Chi chi in Shanghai

When Chinese Vogue launched in August last year, its print run of 300 000 sold out almost immediately. Quite a feat for a glossy magazine featuring high-end designer clothes in a country where the average annual income is less than R14 000.

Fashion in Shanghai is hugely important on every level. Giorgio Armani has proclaimed Shanghai the most exciting city in the world.
Look inside your clothes and read the label: it’s a fair bet that you will see the words “Made in China’‘. That’s because an incredible 50% of the world’s textiles are produced there. Everything from top designerwear down to R140 jackets probably started its life in China.

Given that I’m no stranger to bashing my credit card in the more established fashion capitals of Paris, Milan and New York, I decided it was only right that I took myself and my slightly less enthusiastic shopper boyfriend, David, off to Shanghai for a week of bargain hunting.

Shanghai is a perfectly manageable size for a shopping trip: it might be home to about 20-million people and at least a zillion mopeds, but nothing is more than a R15 taxi ride away—although a flashcard with your destination written in Mandarin is essential. The river Huangpu, the notorious centre of the opium trade in the 1930s, when Shanghai was dubbed the “Whore of the Orient’‘, runs down the east of the city. On one side is the futuristic Pearl TV Tower, a building that closely resembles a neon-lit cellphone charm sitting among the futuristic megalopolis skyline of Pudong. Neoclassical buildings line the west bank and house mega-bucks shops such as Giorgio Armani and Cartier; Dolce & Gabbana is opening soon. The Astor House Hotel, where we stayed, is at the north end of this area.

From the outside, the hotel looks like Harrods; inside is a marble-floored reception dimly lit by a huge chandelier. The air of faded grandeur is enhanced by the fact that previous guests have included Einstein and Charlie Chaplin. Those boys may or may not have received friendlier service than we did, but the room size and decor more than made up for it.

After a quirky communist breakfast of liquid yoghurt, tinned fruit and powdery bread, we set off down the Bund, Shanghai’s most famous promenade, past an elderly couple silently practising t’ai chi and countless hawkers offering Rolex watches and Louis Vuitton bags.

Our first stop was Three on the Bund, a lifestyle megastore housing Giorgio Armani, an Evian Spa and a couple of swanky restaurants. On the second floor is Three Women, an airy store selling labels such as Chloe, Lanvin and YSL; it feels like chi chi stores the world over. Significantly, there weren’t any Chinese labels on sale. Richard Hsu, a luxury brand consultant from Shanghai, told me that currently fine arts and film are way ahead of the fashion industry. “There is not enough international design exposure available to students at the moment, and copying would seem to be inevitable until original creativity develops and takes over,” he said.

The shop floor was empty. Although there are an increasing number of rich Chinese returning to live in Shanghai and shopping with gusto, the consumer revolution is still in its infancy. It was ridiculously overstaffed with cool sales assistants wearing deconstructed apron dresses.

In contrast, my next stop was the trashy Xiangyang market. I challenge even the most snobbish shopper not to be seduced by the stuff here. It’s unbelievably cheap and the bartering is fun and good natured. I bought a keyring in the shape of a Chanel jacket, a set of dominos in a beautiful wooden box (about R120) and several fake DVDs. Here, according to one local shopper, Dino, fakes are a fact of life. “There’s no way out; as long as there are real products, there will be fakes.’’ City officials seem to disagree, however; keen to clean up Shanghai’s image, they are planning to close down Xiangyang.

From here it was another taxi ride to the marvellous Lu Jia Bang Road market. Housed over four floors, it resembles a provincial Arndale centre but sells only fabric. Each stall has a resident tailor ready to whip up a made-to-measure cashmere coat, cotton shirt or silk dress. Many of the highly skilled tailors who fled Shanghai in 1949 for Hong Kong have now returned and the workmanship levels are incredibly high. I plumped for stall 212 and conveyed to the tailor that I would like some trousers in a dark grey wool which I’d chosen.

Immediately, his daughter Rita appeared—all teeth and tape measure. I sketched out a pair of trousers while she pointed to the calendar to let me know that in two days they would be ready and would cost about R130.

All this shopping brought on hunger pangs so we headed out for food.

Eating in Shanghai isn’t the daunting activity I’d been led to believe. True, we did see photo menus of blackened turtles, but armed with a Mandarin sign that read “I am a vegetarian but I will eat fish’‘, I ate some of the tastiest food I’d ever experienced. From delicious Cantonese dim sum in The Secret Garden restaurant, to noodles at the Ajisen Ramen chain, I quickly became a Shanghainese food convert. Best was the 1931 Restaurant in the heart of the French Concession area. Like many of Shanghai’s restaurants and bars, its decor harks back to Shanghai’s 1930s heyday, and the nightlife is suitably decadent. There we met Shiny Feng, a music marketing director, who pointed me towards the most fashionable shopping street in Shanghai.

Changle Road is a world away from the anodyne shopping malls of Plaza 66, or the slightly twee paved area of Xintiandi, or even the boisterous charm of Nanjing Road, home to Shanghai’s brilliantly named Number One Department Store. Changle Road is a shady tree-lined street hiding the best boutiques in the city. The best stretch is between Maoming Road and Chengdu Road. Sizes are Eastern (ie small), and styles Western. Here I struck shopping gold, as many of the shops seemed to be selling factory seconds by designers I eulogise, but can’t normally afford. A silk puffball dress set me back just £20 and a pin-tucked blouse just £8. Stock is delivered every day and is usually a couple of seasons old, but then this sort of shopping excitement can’t be perfect.

In celebration, we headed off for another delicious dinner at Shintori, a Japanese restaurant that fancies itself a little too much, but is lots of fun. We then popped next door to drink vodka tonics with more hip young Chinese in the People Bar. We finished off with a midnight massage at Dragonfly on Donghu Road. Something which, I admit, sounds suspect, but as was logically pointed out to us, it’s the best time to relax and have one: why would you want one earlier, only to get all knotted up again?

All too soon it was time to leave. Our taxi sped down the Bund for one last time, past a sign that read “I heart Shanghai’‘. I’ve decided that I do too—I love its contradictory mix of rampant consumerism and communism, its glamorous old architecture and uber-modern buildings. Back home, our purchases proved to be a roaring success, my tailored trousers fit better than any posh designer pair I’ve ever bought. I’m definitely with Confucius on this one: “Wheresoever you go, go with all your heart.’’ Oh, and take some roomy luggage with you, too.—Â

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