Once proud icon restyles brand of fine tailored women's fashion

Local haute couture brand eyes on revival.
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

A model walks runway in the fashion show.

HONGXIANG, a bygone fashion brand, is making something of a comeback. A fashion show of its haute couture collection was recently staged to celebrate its 100th birthday.

Founded in 1917, Hongxiang was a pioneer in Chinese fashion and beyond. It redefined the classic cheongsam, changing it from a loose-fitting, straight-line gown to a body-hugging, one-piece dress that was highly praised by Madame Soong Ching Ling as a revolution in the women’s liberation movement.

Hongxiang was the first couture house in China to hold a fashion show, attracting celebrities like Ruan Lingyu, known as “China’s Greta Garbo,” and movie queen Hu Die to the catwalk.

At the 1933 Chicago Expo, six of Hongxiang’s silk cheongsam captivated the world with their elaborate, multicolored embroidery. The brand won a silver medal, a first for China.

In 1947, Hongxiang again attracted attention with a cloak it made, with embroidered flowers in golden thread, for Queen Elizabeth.

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Over the years, Hongxiang came to be recognized widely as a trusted choice for high-end, tailor-made garments. In 1993, it expanded to a department store, becoming Shanghai’s version of Harrods.

But in later years, the brand began to falter because of competition from foreign fashion houses, careless management and a failure to modernize marketing. It was part of a general demise of quality tailors in China.

In 2008, Hongxiang lost its premium location on the Nanjing Road W. Now, it operates only a small store on Shaanxi Road N. and a workshop tucked away in a residential complex on Haifang Road.

Still, its allure as a quality brand is not all forgotten. Hongxiang retains a following of loyal, upmarket customers who still value good tailoring and design.

“They became our customers at a young age,” explained senior tailor Chen Jian, 58. “They know our quality and they trust us. They will come from time to time and support us. Every month, we sell clothes valued at about 200,000 yuan (US$30,218).”

In September, Chen was honored one of the 94 “Shanghai standouts” under a campaign by the Shanghai Federation of Trade Unions to single out 1,000 exemplary workers.

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Veteran tailor Chen Jian works on a hand-made coat at the workshop on Haifang Road. 

Hongxiang is seeking to revive its fortunes by doing what it does best — fine handmade craftsmanship.

“We decided to hold a grand fashion show after so many years to spark some publicity,” said Ni Hua, deputy Party chief of Hongxiang. “We want to show that our tailors are innovative and can adapt to modern trends.”

For Chen, the only dress of value is one made by hand. He has devoted 40 years to honing his skills and putting his passion into fashion. Some may view cutting, sewing and fitting as a boring sort of job, but Chen said he finds great satisfaction and enjoyment in his work.

“Yes, it’s nothing special,” he said of his skill. “But if you indulge yourself in the world of cutting and sewing, you will be amazed by the beauty of change. It’s so exciting to face a challenge, isn’t’ it? I feel happiness beyond description when I address challenge.”

To make a perfect garment, Hongxiang tailors require 26 body measurements and 30 techniques, which were listed as part of the city’s “intangible cultural heritage” in June 2007. Among them, “3D tailoring” is what made Hongxiang famous, and Chen is an expert in the practice.

Knowing how the body moves, he can shape the cloth to the wearer so they appear as one. He can also compensate for body flaws and make wearers seem taller or shorter.

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Hongxiang's workshop

“Many of my customers are older hunch-backed women,” he said. “They can’t find suitable clothes at ready-to-wear stores, so they turn to me.”

Chen also mentors young people in tailoring. He has taught more than 20 students.

“We don’t have many young customers, and we also lack young tailors,” he said. “We have to introduce new blood to our workshop. We need people to carry on the old skills, and we also want young ideas on creating new fashions in tune with the times.”

Hongxiang recruits saleswomen who can speak English and Japanese fluently to better serve foreign customers.

After the fashion show, Hongxiang’s parent company, the Kaikai Group, announced it will set up a 1 million yuan foundation to help promote venerable brands.

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