Shanghai Style: A Suit of Her Own

Shanghai is the new Hong Kong for those looking for custom tailoring at great prices. One fashion insider goes in search of the suit of her dreams.

In the summer of my wedding, ten years ago, my most tasteful, most handsome Italian fiancé handed me a picture of a violet, 1959 Givenchy woven bouclé suit he'd torn out of a magazine. The tailored sleeveless dress fell to the knee, and the jacket had three-quarter-length sleeves and was cut short to the waist. At that time I was the fashion news director at Harper's Bazaar under legendary editor Liz Tilberis. My closet was in a deep black fashion moment—black Helmut Lang sweaters slashed at the elbows; black leather Gucci skirts; black Manolo Blahnik boots with pointy toes and impossibly high heels; and black Prada everything. At the farthest reaches, maybe you'd find something off-black, or charcoal gray. The contrast of my edgy fashion reality with the sweet vintage charm of the Givenchy suit my husband-to-be wished for me, made me silently wonder if he really knew the person he was about to wed.

After a blindingly fast decade of marriage, I had my husband, my two gorgeous boys, but I still did not have that suit. When I found myself invited on a girls' sartorial trek to Shanghai by Heidi, a young Taiwanese-born, design-minded friend of mine who had returned from a previous trip with tales of a vast and frenzied fabric market, skillful tailors, and unfathomably cheap prices, my mission seemed clear: I would, at long last, bring home that suit.

But it wasn't just fashion, friendship, or whim that informed my decision. I'd heard stories: A New York-based architect acquaintance recently set up shop in Shanghai and claims that at least 25 percent of the world's cranes must be deployed in the over 20,000 construction sites that mark the city's aggressive modernization campaign. European friends who have lived for years in Hong Kong visit Shanghai often as a way of witnessing the radical transformation to brash, modern newness that the Cantonese port city experienced 30-some years ago.

My first stop is a place that does not appear on my map of Shanghai. It does not make the short list of attractions—like the glistening new Shanghai Museum, the freshly restored Bund, the curiously sparse Communist Museum, the pristine flower market—offered by the concierge at the Grand Hyatt Shanghai for Westerners to hand to taxi drivers, their destination ticked off in little boxes. Even though the Dong Jia Du fabric market has thrived in the Nan Shi (old town) district of the city for decades, it's absent from the city's official tourist plan: Its chaos, energy and unbridled surge of haggling humanity don't quite fit the official vision of a gleaming modern Shanghai. After all, the government-sanctioned fabric bazaar is Silk King, not Dong Jia Du. At Silk King, foreign dignitaries' wives are paraded into the quiet, safe, set-price environment and met by a pleasant staff to gaze upon some rather beautiful fabrics. Buttons are available here, tailoring is done on the premises, and some English is spoken. What could be easier?

Well, if you should, like me, be on a quest for the perfect suit, dress, gown, and an undiluted local adventure, skip Silk King. The unruly, smoky, cavernous, crowded, dusty 200-stall-strong Dong Jia Du market is the more logical place to begin.

Here, women merchants wielding wooden meter sticks slap bolts of fabric while their "Chinglish" terms like "seeeelk" and "cazemeer" beckon me to shop. Filaments of every fabric known to man and nature float freely. The odor of freshly burned silk stings my nose. "You have to stand there and ask them to burn the silk," insists one Dong Jia Du veteran, "or you'll get cheated."

"Cheated" means paying 200 yuan ($24) instead of 100 ($12) per meter of fabric, around five times less than what I would pay in New York. In other words, what cheated really means is not being treated like a local. Market protocol, simple yet counterintuitive, is explained to me: Once you have seen something you like, you ask the vendor to burn the fabric to assure that the fibers are all natural (melting indicates the material is synthetic.) If the fabric is acceptable, you ask for the price, which is punched into a calculator for you to see. Then you turn on your heel and walk away. More than 90 percent of the time, the vendors will come chasing after you to begin the bartering process, usually settling for half the original asking price.

