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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."

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