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The original qi pao, the last famous Chinese design, was a loose garment worn over trousers. It was first tightened and slit to the hip on the left side in the 1920s, according to one legend, by an actress who wanted to do the Charleston at Shanghai's legendary "dancing" cabarets.
"You see these people in China coming into the shops and saying, 'So what's your brand?'." Cheung says. ".'What does it mean? Ah, Italian, it must be good.' They have the money now. But they don't know how to spend the money."
Whether large numbers of traditionally parsimonious Chinese will actually buy high-end is an open question. Only 20 per cent of Shanghai qualifies as middle class, which means a minimum annual family income of the equivalent of $22,500 about 20 per cent more than the city's average annual wage. Walking through Maison Mode, a luxury department store in Shanghai, is like strolling across an oxygen-free planet: No one's shopping for $800 Louis Vuitton bags here. On the other hand, at the shank-to-flank Xiang Yang market 10 minutes down the street, a decent copy of the same bag runs $22. A massive raid a day earlier that allegedly destroyed 486 counterfeit factories doesn't seem to have thinned the goods much.
Ask the rest of the world what qualifies as Chinese fashion, and the answer will be Shanghai Tang. Hong Kong entrepreneur David Tang created the company in 1994, and it was instantly famous for its beautifully made Chinese garments in vibrant colours qi paos in black and red, Tang jackets in citrus velvet and silk, turquoise and orange reversible pants. Walking into a Shanghai Tang store is like falling into a basket of exotic fruit.
But it was a bit of an illusion. "David Tang was a very, very smart businessman," Elle's Cheung says. "He's a marketing genius, and he did everything right. But I think the clothes appeal to Westerners more than Chinese. He perfectly understood the Western perception of the Chinese style."
That's how Cie. Financière Richemont AG, the Swiss holding company that owns Cartier and Dunhill and that bought Shanghai Tang in 1998, has transformed it into the first and only global Chinese luxury brand. Revenues doubled last year. The number of stores worldwide will double to 30 over the next three years. The company will also begin full-scale exports to brand-conscious Japan. And Japan isn't the only country that suddenly finds China sexy: As of this fall, according to industry insiders, the Shangri-La hotel chain, long presented as pan-Asian, will beef up its Chinese branding.
Last month in Shanghai, at the biggest fashion show modern China has ever seen, Shanghai Tang launched its "urban nomad" line, clothes inspired by Mongolian and Tibetan costume all fur and flaps and flashes of coy striped colour, Genghis Khan meets Haight-Ashbury. For the traditionalists in what it now calls its Authentics line Shanghai Tang also offers a creamy, calligraphy-decorated side-slit mini so short it barely covers the mainland.
But you rarely see those clothes worn in China. "We're proud of our Chinese roots. And we're inventing a new style," insists Joanne Ooi, Shanghai Tang's creative director. "But Chinese people don't want to wear our traditional clothing. Because it's a nouveau riche society. It's just a phase. But right now it's not a particularly individualistic society." Instead, the big brands the ones the Chinese can least afford get all the attention. Who says capitalism isn't stupid?
For the homegrown Chinese industry, this is a big problem: China lacks distinctive modern fashions because Chinese consumers want brands made elsewhere.
But if street fashion in Shanghai is any evidence, that may be changing. "What's starting to catch up," says Ramon Gil, a partner in Mirror Studios, a new Shanghai design house, "is fashion and art and culture." China's greed for everything it sees has become an inspiration to its young designers: The result is the first indigenous styles to emerge from China in more than 60 years.