Lucky for me, I have Miss Tsao, one of Shanghai's best tailors, at my side. (And lucky for both of us, we have my friend Heidi along to help us communicate.) Miss Tsao is brilliant, I'm told, when it comes to recreating the works of great designers like Givenchy, Balenciaga, Chanel, and Courreges, somehow managing to infuse each garment with something unexpected—like a neon or animal-print lining, a bold or unusual fabric—for a modern twist. Miss Tsao is fast becoming a favorite with young Chinese celebrities (singer Richie Ren was the only name I recognized) and has a loyal clientele among the influential and growing Taiwanese community here.

Upon first meeting Miss Tsao, a teeny, rosy-faced young woman, I am alarmed at her junior-high-school pink trainers, stonewashed jeans, puffy pink parka, and the yellow miniphone strung around her neck. (Later I realize it's a tactic. The thinking goes: If you look like a woman interested in creating a Givenchy-style suit, you'll pay like one. In subsequent meetings she displays a cool style.) Miss Tsao follows my unsystematic lead through a row of stalls in the market. We come up with a plan: If I see a fabric I love, I'll wander off and she'll dive in for the negotiation.

Not far from the market's entrance, a red bouclé screams out to me from stall no. 70. Its weight and weave are exactly like the Givenchy suit my husband had pointed out to me so long ago. I panic and decide not to decide too early, only to return 60 minutes later lucky to find the stall again (I hadn't realized at that point that each stall has a number, which soon after became my market road map). I give the nod to Miss Tsao and walk away, wishing I could retract all protocol, pay full price, and end the suspense. Then my tailor-barterer hands me a plastic bag filled with meters of silk-wool bouclé. The cost? Six hundred yuan ($72), a fifth of what it would cost back home.

This wasn't the first time I've been inspired by beautiful fabric. I am reminded of a moment in Paris when I sat, half-paralyzed with fear and half-captivated by brilliance, at the marble table of Karl Lagerfeld as he directed the fittings for his spring 1999 Chanel couture collection. During a pause between models, the manically quick-speaking impresario popped off his throne to show me the house's newest couture confection: bouclé woven by hand into individual ribbons, on stiff white netting. Days later, I watch the ethereal fabric float down the runway—even when layered coat-over-dress it looks helium-light. I get it: The sensation of weightlessness—of wearing almost nothing—is reason enough to pay $20,000 for a suit.

We stop at a teahouse to revive ourselves after the market, and I share the picture of my inspiration with Miss Tsao. My original tear sheet, given to me a decade before, is stuck in a book probably long ago lent to a friend. Happily, I'd stumbled on an almost identical Givenchy suit in chartreuse at the Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute exhibition of the clothes of Jacqueline Kennedy. Miss Tsao refuses tea and barely lifts her head from the pages the whole time we are there.

When Miss Tsao appears to do measurements the next morning, she wears a traditional pink silk qipao with cropped pants and platform boots.(Qipao is the Mandarin word for the traditional Manchurian dress that evolved into the hugely popular look of Shanghai's swinging 1930s, and is referred to as cheongsam in Cantonese.) She quickly lines me up for greatest accuracy and declares that I possess wan yao, a curvy back. My Hungarian ballet teacher had proclaimed my back "lordotic" decades ago, and, sensing some serious deficiency, I'd desperately tried tucking in my derrière. Of course, all the tucking in the world doesn't change the anatomy of one's small and narrow back, so shopping for jackets, dresses, and shirts meant endless and tedious alterations. It stuns me that I've traveled over 7,000 miles to have a 26-year-old Chinese tailor, upon initial examination, pull together weird strands of my brief tutu-clad and non-tutu clad life and, finally, make sense of it for me.

I hand over my Jackie O book and fabric and feel instant separation anxiety: What to do with myself now that my mission is out of my hands?

O.K. There was time to visit the Communist Museum, explore the quaint indie shops on Yan Qing Road in the French Concession, visit the home of an ex-gangster, do the obligatory dinner at the Deco M on the Bund and the more Shanghainese experience at TMSK Restaurant, a morning at the Zhujiajiao, the ninth-century village built on canals, and an afternoon in the Chinese Scholar's Garden.

