Though I wasn’t born in Shanghai—I was raised in Hangzhou, 110 miles southwest—the city has always been my muse. Even after I moved to New York in 1985 to pursue a career as a fashion designer, I looked toward the city of 23 million for the raw energy that inspires much of my work. From the opulent costumes I designed for the Metropolitan Opera’s 2006 production of Madame Butterfly and Misfortune, set to debut next year at Covent Garden, to the bright dresses and scarves of my ready-to-wear line to the costumes for the Karate Kid remake, Shanghai’s spirit is woven into my work. Now when I return to the city, I am surprised each time to uncover new spots—cocktail dens, luxury hotels, hidden boutiques—and happy to visit old favorites. Here’s my Shanghai.
Dongtai Road Antiques Market: When I’m looking to be inspired by Chinese patterns and colors, I wander through the stalls of this sprawling market, drawing from the cool blues of broken porcelain, which I’ve used in my jewelry, and the shocking pinks of ceremonial candles and paper money, reprised in this silk dress adorned with my signature flowers. At Dongtai Rd.
ShanghART: Lorenz Helbling came to China from Switzerland 20 years ago and brought contemporary art with him. Today, his outpost, on the gallery-heavy Moganshan Road, features established artists like abstract painter Ding Yi as well as up-and-comers such as a collective named Birdhead. At 50 Moganshan Rd., Bldgs. 16 & 18; shanghart.com.
Fu 1039: Shanghai’s best traditional food—including a delicious fatty pork and a delicate smoked fish—is served in an elegant French Concession villa with an entrance via a charming garden. The many floors are divided into private rooms, but my favorite part is the (non-functioning) opium bed. At 1039 Yu Yuan Rd.; 86-21/5237-1878.
Secret Garden: Shanghai is a city of hidden surprises. Secret Garden, which I discovered shortly after it opened in 2004, is a perfect example: a three-floor oasis across the street from Shanghai’s busiest maternity ward. There’s a beautiful garden filled with young, stylish Chinese dining on imaginative Cantonese-style cuisine like this sweet mango custard in the shape of a koi (below). At 333 Chang Le Rd.; 86-21/5405-0789.
Hong Merchant: Anne-Cécile Noique is ineffably stylish, and she and her partners, Pia Pierre and Jean Philippe Weber, run this appointment-only antiques shop out of a well-curated hutong-style home. The collection features old (an ancient Buddha statue, for instance) and contemporary pieces as well as Shanghai Deco furniture. But what I like most about Hong Merchant is how the showroom uses Chinese furniture in a Western way, for example placing a beautiful antique table diagonally, whereas in classic Chinese tradition, everything has to be at right angles. $ At 3 Ln. 372 Xing Guo Rd.; hongmerchant.com.
Independent Designers: For a long time, high-end fashion boutiques carried only luxury Western brands (which they’d buy directly from the brands’ Chinese factories), but since I’ve been returning to Shanghai, I’ve seen a bloom of homegrown designers inspired by their own country. At Cha Gang (70 Yong Fu Rd.; chagang.cn), a highly curated minimalist boutique in the French Concession, designer Wang Yi Yang offers an ever-changing selection of avant-garde menswear, from minimalist unstructured blazers from his own label to household items, as well as pieces from his womenswear line, ZucZug. Around the corner, Chinese designer Coco Ma opened Exception (mixmind.com.cn), a beautiful raw-wood and buffed-tile store that features elegant, earth-toned, all-natural womenswear. And at Even Penniless (Sanlitun Village N., 11 Sanlitun Beilu; 86-21/6427-5928), designer Gao Xin incorporates European influences in his minimalist pieces, like a draped waistcoat.
Alchemist Cocktail Kitchen: I go to this low-lit romantic bar that opened in 2010 to watch the bartenders—now pretentiously called mixologists, even in Shanghai!—use liquid nitrogen and other woo-ey molecular-gastronomy techniques to craft libations like the 24 1/2 Century, which incorporates duck fat–infused Hennessy Vsop Cognac. $ At Sinan Mansions, Block 32, 45 Sinan Rd.; 86-021/6426-0660.
Fairmont Peace Hotel: When I was young, I used to take the train six hours from my home in Hangzhou to sneak into the Peace Hotel and listen to the jazz band there. It was the only place in Shanghai to hear Western music. The place has been renovated since then (thankfully), but it has kept those elements—the sophistication, the rich colors, the nightly concerts—that preoccupied me so much as a starry-eyed teenager. Rooms start at $330; 20 Nanjing Rd. E.; 866-940-4914; fairmont.com.
