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Silk Cut

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

'The colour is okay, and it's expensive-looking," June Yamada is saying, forcefully as usual. She's sitting on the floor of the living room of her apartment in Shanghai in pale mint pants and a chartreuse sweater and tiny bright green gardening clogs. She looks impeccable, as always.

The seven women from 18 to 45 standing in front of her are less impeccable, as always. This is June Yamada's regular monthly international fashion class. Yamada, a twice-divorced former actress and car-show model of Japanese-Taiwanese heritage, teaches newly rich women in China how to look sophisticated — what to wear, how to shop, even how to eat. (With a fork. In China today, Western is the only way.)

"But look at that combination, Koko!" Yamada snaps. Koko, a short woman in her early 30s, is dressed in a vaguely hippieish tie-dyed skirt and a baggy sweater. She's a highly paid businesswoman, and looks considerably better than any of Canada's female MPs during Question Period. But Yamada is treating her like something that came in on the sole of someone's shoe. Speaking of which, "Those shoes — those are boys shoes. Boys are not going to look at you." Koko gets a grade of D. But even the Bs are an abomination in Yamada's neat, tight books. "Look at their hair. They look like they came out of a cave."

In many ways, they have. For nearly 50 years, fashion had no place in Communist China. Now, as China embraces money and the West as never before, an estimated 13 million Chinese will be able to afford luxury goods.

China-besotted Giorgio Armani, whose recent fall collection in Milan was suffused with silks and pajamas, plans to have 30 stores in China in time for Beijing's 2008 Olympics. Ports International — remember the Canadian bankruptcy scandal? — has 288 stores in China already, and is the best-known brand in the country. Zegna has 40 stores in 24 cities, Gucci has six, Prada has half a dozen and plans to build nine more, including a flagship in Shanghai designed by architectural zoomboy Rem Koolhaus.

And it's not just brand names the Chinese want, but brand bodies. Life in Shanghai is like watching every makeover reality show on TV at the same time: Fitness classes are exploding, plastic surgery is essential — especially to create "Western" eyelid folds, and to sand down the bones of the jaw to make one's face less round. Who do you want to be, the West asks. To which, China answers: anyone but who we are.

Yamada teaches her wards that there's an art to shopping all these brand names, that cut and texture and colour matter too. (Shanghai women dress for status, hardly ever for sex.) "Everybody's getting an MBA in China, but they're still farmers," she says. "They have abx solutely no sense of colour. When you talk about colour, they put together yellow and red, like the Chinese flag."

When she isn't showing them how to shop, Yamada teaches them how to behave: not to shout — a Shanghai habit — not to crowd people in line, how to hang on to a man. "After three days, after you have nice sex, he or she is going to leave you if you have no sophistication," she insists, and shakes her head. They prize her every word. "Spitting in the street, or picking your nails or picking your nose all day is no big deal here. But it's disgusting."

Whereupon the ladies retire to the dining room, to eat fresh salad not with chopsticks, but with knives and forks.

"Every sophisticated lady wants to be seen as being Western-influenced," Yamada says. "So it's a fashion to eat fresh salad."

None of this is morally uplifting to watch. In China today, moral uplift gets less use than brassieres and side-view mirrors on cars.

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Elle China recently designed eight new looks for the Chinese Miss World competition. The only look with a Chinese pedigree was a qi pao, the high-necked, high-sleeved, body-hugging dress that everyone associates with pre-Communist China. Why? "Because," editorial director Angelica Cheung says, "there is no Chinese style in contemporary fashion."

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.

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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?

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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.

Four designers are worth watching, all of whom have been invited to participate in Singapore's Fashion Week in January, all of whom will be hitting Europe next spring. They are: Jenny Ji (her line, La Vie, features traditional Chinese designs, hippiefied for mass production); Wang Yiyang and Zhang Da, both of whom are known for their affordable and hip street wear; and Lu Kun, Ramon Gil's partner at Mirror, who represents the high-fashion end of the quartet. All of them are under 35. All cut their teeth working for American or European mass-market outfits.

Wang Yiyang, as modest as he is talented, works in silk jersey that he slits open and then patches with grey cotton; some of his clothes can be worn as either tops or pants.

Meanwhile in a small studio near the An Lan Lu pet market, where a champion fighting cricket can fetch $400, Lu Kun sketches new patterns beneath a photograph of Audrey Hepburn and some mahjongg tiles on a shelf (his various influences). It's easy to believe Lu Kun is about to burst onto the international scene. Armani loved his stuff on a recent visit, and Harrods has been calling. Like China, he operates without rules, reinventing everything: waitress uniforms in pink and grey silk, uniform trousers with stripes of buttons down the side, dresses intended to "demystify couture." His inspiration is the past — the infamous Shanghai of the 1930s — hurled into the future.

Fringes were popular then; Lu Kun does them in satin ribbon. The plunging necklines of the Jazz Age, a small dare, become slits and cutaways and compromised straps, a much bigger taunt; business grey is paired with fuchsia pink to parody China's new corporate lust, its tarty economic availability. Or there's his flowing see-through black silk lounge pajamas, strategically camouflaged with lace so they don't set the room on fire. China's ass is on display — or is it on the line?

"Once the Chinese find a designer outfit they like," Lu Kun says, "they buy 20, 30, 40 of it. Or they have lots of Gucci, Prada, lots of brands. But it doesn't really match their personality."

Not yet, anyway.

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