Checking out the tailor-made stalls at South Bund Fabric Market

Li Fei
A Shanghai Daily reporter brought a friend to the market to find out what makes the place tick and indulge in beautiful, tailor-made fashions.
Li Fei
Shot by Ma Xuefeng. Edited by Zhong Youyang. Subtitles by Yang Yang and Andy Boreham.

Fifteen years after the renowned Dongjiadu Market moved to South Bund Soft Spinning Material Market (better known as South Bund Fabric Market), it is still a great place for tailor-made suits and qipao at a fair price.

Recently, a news story about how tailors succeed in spite of monthly rents of 160,000 yuan (US$24,704) made the market a hot topic again. Last week, iDEALShanghai went to the market to meet Zhang Shengxiang, head of the market. He said that the story is inaccurate, as 160,000 yuan is actually the annual rent for a stall.

However, the market is totally different than the last time the reporter went there more than 10 years ago.

A market for fake brand-name clothing is gone, and Dongjiadu is turning into a center of custom-made stalls with their own designers and factories.

By taking Metro line 4 and getting off at Nanpudaqiao Station, it is easy to find the place thanks to a poster featuring a huge Chinese “bu” character — meaning cloth — and English words “Tailor-Made” underneath that cover the building’s facade.

The three-story building houses more than 300 stalls selling custom-made suits, dresses, coats, qipao, accessories such as belts, scarves and bags, as well as buttons and fabric.

“When we moved to South Bund Fabric Market in 2006, most of the shops only sold materials, but now more than 90 percent offer custom-made clothing.” Zhang said. “More than 10 years ago, there were a lot of stalls selling ready-made qipao for 300-500 yuan, commonly as souvenirs for foreigners. As time passed, more and more people came here for custom-made clothing with their own specific requirements, such as high-quality materials, embroidery and personal designs. So the stalls updated, inviting designers, renting factories and providing tailor-made services. The prices are still affordable. An Italian guest told me a similar tailor-made coat that costs 2,000 euros in Italy is only 1,000 yuan here.”

With a flood of foreign visitors over the past decade, the market is foreigner-friendly. Every store has a Chinese and an English name that can be seen on billboards in front of the stalls.

Last year, due to the pandemic, many stalls launched online services, enabling overseas guests to order by WeChat and Taobao.

In addition to foreigners, more locals are visiting the market for tailor-made suits, especially for weddings.

“They can get tailor-made suits and dresses at one stall for the whole family, even with a custom design based on their wedding setting,” Zhang said.

After talking to Zhang, the reporter invited her friend Emma Leaning, a foreign columnist in Shanghai Daily who has always wanted to make a traditional qipao, to visit the market again.

Checking out the tailor-made stalls at South Bund Fabric Market
Ma Xuefeng / SHINE

Fiona Li helps Emma Leaning (left), foreign columnist of Shanghai Daily, try on qipao.

How to custom make a qipao

After the duo entered the market, many vendors hawked their wares and greeted them by saying “hello, hello” and “come here.”

One vendor on the third floor spoke passable English. She introduced her qipao in two or three words, such as “this one classical,” “modern style” and “your size.” She even brought out a sequin gown.

For new customers, it’s best to go to a stall recommended by friends — especially friends with similar tastes.

The reporter’s choice for stalls is No. 290, a mom-and-pop stall opened in 2006 — one of the earliest in the market. Zhang Jinya, the laoban (owner) of the stall, greets guests and chooses qipao designs, while her husband, the stall’s tailor, measures customers.

Qipao tailors usually work as husband and wife teams — men operate the sewing machines and women do the hand stitching. There are more than 10 husband and wife teams that work for Zhang.

“Our qipao is renowned for good quality, so we choose the best tailors,” Zhang said. “A nice qipao must fit perfectly with beautiful stitching, hand-made buttons and no warping side-slits. There are more than 1,000 examples of qipao in our stall — all made of silk — and customers can choose whichever fabric and embroidery they like.”

The best way to choose a design is by listening to the laoban’s advice.

For Leaning, Zhang chose five qipao with different colors and designs.

Most stalls don’t have fitting rooms — and neither does Zhang’s. Instead, she draws a piece of cloth over to hide the customers when they are trying on clothes.

Zhang helped Leaning with the pankou (Chinese traditional buttons) while trying on the qipao.

Magically, all of Zhang’s choices were suitable for Leaning, while the ones they thought beautiful in the first sight actually weren’t.

After choosing her five qipao, 10 measurements were taken, including neck, bust, waist, hips and shoulders.

The price of a qipao is 1,000 to 2,000 yuan without embroidery and are ready in only three days. Those with embroidery are priced around 3,000 yuan but take 15 days.

As an additional service, if customers have gained or lost weight within 5 kilograms during the period, their qipao can be altered.

Checking out the tailor-made stalls at South Bund Fabric Market
Ma Xuefeng / SHINE

Emma Leaning is choosing her favorite qipao. Magically, all of the shop owner’s choices are suitable for Leaning.

Checking out the tailor-made stalls at South Bund Fabric Market
Ma Xuefeng / SHINE

The reporter and the columnist choose a mom-and-pop stall that opened in 2006 to try on qipao. Qipao tailors usually work as husband and wife teams.

Checking out the tailor-made stalls at South Bund Fabric Market
Ma Xuefeng / SHINE

Different pieces of qipao are neatly hanging on a pole.

Stalls for the best tailor-made cashmere coats

How to define a luxury coat? Not the brand, but the cashmere fabric, well-fitted and hand-stitched, said Zhuge Honglie, who has more than 20 years’ experience in the tailor-made industry and is the owner of stalls No.284 and No. 247 that offer custom-made suits and coats.

Zhuge has a nickname “Zhuge Liang” in the market, the same as the famous Chinese politician during the Three Kingdoms period (AD 220-280), and is a 49th-generation Zhuge, which customers find impressive.

But his good reputation comes from his high-quality clothes.

“I use almost all of the best cashmere fabrics, such as the water ripple cashmere used in MaxMara’s famous coats and the same Italian-made double-faced cashmere as Dior,” Zhuge said.

The designs in his stall are always simple and fitted. He told the reporter he went to all the famous brands to try their coats and suits, see the different cuttings and improve his staff’s tailoring skills.

“Most of the coats you buy on Taobao for around 1,000 yuan use blended fabrics with less than 50 percent wool and no cashmere,” he said. “ You can buy a tailor-made cashmere coat for 1,500 to 1,800 yuan here, made with the same fabric used in brand-name coats that cost more than 10,000 yuan.”

The waiting time for a suit is a little bit longer than a qipao — 7 days for ones with common fabrics and 14 days for luxury fabrics.

Checking out the tailor-made stalls at South Bund Fabric Market
Ma Xuefeng / SHINE

Zhuge Honglie, owner of two cashmere stores, helps measure Leaning’s sizes. Zhuge’s good reputation comes from his good-quality clothes.

Checking out the tailor-made stalls at South Bund Fabric Market
Ma Xuefeng / SHINE

One of Zhuge Honglie’s cashmere stores at the fabric market.

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