1931: As the name of this tiny, romantic restaurant suggests, the atmosphere is very much Shanghai during what many consider to be her golden era. But it’s the small details—the waitresses wearing modern-day qipao (traditional silk dresses), the home cooking (the best wonton soup in the city) and the vintage prints (of women playing mahjong)—that really transport me to the past. It’s the perfect place for a date. At 112 Mao Ming Nan Rd.; 86-21/6472-5264.
WanShang Flower and Bird Market: When I created a series of bird-shaped light sculptures (right) for London’s Victoria and Albert Museum in 2008, I came to this market—which is sprawling with men, bamboo cages, fighting crickets and, of course, there’s the chaotic chorus of chirps—for inspiration. This is a part of Shanghai that might soon disappear, but for now it’s as lively and overwhelming as always. At 405 Xizang S. Rd.
El Coctel: The walls of this reservation-only, no-standing-allowed cocktail den are simple and unvarnished, so I was surprised when I looked up to see an ornate, hand-painted watercolor mural on the ceiling. The service is just as painstaking: Japanese bartenders punctiliously prepare drinks, from standards like a gin and tonic to a Cognac-and-rye cocktail finished with an absinthe-rinsed ice cube. At 47 Yongfu Lu; 86-21/ 6433-6511; el-coctel.com.
Spin: Porcelain has a four-millennia history in China, but at Spin, partners Jeremy Kuo, a restaurateur, and Gary Wang, a designer, make it new. Opened in 2004 with a mandate to supply flatware for Kuo’s restaurants, Spin has a scope that has since expanded to cultivate modern ceramic artisans. I love the elegant contemporary plates and the minimalist bowls and teapots rich with what the Japanese call wabi-sabi, or “perfect imperfection.” At 360 Kangding Rd.; 86-21/6279-2545.
Morning Market: There are many morning markets in nearly every neighborhood, but this one, around the corner from my house in the French Concession, is my favorite. Shanghai is changing quickly, but the rich and the poor still mix at the stalls here, each selling homemade traditional food from the countryside. For a classic Shanghai breakfast, try the you tiao—a long piece of fried dough that looks like a Chinese churro but without the sugar—and dip it in soy milk. At Xiang Yang N. Rd. and Chang Le Rd.
Din Tai Fung: Taiwan-based Yang Bingyi was one of the first people to elevate street food into something more elegant. At Din Tai Fung, the Shanghai branch of his chain of excellent cafés, the waitresses are impressively dressed, and a row of men in white aprons make Shanghai’s best xiaolong bao (soup dumplings) behind a glass wall. At Shanghai Center, 1376 Nanjing W. Rd.; 86-21/6289-9182; dintaifung.com.tw.
Shi Zhi Ying: Every time I return to Shanghai, I discover new artists emerging from the vibrant art scene. One of my favorites is 31-year-old Shi Zhiying. Her paintings—she makes sculpture, performance pieces and animation as well—often depict oceans or fields of grass, which gives a contemporary take on the classic Five Elements of Chinese philosophy. By appointment only; 86-136/6171-2955.
Xian Qiang Fang: When I first came to America, I wasn’t interested in Chinese traditions. But since then, I have rediscovered what we have. Xian Qiang Fang is a classic example of Shanghai’s depth of culture. Run by former designer Wang Xing Zheng, the restaurant doubles as a Chinese opera theater. In America, you are serious and quiet watching opera. But in China, they are there to entertain you. The audience laughs and talks and enjoys Shanghainese dishes like tea leaf–smoked duck and braised diced pork. At 600 Jiu Jiang Rd.; 86-21/6351-5757; xianqiangfang.com.
The Table No. 1: There’s no better vantage point to take in the endlessly shifting Shanghai cityscape than from the roof of The Waterhouse, a boutique hotel on the Bund. Four floors below, the Huang Pu River snakes its way through the spires and sprawl while the kitchen serves cutting-edge communal dishes like smoked beetroot with mascarpone, tarragon and walnuts to a well-heeled and urbane clientele. At 1–3 Maojiayuan Rd., Zhongshan Rd. S.; 86-21/6080-2918; tableno-1.com.
Song Fang Maison de The: Paris-born Florence Samson was the general manager of Veuve Clicquot China before turning to the way of tea and opening this charming shop in 2007. I love that she mixes Western colors with Chinese patterns in the peaceful four-story boutique and teahouse. The fabric in this alcove is a classic countryside pattern. Most Chinese decorators would say it’s too country, but Samson pairs it with a white table, something else they wouldn’t do. The result is a beautiful, calm and completely unexpected place to pass the afternoon. At 227 Yongjia Rd.; 86-21/6433-8283; songfangtea.com.