But within 48 hours, I'm back at Dong Jia Du with new creations dancing in my brain. Why not do a completely unconventional twist on a qipao? Or a slightly mod cotton summer coat and dress suit with paisley lining? This time, I go to the fabric market alone. I feel like the independent "don't mess with me" New Yorker I've become. I am not daunted by meter sticks, smoke, yelling, or commotion. In the end I even manage to negotiate on my own, using only the numbers on a calculator to communicate. I find the most beautiful horn buckle for a summer dress (there are two notions stalls toward the front and center of the market, with similarly beautiful wares) and end up paying, not the first price stated, $4, but the third, roughly $2. It's a triumph.

I admit to feeling a certain disloyalty later that day upon entering the cramped tailoring shop of Mr. Chen. His is a well-staffed operation with six women using Russian-made sewing machines. And when I see his masterpieces haphazardly hanging in the front window—the narrow sexy suits, the fabulous qipaos—I understand that Mr. Chen may have something altogether different to offer. Miss Tsao understands a more modern, call it "vintage" fit (i.e., intentionally baggy trousers or the shrunken sizing of a jacket) and a cool, young fashion sensibility. While she's not on a first-name basis with contemporary talent like Marc Jacobs or Stella McCartney, she implicitly understands the quirky proportions, unconventional fabric choices, fine tailoring, and retro nod that render their designs so fresh. She's the best in Shanghai for bias-cut romantic dresses, flirty flowing skirts, wraps, capes, and any silhouette with a vintage, mod, or overtly ladylike feel.

Mr. Chen, however, possesses a talent for the perfect, classic silhouette. He is a master suit maker whose work parallels the more traditional fit of designers like Oscar de la Renta, Carolina Herrera, and Valentino. Step into his crowded atelier and you'll see why you can trust him to create coat dresses (he made me two beautiful ones with superb topstitching and delicate details, each to match one of my two treasured Kelly bags), and tailored classic coats, with perfection. He also makes the most gorgeous qipaos in China: heavy silk Oscar-worthy floor-length qipaos; rich brocade three-quarter-length jacket qipaos with intricate handmade closures which can be worn over dresses or jeans. He delights in taking unlikely fabrics, like a gray wool pinstripe, adding red velvet trim and red satin lining to make a one-of-a-kind winter qipao look, as he so capably did for me.

That night Miss Tsao reappears for my first fitting. White basting thread is all over the jacket and only one sleeve is attached. Pins prick me from inside the back, where the zipper should be. Miss Tsao is thrilled to have found a small factory outside Shanghai to make the three embroidered buttons of my suit, which stand up thick and tall. I find it hard to muster much enthusiasm; this feels nothing like Karl Lagerfeld's fitting room at Chanel.

Less than 48 hours later, the eve of my return flight to New York, Miss Tsao arrives at my 61st-floor hotel room. She is a little out of breath and carries my suit, neatly folded in a plastic bag. I pull the dress on over my head. It hits my waist gracefully, just above my natural waistline. The jacket is snug and chic. I slip on my strappy python Manolo Blahnik sandals for best effect. It's perfect—as elegant as anything I'd ever worn. I feel pretty—as opposed to sexy or trendy—and very feminine. Miss Tsao is clearly proud and I am thrilled. Together with the small amount of money owed ($120), I give her my copy of the Jackie O catalogue by way of thanks. With fabric and labor, the suit of my dreams rings in at under $200.

Suddenly I want to go out in my new suit this very minute. The irony is that there is nowhere to wear it. Shanghai is a defiantly casual city. The white-gloved hotel staff and the drivers of the rich are turned out far more formally than their clients. Men never wear ties. Women hardly ever wear heels or color or dresses. Luxury reveals itself only subtly—through the rich cashmere of a man's "baggy" suit or the gray double-faced cashmere of a woman's wrap. Despite all its energy and excitement, Shanghai still belongs to a communist country. I order room service and dress for myself.

