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China’s once, present and future fashion capital

By 27 June 2009 No Comment
Photo by Julie Horowitz

Fashioning the future: Student designer Ma Ruitao shows his stuff | Photo by Julie Horwitz

“Shanghai is a modern city, especially when compared to most other cities in China, so I came here to learn about fashion,” said Zhang Yujing, a fashion design sophomore at the city’s Donghua University.

The travel Web site asiarooms.com said Shanghai was one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world and that Shanghai fashion was a “booming industry.”  The site also said that over the past few decades, Shanghai fashion had developed a unique style of its own, attributing the trend to factors like the mixing of indigenous and Western patterns of dressing, a phenomenon commonly referred to as “East Meets West”.

While the amount of fashion in and from Shanghai that is truly representative of Chinese or Shanghai fashion is debatable, few question the notion that Shanghai is an important global fashion post.

When did Shanghai become a big player in the world fashion scene? The city’s history as China’s major port city during the nineteenth century paved the way for new ideas and styles. In her book “Changing Clothes in China”, author Antonia Finnane explains Shanghai’s emergence as a fashion capital during the early 20th century:

“In the 1920’s, a fashion industry took place in China. It was characterized by the proliferation of pictorial magazines, the emergence of the graphic artist as fashion designer, promotion of retail outlets, competition between local and foreign products, and fashion parades. [The fashion industry’s] development was most obvious in Shanghai, which in this decade became the undisputed fashion capital of China.”

Today, one can see the many varieties of fashion Shanghai offers. From the high-end, non-Chinese brands such as Cartier and Gucci in large shopping malls to the simple, often counterfeit goods in crowded markets, there are practically limitless options of shopping for any taste or income.

There are also a good number of boutiques in Shanghai.  Shanghai-based designers who exclusively carry their own creations operate many of these boutiques.

Xu Yulin, Shanghai-based designer opened Shanghai 2002, a boutique on Changle Road, in 2002 (hence the name). Currently in England continuing his design studies, he has appointed two staff members to run his Shanghai shop in his absence.

“Every garment in this store is designed by Xu,” said Zhang, a friend of Xu Yulin and employee at Shanghai 2002, “These designs have been copied by many others, and all items are limited.”

The designs in Shanghai 2002 are influenced by the traditional Chinese style: sleeveless dresses made from silk fabrics with colorful print patterns inspired by items in nature, such as goldfish or flowers.

Just a few stores down the same road there is another boutique, F.C., which features a completely different style. “I would describe the style in this store as very simple and trendy,” said a salesclerk named Lisa.“We mostly carry T-shirts and jeans.”

So where will the tastes and ideas of today’s generation of fashion-conscious Shanghai inhabitants take them? Along with learning how to make and design clothes, fashion students at Donghua University are also learning about other cultures’ fashions, particularly those of Japan.

Fashion design sophomore Ye Yimei said everyone in the fashion school was required to go to Tokyo for a semester.

Ma Ruitao, a fashion design student who recently became a junior, described what he would learn while in Tokyo, where he is scheduled to begin his studies in April of next year: ”I will learn how to make clothes with special materials, and how to make men’s suits.”

It was surprising to learn that all of the fashion students’ textbooks were imported from Japanese schools. More surprising was the students’ preference for European style clothing. “Tokyo style is more avant garde, so not everyone will accept this style,” said Yujing, “More people prefer European style clothing.”

While Ma expressed interest in going to Europe, he has decided that Shanghai would be the better option for now. “I want to go to Europe, but then I consider the cost of living and my lack of connections there,” he said. “It would be easy for me to start a brand in Shanghai.”

Photo by Julie Horowitz

Classroom design: Student work on display at Donghua University | Photo by Julie Horwitz

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