The Chinoise Story: With bright chairs by Philippe Starck and lighting design by German industrial designer Ingo Maurer, dinner at this elegant restaurant in the Jin Jiang Hotel is about more than the food. It’s about using a sophisticated Western aesthetic to create a modern Shanghai spot. The same is true for the food, which reinterprets Shanghainese cuisine with a Western gloss. At 59 Maoming Nan Rd.; 86-21/6445-1717; jinlu-china.com.
YongFoo Elite: The food is great, and the setting, a former British Embassy, is among the most memorable in Shanghai, but I come to this exclusive club, by playboy owner Wang Xing Zheng, for the wallpaper: a Victorian-style gold-leaf pattern in the back of the corridor, near an imported Tibetan wall with hand-painted stripes. At 200 Yong Fu Rd.; 86-21/5466-2727; yongfooelite.com.
The House of Blues & Jazz: By day, Lin Dong Fu is an actor, starring in films like James Ivory’s White Countess and his own local talk show, but his real job is jazz impresario at The House of Blues & Jazz. I’ve spent many Sunday nights in the wood-paneled room watching jazz musicians from China to Chicago trade chops during the weekly jam sessions. At 60 Fuzhou Rd.; 86-021/6323-2779; houseofbluesandjazz.com.
Mr. and Mrs. Bund: Paul Pairet, the chef at this incredibly sleek restaurant, pairs an almost James Bond level of visual suavity with the best Western-style food in Shanghai. He’s constantly experimenting with new dishes, like his Foie Gras Opera, a delightful combination of foie gras, pork, passion fruit and chocolate. At Bund 18, 18 Zhong Shan Dong Yi Rd.; 86-159/6323-9898; mmbund.com.
Shanghai Luxury Hotels
With more than 222 million tourists visiting the city in the last year alone, it’s no surprise that Shanghai’s luxury hotel scene is booming. These hotels are not only grand but also perfect examples of a new global style.
The Peninsula: A benchmark of opulent neo-Shanghainese luxury since it opened in 2009, The Peninsula has a prime location (along the glamour and excitement of the Bund), the biggest rooms (600 square feet on average) and the nicest cars (a fleet of Rolls-Royce Phantoms). The Hong Kong–based Peninsula also perfectly executes the 1930s Shanghai aesthetic throughout its 235 rooms while offering thoroughly modern and elegant service. Rooms start at $550. At No. 32 The Bund; 866-382-8388; peninsula.com.
Park Hyatt: The Park Hyatt occupies a “neighborhood” of a city skyscraper—in this case, floors 79 to 93 of the Shanghai World Financial Center. What it lacks in street frontage it makes up for with its 174 rooms—with deep soaking tubs and daybeds—and in culinary events like the five-day Park Hyatt Masters of Food and Wines (November 22–26), which features demonstrations by various chefs, from Alain Ducasse to Cantonese master Li Shu Tim. FYI: GM Christophe Sadones is one of the top hoteliers anywhere. Rooms start at $860. At 100 Century Ave., Pudong; 800-633-7313; shanghai.park.hyatt.com.
The Puli: By far the most lush addition is The PuLi, which billed itself as an urban resort when it opened in late 2009. Surrounded by gardens, The PuLi is nestled in JingAn Park. The 209 rooms and 20 suites boast local touches like Timber Foo dogs, a symbol of energy and value; there’s also a chic 104-foot Long Bar and a restaurant called Jing’An, run by New Zealand chef Dane Clouston. Rooms start at $325. At 1 Chang De Rd., JingAn District; 86-21/3203-9999; thepuli.com.
Waldorf Astoria:The 20 suites (our own favorite) at the 100-year-old Waldorf Astoria Club reopened last August and this year are joined by a new tower near the Bund. With 252 rooms, it boasts the Waldorf Astoria’s signature blend of old-world luxury with the best of the modern world. Rooms start at $360. At No. 2 Zhongshan Dong Yi Rd.; 400-883-5577; waldorfastoria.com.
Jumeirah Himalayas: In the heart of Pudong, the Dubai-based brand’s first mainland venture is predictably grand: 401 contemporary “Chinese-style” rooms that ring a 14-story atrium, and a lobby ceiling with a 2,800-square-foot flatscreen onto which the sky is projected. Rooms start at $325. At 1108 Mei Hua Rd.; 86-21/3858-0888; jumeirah.com.