldn’t?

‘Is that a new watch?’ I asked noticing the elegant Jaeger-LeCoultre watch on John’s wrist.

He smiled and nodded, ‘Yes, it’s a present to me. I bought it in Rome do you like it?’ he asked holding out his muscular arm.

I took hold of John’s wrist and scrutinised the watch and said thoughtfully, ‘Um, it’s impressive, very classy. I must say that you’re looking very dapper this evening.’

‘Well, it’s all thanks to your sartorial influence,’ John replied smiling with his vivid blue eyes and raising his eyebrows.

I laughed and nodded, ‘I’m more than happy to take the credit for such a stylish look; you look very well put together.’

‘Thank you kind sir, but just look at you, Chris,’ John paused, stepping back really looking at me, and said while shaking his head still smiling, ‘What happened to that skinny, shy, naïve, and disheartened teenager I met all those years ago?’

I laughed out loud, and gave a broad slightly embarrassed grin as my mind flashed back to how we’d met, ‘Crikey, in some ways it seems a million years ago and at other times like only yesterday; but luckily I met you, god knows what would have happened to me if I hadn’t… You opened up a whole new world, one, that at the time, I could never have imagined, full of new, unknown and rather scary opportunities.’

John looked pensive while taking in the room shaking his head, ‘No Chris, I can’t take the credit for all of this; you’ve had some wonderful ideas and created new opportunities. You’ve achieved so much in such a short time, and we’ve all benefited.’

I could feel myself blushing and although I didn’t really know why the conversation was making me nervous. I laughed dismissively shaking my head, brushing the discussion to one side and I gave John a big hug, thanking him for all his help and support over the years. Our friends Paul and Barry came over, both carrying one of Sebastian’s lethal cocktails and they were having an argument about their favourite programme ‘Coronation Street’. They were obsessed with it and had been for many years; they could easily write a series of books or appear on ‘Mastermind’ and have it as their specialist subject.

‘Whatever are you drinking?’ I asked Paul.

He replied deadpan, with a sardonic tone while looking at Barry, ‘Well apparently mine is something called a ‘Screaming Orgasm’ and Barry’s having a ‘Long Slow Screw’ so no surprises there then.’

Everyone burst into laughter; Paul then turned to me and said thoughtfully taking in the room, ‘This place is looking impressive, even better than the other shops. Are you looking forward to the evening?’

I nodded, ‘Yes, of course, but if I’m honest I’m feeling a bit nervous, you don’t think we’ve been too ambitious and gone over the top with the decor, do you?’

‘God no, it’s terrific,’ said Paul decisively, ‘and you’ll be fine; I remember how you were when the first shop opened.’ He then said with a wry smile, ‘And I’ll never forget the first night you met us, and look, you’ve survived.’

I grinned, putting my arm around Paul’s shoulders, remembering that historic night only too well; how lucky I’d been to meet Paul, Barry, and John, and what great friends they’d turned out to be. They truly were my rescuers.

Paul and Barry were currently helping me to finish the vast interior of Westgate House, just like they had with the other shops. I’d wanted the place to be evocative of a luxury French couture salon. I owned an extensive collection of beautiful vintage fashion photographs, by the likes of Norman Parkinson and John French, which I’d decided to display around Westgate House on the immaculate cream and gold panelled walls, shown in gilt ormolu style frames which Paul had made to perfection.

We also added some of the large ornate gilt mirrors which I’d started collecting from local second-hand dealers when we opened the first shop. And for extra effect, I’d selected photographs of some of our most glamorous designs and decided to project the images onto one wall in a continuous loop. It was a kind of retrospective storyboard from the early 1980s and our ‘New Romantic Period’ through to the current collections. We’d come a hell of a long way.

Andrew Palmer, the owner of the florist, had naturally arranged flowers for the evening; he was much celebrated and had worked with us regularly as part of our bespoke bridal team… How could I describe Andrew? He was 36 years of age, short, slightly stocky with blond hair; the colour could not be described as natural. He had a thing for hirsute muscular men with tattoos and the odd piercing, mainly if they were wearing denim. He had a strong theatrical side to his personality which he channelled energetically into local amateur dramatics.