Back in Manhattan I am hardly in the door five minutes when I try the suit on for my husband. He is enchanted. We toast our patience with the Jasmine tea that has also made the trip back. I hang the suit in the shower to steam away the creases. Days later, it hangs there still—the wrinkles are gone, but I just want to look at it. Before I finally assign my treasured red suit a spot in my closet, I feel a need to show it to my longtime Chinese tailor, Joseph Ting of Dynasty on East 38th Street—a man who regularly whips things up for Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, can make anything you bring him, and of whom I am terribly fond. That Mr. Ting, a Shanghai native, declares my fabric superb, the tailoring impeccable, and the buttons nonexistent in the U.S., proves the most satisfactory completion to my journey. Yes, Mr. Ting agrees, maybe it's time he returned for another visit. I am already beginning to feel the same. Who knows, maybe this time Miss Tsao will be dressing all the Shanghainese women à la Hubert de Givenchy, and wearing my suit will be just the thing.

A Market Primer

The Dong Jia Du Market is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is tucked deep inside the narrow streets of the Nan Shi district. Ask your hotel concierge for directions. Allow two hours (with bargaining and buying) for the full walk-through of the market. Make sure the concierge also arranges a translator to accompany you. The quality is especially good at these stalls:

Stall no. 5 This has the best selection of classic Chinese brocade for a traditional qipao.

no. 70 Smaller than most, but a personal favorite: The focus is on gorgeous women's suiting fabrics—silk and wool bouclé—in vibrant colors.

no. 72 Lovely cottons in a variety of weights and colors.

no. 121 Specializes in coat-weight, double-faced cashmeres.

no. 159 The definitive stop for traditional men's suiting fabrics and patterns like lightweight wools and pinstripes.

no. 170 Remarkable for heavier-weight fabrics, including double-faced cashmere with some unusual color combinations, like the lovely charcoal-and-cranberry coat fabric I found.

For clothing details like linings, buckles, and buttons, you can have your tailor pick them, or buy them yourself at the market. There are two button and notions stands, located at the front and the center of the market, both of which have good selections. The real treasures, mother-of-pearl and horn buttons, are kept deeper within the stalls.

The Silk King Market, a government-sponsored fabric bazaar, is a full-service kind of place acting as an orderly and efficient alternative to the Dong Jia Du market. Its silk velvets (hard to find in the market without Lycra), lightweight raw silk-linen blends, and silk linings in an exquisite range of colors are worth the trip. There are tailors on the site for quick turnaround. The best job on the premises is held by the woman who commandeers the button stand at the top of the stairs on the second floor. Doing real horn buttons, buckles, and contrasting or printed linings to a dress or suit is where the real fun begins. Silk King is a must-stop in Shanghai for wives of visiting dignitaries: Its brochure has a picture of Chelsea Clinton checking out fabric and a photo of the qipao that Hillary had made here. Go to 139 Tianping Road in the French Concession for the best selection. 86-21-62-8215-3326; open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

The Masters

Among the many wonderful tailors throughout Shanghai, three of my favorites are:

Miss Tsao (86-21-5889-5207) comes to your hotel to do measurements and is also available to accompany you to the fabric market. She's excellent at vintage creations and romantic looks.

Mr. Chen (86-21-5218-0621) will also come to your hotel for measurements. Once he has your sizes and patterns made to fit, he is happy to work via fax and mail on additional pieces. He is the best man for traditional tailoring and exceptionally beautiful qipaos. Both tailors are proficient in English, but your hotel can also arrange a translator.

Dave's Custom Tailoring is perfect for one-stop shopping (86-21-6279-8805). Located just outside the Portman Ritz-Carlton Hotel in the Shanghai Center, this is the place to go for serious business suits or shirts made from European wools and cottons. It's the one tailoring source that appears in all the guidebooks. Perky salesgirls stand ready to walk you through their Zegna, Loro Piana, and Dormeuil sample books. Open seven days a week, Dave requires ten days and at least two fittings to complete a suit. (Note: The cost of labor to make a suit in Shanghai is up to ten times less than it is in, say, Hong Kong.) Men's suits from $350; shirts from $40.