He’d just had a very successful run, to much local acclaim, where he’d reported nightly ovations, although he called them ‘erections!’ playing ‘Zaza’ in the musical ‘La Cage aux Folles.’ We’d designed his costumes; talk about kids let loose in a sweet shop. Think Shirley Bassey meets Danny La Rue, but more over the top, if that was possible. Andrew was a devoted patron of the visual and performing arts, and these influences always showed in his work. And believe you me what he could do with a bunch of pansies, was nobody’s business! Andrew was incredibly creative with an original talent for floral art; he could pull out a persons’ personality and individuality into his work, which always seemed to exceed their vision and expectations.

The approach was always fresh and organic, and he was a talented asset to the team, never gloomy and always a real tonic. Often with hilarious and detailed news of his latest sexual exploits which would have made a sex therapist blush and an Olympic gymnast green with envy. For tonight he’d created glamorous, colourful, fragrant blowsy flower arrangements of sugar pink and apricot roses, peach dahlias, and stephanotis, with dramatic gleaming gold branches as only he could. All cascading from tall, elegant slim glass vases placed all around the room. Minimalist and understatement were not words in his vocabulary for these bespoke creations.

Barbara Day, our resident beauty expert, had worked with Andrew on the flowers; she had a good eye for colour combinations and textures. I thought to myself how amazing she looked, how old must she be now, nearly seventy? And yes, the invitations had said ‘dress to impress’. She was wearing a soft, unstructured lilac chiffon evening gown which we’d designed for her, worn with high heeled silver strappy Manolo Blahniks. Her makeup was immaculate as always with pale luminous skin, soft pearlised eyeshadow, dramatic lashes, and dewy lilac lips. Topped off with soft honey blond hair, that she wore pulled off her face with her trademark velvet bow; which on this occasion was lilac to match her gown.

Her long slim fingers with perfectly manicured lilac nails were glistening with the sort of diamonds Elizabeth Taylor would have been proud to wear. All finished with a flourish and fragrant cloud of Guerlain’s feminine warm spicy ‘Mitsouko’. She had a splendid but dated glamour, with the look of a 1950s film star; she was a strange combination of Zsa Zsa Gabor, Grace Kelly, and rather spookily a slim Barbara Cartland. But somehow it worked for her perfectly.

Another friend, Simone, a beautiful black, six-foot model, had locally become something of a celebrity DJ in trendy nightclubs. She had kindly agreed to provide the music for the evening and had not let us down in terms of sexy glamour. She was wearing an exotic, vintage, gold lamé harem pantsuit from the 1970s designed by Lee Bender. She accessorised this with gold and silver, Charles Jourdan mules and a gold lame turban, all purchased from the vintage collection at the shop. She had vivid gold metallic eye makeup with fuchsia pink lips and cheeks. I thought she looked very exotic, like a modern-day Josephine Baker; absolutely stunning.

There must have been well over a hundred people there, an eclectic mixture of staff, customers, models, fashion students, business associates, the local press, and family and friends. In the end, we had to limit the number of invitations. I couldn’t remember a time in my life when I’d felt happier; finally immersed in something I felt so passionate about.

I thought about what John had said earlier, regarding the business growing so quickly. It was true it had developed quite rapidly, but, it had been a long journey full of diversions along the way. We could hardly be called ‘an overnight success’. I couldn’t exactly pinpoint where my interest in all things beautiful had originated; because as a child, I couldn’t even imagine what I was trying to imagine. Which sounds strange, but it was true. The answer finally came like an avalanche, when I discovered Vogue magazine in my mid-teens, which suddenly opened up an unknown lifestyle, a world full of ‘objects of desire’ which I could never hope to acquire or afford.

Because of this, I’d always wanted to do something in the high-end fashion or beauty industry. But with my northern working-class background, I never imagined that this would or could ever happen. Young working-class men from the North of England did not do ‘fashion’ in the early 1970s. But finally, here I was, a partner in a growing fashion empire, in Huddersfield of all places. It had taken me a long time to learn that you can’t wait around forever hoping for the unattainable. You had to make it happen yourself. If you do nothing, you get nothing, I realised that people would travel for fashion and the right labels, and as my confidence had grown, so had the business.

I was distracted as Vanessa Alba suddenly caught my eye; she was trying to attract someone’s attention on the dance floor. Vanessa was looking effortlessly elegant and incredibly beautiful in a cream sleeveless one shouldered delicately beaded evening gown. I had secretly admired her for years; she was a genuine ‘original’. She had a natural magic with a rare quality, managing to always look supremely sophisticated, glamorous, and sexy, all at the same time. She was certainly comfortable in her own skin; she was like a prize racehorse, a rare, priceless work of fine art, or luxury Italian sports car. She was without a doubt what the fashion world would call a ‘glamazon’; she was openly admired by both men and woman. Women wanted to be like her and men wanted to own her; she was the ultimate trophy girlfriend or bride.