Latest from Shanghai

"Every so often Shanghai cleans itself, like a swan in an oily river." The throwaway line from The Shanghai Gesture, a 1940s B-movie, has proved prophetic. The port, long a blend of cultures, now wants to be the center of the new Asia—a fusion of East and West, old and new. It's off to a flying start. In 2003, Shanghai won the right to host the 2010 World Expo, broke ground for the world's tallest building, put the finishing touches on the first magnetic-levitation train in the country's history, and made plans to restore the electric tram services along its waterfront Bund, a nostalgic nod to the days when it was known as "the Paris of the East."

The GRAND HYATT SHANGHAI fills the top 34 floors of the 88-story Jin Mao Tower, a slim, steel skyscraper that climbs from the financial center like a shoot of bamboo. The floor-to-ceiling windows of Room 6215 ($525), its best corner suite, give a jaw-dropping view of the Bund's historic architecture. The 87th-floor bar, Cloud 9, and the impeccable Grand Club service more than make up for the less-than-ideal location across the river in Pudong. Rates, $230-$5,200; 86-21-5049-1234;

The WESTIN, Shanghai's latest luxury hotel, is the first to be built near the preserved waterfront, a mere five-minute walk to the river and the Shanghai Museum. The hotel takes its location at the city's center to heart, mixing jazzy design (an illuminated staircase in the towering, open-air lobby) with old-fashioned comforts. Throw in a Balinese oil massage at its Banyan Tree Spa, the grappa selection at Prego, the in-house Italian restaurant, and the attention of Executive Club manager Helen Wang, and you have Shanghai's best new hotel. Ask for Room 2302 ($390) for a great river view from your bathtub. Rates, $240-$4,600; 86-21-6335-1888;

This FOUR SEASONS is the first in China, and unfortunately, not one of our favorites: It feels more like an office tower than a luxury hotel, with rooms stripped of all local flavor (not to mention amenities). Our experience included a brusque staff and hurried meals. And the location, right off a busy highway, is also problematic. Rates, $300-$8,000; 86-21-6256-8888;

The INTERNATIONAL ARTIST FACTORY, a would-be SoHo, is staffed by local and Western designers who work while you browse their studios. Stop in at JOOI (86-21-6473-6193) for unique silk handbags, TIRAMISU (86-21-6472-6963) for Richard Atkins modern fashions, L'ATELIER MANDARINE for Caroline Stavonhagen's lingerie (86-21-6473-5381), and HARVEST DESIGN STUDIO (86-21-6473-4566), where artisans create one-of-a-kind pieces of jewelry.

At YE SHANGHAI, chef Zhang Zouquan serves up fusion Shanghai cuisine in a nouveau teahouse setting (86-21-6311-2323). The prix fixe lunch ($25) includes shark's fin soup, sautéed minced chicken with pine nuts, king prawns in chili sauce, but the restaurant is best known for its yum cha (dim sum) and hairy crabs. At TMSK, there's more fusion food, but the ambience is all muted Shanghai glamour, with a backlit reflecting pool and tulip-shaped barstools. The daiquiris are great too (dinner, $120; 86-21-6326-2227). FACE is an elegant French Concession bar housed in a 1930s mansion (86-21-6466-4328). The tables overlooking the garden are popular for a quiet before-dinner drink.

Finally, no visit to Shanghai would be complete without a meal at M ON THE BUND (dinner, $140; 86-21-6350-9988), ensconced on the top floor of the 1920s former Nissin Shipping Building. The hardest decision is when to visit—for the Sunday afternoon tea of scones and finger sandwiches, for a dinner of salt-encrusted leg of lamb, or for a Winston Churchill martini at The Glamour Bar, where from crushed-velvet chairs you can watch the Bund and Jin Mao Tower light themselves at dusk. I did the first, and returned for the second. While both were highlights of my trip to Shanghai, it was the last one that fused my heart to a city, at last, spreading its wings.
—Mike Meyer