Vanessa had been a top fashion model and had a confident sense of style and panache. She had an extensive wardrobe of exquisite covetable designer clothes collected over her many years in the business. Vanessa now owned and directed the successful Loretta Gill Model Agency and Charm School and was a great icon for her business. She’d helped me develop our business through her knowledge of the fashion world and her extensive network of contacts. She seemed to have a magic key that always opened the right door, finding the best possible solutions or people to solve our problems or promote our work.

Someone wishing to be bitchy might have described her as ‘big time in the small time’. However, Vanessa had been very successful on the international modelling scene, and as far as she was concerned, she’d done all that. (seen the video, worn the t-shirt etc.) Now, she was her own boss, enjoying remarkable success. I considered that ours’ was a new world, not small time, but one full of new beginnings and opportunities. Vanessa never missed a networking opportunity, and true to form she was, as they say, ‘Working the Room.’ Which was a trait she shared in equal measure with the empire building Barbara Day, who given her age, still had ambitions to rival those cosmetic icons she so admired: Estee Lauder, Elizabeth Arden, and Helena Rubinstein.

Although Barbara particularly admired Helena Rubinstein, she said, ‘That woman single-handedly invented the beauty industry as we know it today, but much more importantly she knew the power and financial value of a lipstick,’ which was praise indeed coming from Barbara, whose own unfaltering beauty ambitions seemed to give her immense energy and made her appear ever youthful. If this was all clever artifice was unknown; but if it was? She was doing an excellent job of maintaining the illusion.

Vanessa and Barbara were all smiles and natural charm as they worked their way gracefully and skillfully around the crowd of guests like highly decorative and beautiful heat-seeking missiles picking out their prey. They looked like they were doing nothing when in fact they were doing everything. I was pleased, or was I relieved? They were both on our side and very much a part of the team.

Talking of heat-seeking missiles, I noted that Tania Dolan had cornered Vanessa and was all saccharine sweetness, fixed smiles, and false charm. Tania had grotesque pomposity and pretensions and also owned upmarket dress shops. She was one of those women who had a very high maintenance look about her; she subscribed to the late Duchess of Windsor’s view, ‘you can never be too rich or too thin.’ She also had a PhD in networking and could steal the crown in that department, teaching us all a thing or two. I wondered what she was saying to Vanessa and thought to myself that I must remember to ask her later. You always needed to stay one step ahead of Tania.

Barbara Day was feeling particularly pleased with herself as she mingled with the guests. She was finally about to bring a lifelong dream to fruition and launch her luxury skincare range. She’d been working on this for over two years with a large French company called ‘Montage Scientifique’. Her range was named: ‘La Science des Elixers pour de la Jeunesse de Beauté’ (The Science of Elixers for the Youth of Beauty). The range reportedly incorporated the latest cutting-edge skincare technologies and a new botanical discovery from the Himalayas.

Barbara claimed to have revealed its skin rejuvenating powers with the cosmetic scientists at ‘Montage Scientifique.’ They had named it ‘Stimuldermanin’, which I thought sounded like an ingredient in a male libido enhancing product. You know, the ones that have names like ‘Thrust’ and ‘Stallion’. Barbara said, ‘Stimuldermanin’ penetrates deep into the dermis to stimulate the precursors at the skins extracellular matrix.’ Whatever that meant? And she was in the final stages of arranging high profile promotional campaigns in the glossy magazines for the range. There were all sorts of cleansers, toners, scrubs, serums, masks and creams, all with highly seductive French names like: ‘Crème Secrète de Représentation’; Crème cellulaire de réparation de tissu profond’ and ‘Crème de tassement et de redéfinition superbe’. Of course, they were all beautifully and very expensively packaged.

The packaging, Barbara explained had been specially designed to maintain the integrity and activity of the unique ingredients’ in her products. There was no jar packaging, everything was either in sealed tubes or sealed glass pump dispensers, all presented in beautiful, glamorous looking boxes. I knew with Barbara at the helm it could only be a success, and probably the first of many innovative products.

Although Barbara was very wealthy, she was always in ‘sales mode’, and like her eminent icon, Helena Rubinstein, driven by new challenges and business success. Making the nation more beautiful probably came a close second; so even now as she gracefully and fragrantly moved around the room, she pounced on some poor unsuspecting woman and started doing a skin care analysis. The woman probably felt extremely flattered, because if you had Barbara’s attention, it was the beauty equivalent of having an audience with a major 'A' list celebrity or cosmetic royalty.

Barbara was saying to her while looking at the ladies’ face from different angles in a slightly exaggerated manner, ‘Oh, my dear, you’ve no time to lose, you have advanced cutaneous relaxation; your face is losing its ‘oval’. However, I think I’ve caught you just in time; you need immediate dermal stimulation. I need to consolidate your dermic mattress and repair your skin’s extracellular matrix to re-build the ‘Dermo-epidermic Junction’. I’m extremely worried about your nasolabial lines; you’ll need to come to see me weekly for at least the next three months. But first I need to do a day and night personalised skin care prescription for you of my luxury technologically advanced face and body products.’

The poor woman was becoming increasingly self-conscious, smiling awkwardly, while putting her hands on her face and looking around the room to see if anyone was watching and listening to the conversation. Although she probably had no idea what Barbara was talking about; Barbara was an expert at immobilising people with her pseudo-scientific jargon.

Barbara continued, ‘All of my products have breakthrough formulations, and you will need my simply wonderful, super active ‘Crème de activation cutanée de la vie de peau’. This high precision treatment provides deep down active dermic action via a molecular communicating process and targets the receptor sites of the skin. Retexturising and supporting the integrity of the epidermal strata, and it smells simply wonderful thanks to the rejuvenating power of a very rare type of Parisian organic rose oil. It’s also deliciously velvety smooth in texture and works in perfect synergy with the skin and is what I call ‘serious investment skincare.’ This cream is an absolute essential in any discerning lady’s beauty regime. Personally, I couldn’t live without it and use it day and night, I even use on my hands and decollate.’

‘Well, I must say you do have lovely skin,’ the lady replied trying to be polite while desperately trying to attract her husband’s attention at the other side of the room as if to say, ‘Rescue me from this woman.’

But Barbara was now in full flow, and there was no stopping her, and she said, ‘Well thank you, but you could have lovely skin too. I believe it’s every woman’s right to have beautiful skin, and you’re fortunate because my ‘Crème de activation cutanée de la vie de peau’ is on offer at only £65 for a 30ml tube. Which is sufficient for your first month’s treatment to be used under all the other wonderful treatment creams I’m going to prescribe for you. It even comes with a free-gift of must-have luxury dermo-rejuvenating essentials, all in a lovely designer suede effect pochette. If you just follow me, we can make your first appointment, and I’ll get all your targeted treatment products ready; I have some large boxes we can use, have you come by car?’

The poor lady followed Barbara and was probably relieved to finally be escorted to a more private area. But I hoped she had her credit cards with her because she was undoubtedly going to need them. Barbara’s luxury French beauty products were always ‘reassuringly expensive.’

Luckily for Vanessa, she’d been rescued from Tania by her attractive black assistant Yolanda, also a model, who I always thought looked like a softer version of the avant-garde singer Grace Jones. Yolanda and I went back a long way; we had both been psychiatric nurses together in the mid-1970s. Admittedly an unexpected occupation for fashionistas, yet I had somehow drifted into psychiatric nursing, working in the profession for many years before I finally managed to make fashion my full-time occupation. I’d met Yolanda when I first started working at Storthes Hall Hospital, and at that time she was working as a part-time model. Eventually, this became her full-time occupation, and she had moderate success in London and Europe. Our interest in fashion brought us together.

I was indebted to the psychiatric nursing profession, it had been a difficult job of two extremes; on the one hand, it could be gratifying, but also quite grim. It had taught me a great deal about the diversity of life and social hardship, putting my own unhappy early life into perspective. Nursing had made me a more considered and rounded person. Furthermore, the National Health Service had educated me academically. I needed no reminder that life was not full of beautiful people with perfect lives wearing expensive designer clothes.

For me fashion was always a great escape and distraction from some of the harsh realities of life; it was my stress buster. This evening was far removed from my own humble beginnings where I’d known difficult and unhappy times; I recognised that the scars from those days were still with me and always would be. But fate it seems had turned and been kinder. Those early life experiences had been hard, but they had changed me for the better and taught me valuable lessons, making me emotionally stronger. They’d given me the long-term determination and stubbornness I needed to succeed, to make this business finally happen and dare to be who I wanted to be, who I really was.

Music quickly brought my thoughts back to the party; The Human Leagues’ ‘Love Action’ was playing in the background; one of my all-time favourite songs, with so many memories, which had inspired me on my fashion journey. I glanced over at Simone, she knew I loved that song, and she gave me a big gleaming fuchsia pink smile, showing perfect white teeth and blew me a big pouty kiss. I blew one back and raised a toast to her with my ‘cocktail de l'eau de scintillement’ (sparkling water cocktail), which was another of Sebastian’ new concoctions. Which involved mixing several different brands of French and Italian still and sparkling bottled water with delicate slices of orange, lemon, and lime served with a sprig of fresh mint and ice in an extra-large, long-stemmed red wine glass. Yes, I know, but it apparently looked good and, my, it was certainly refreshing!

I then looked around the room with total satisfaction, smiling to myself at the expensively dressed stylish crowd and their happy smiling faces, animated conversations, and laughter against a background of dance music, clinking champagne and cocktail glasses, camera flashes, and heady clashing designer fragrances.

Kate, my business partner, came over dancing and was all beaming smiles; she was a dear friend and one of the most stylish people I’d ever met; she was so talented, a lovely lady and I owed her and her mother Sandra so much, without them, this whole fashion thing would never have happened. Kate was looking glamorous, with her lustrous, cascading, ebony curls, and bright red full glossy lips. Then there were those mesmerising big brown eyes and naturally long double eyelashes; when she smiled her whole face illuminated instantly drawing you closer to her. She was wearing a beautiful vintage dress by the late American designer Mollie Parnis, which our friend and business contact Madison Adams had sent over from her shop in San Francisco.

I had expected Madison to attend the party; she was travelling from Grasse in the South of France where she’d been dealing with some of her business commitments. However, at the last minute, she’d phoned to say she was unable to make it due to flight delays at Nice Côte d'Azur Airport. Madison had become a close friend through our shared passion for fashion and all things beautiful. She was an exceptionally successful entrepreneur and had even helped Barbara Day with her luxury skincare range by introducing her to the people at ‘Montage Scientifique’. Madison was a real inspiration to me, and it was because of her I'd dared to take on the Westgate House project, which I’d worked on assiduously with the help of Kate and her business wizard of a husband Richard, John, Barbara, and her wealthy son Gary Day the famous celebrity hairdresser.

Kate’s chic dress was a classic black satin short sleeved cocktail dress, with front pockets and a nipped waist. It was accented with a black tassel silk rope trim along the hem of the skirt, on the pockets and at the ends of the belt. The dress fitted Kate in all the right places showing off her curvature. She wore a statement bunch of gold bangles and large gold drop earrings and killer Gucci heels in black and gold satin.

‘Aren’t you dancing?’ she asked looking surprised.

‘Can you dance in those shoes?’ I replied mischievously. She threw me a glance and raised a perfectly plucked eyebrow and put a hand of flawlessly painted nails on her hip and pouted.

‘Only asking,’ I said, still smiling and raising my hands as if to surrender.

‘You’re not as young as you used to be, well neither of us is for that matter.’

Kate grinned while dramatically tossing her head back making her luxurious gleaming curls cascade down her back and replied, ‘Don’t question me, as you well know I’m at my best in heels, I didn’t do that ten miles sponsored walk in slingbacks for nothing you know.’

I laughed, suddenly having a mental picture of the occasion, and remembering how she’d tottered about preparing for eternal martyrdom — groaning in agony for days while wearing very unflattering heavily padded fur slippers over her bandaged feet with her designer and bespoke outfits. Hardly one of her best looks, but then again, I was sure I’d seen the look copied recently at London Fashion Week. Fashion knows no boundaries.

I followed her still smiling to myself onto the luminous, dance floor we’d created, singing along to the chorus of ‘Love Action’. And as I did, John, Barry, and Paul came to join us, and I was instantly transported back to 1982 and our ‘New Romantic’ days; a time that slowly opened a door into a world of fashion and everything that goes with it. I was in high spirits; I was finally able to relax and enjoy the evening; I was looking forward to putting the finishing touches to Westgate House, before starting on our other new projects. I still had lofty aspirations for the business and always enjoyed having new developments in the pipeline. I had a hell of a lot to be thankful for, all the many highs, like this evening, and strangely enough even the real lows, and there’d been a few.

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