SVAMA Global Marketing Blog

SVAMA's Special Interest Groups are designed to allow members and friends to network and learn from peers interested in the same marketing specialty. SIGs operate independently and frequently morph into face-to-face, book review, or email sigs depending on the needs of the group.

Monday, July 17, 2006

New Year's In China

New clothes are often worn on New Year's Day in China. This year, my clothes will not only be new, but tailor-made. Ready-made clothing in Europe appears to have started with the sailors. Tailors (the word in English dates to 1297) kept a stock on hand for those who were literally in town just long enough to get supplies. For everyone else, clothes were made to order by the tailor or the women at home. How ironic that in the 21st century it is again chic to have clothes made to fit, especially novel items like a custom-made qipao, usually in red silk. High mandarin collar. Short-sleeves. Form-hugging top. Long and high slit down the side. Add a tapered cigarette holder and it's the embodiment of 1930s Shanghai, or at least of its singsong girl advertisements. But while the tailors who made them were from Shanghai, the qipao itself is not, at least not originally. The 'banner gown' is actually named after the 'Banner People,' that is, the Manchu of Last Emperor fame. In their native north, the qipao was an ankle-length, tube-shaped over garment just perfect for their farming, semi-nomadic lifestyle. After the establishment of the Qing dynasty, the qipao's modest predecessor began to replace the traditional long skirts Han women had worn for more than two centuries. The influence of Western fashion affected the length and fit to emphasize women's figures and ultimately substituted nylons underneath for the more traditional cloth leggings. The Hongbang ('red band') Tailors of Shanghai probably made a lot of the qipao that ended up adorning movie stars from the 1920s and 1930s. The Hongbang Tailors were first in the city to establish a Western suit shop, make the first Western suit, the first Chinese tunic suit, and also set up the first school for Western suit design. They were probably also among the 2,000 Shanghai tailors who struck for 8 days in October 1895 for more rice, pork and fish in their meals, a 15 cent raise in daily wages, an increase in meal expense budgets, and double pay for night work. The strike was successful and the Hongbang Tailors, at least, are now part of a museum exhibit in nearby Ningbo about China's history of fashion and textiles that I hope to visit soon. But as tailors they no longer exist, so I went instead to a shop following in the same tradition. The shop designs Western apparel for discerning Chinese customers and makes them to order. The three women took on my Western suit and pair of pants project as a favor, but found my clothing demands downright boring. Maybe so, but my new clothes began with a stroll among the bolts of silk, cotton, linen, cashmere, corduroy and even sequined fabrics of the cloth market on Dongjiadu Road. Bartering was cordial. Several cloth sellers offered advice on which fabrics were best for pants, shirts, or suits, before deftly measuring out the fabric with a ruler and slicing it free. Cloth in hand, I then went to the shop to get measured and identify the pattern for the suit. I supplied a pair of pants as a sample of the style I wanted. I modeled them so that they could see the fit. The verdict? "Too short. Too loose." The suggestion? "The pant leg should go down further." She bent down and adjusted it so that it was just above the floor. "Or here." A little higher, it was now just above the sole of my flat dress shoe. She stood, looked in the mirror and nodded. Her hands now free of pins, she then bent down to grab one pant leg from behind, bunching up the pant leg so it hugged my form, as if the cotton slacks had Lycra in them. "And like that." It was actually sort of funny. Western fashion had made the qipao sexier by having it hug the body, but now I was insisting that the slacks should hang flat, rectangular. Her expression said it all. The plain jacket I initially picked also didn't meet with her approval. "That way, you look like an old woman." So we compromised with a slightly larger, lower collar, and more V-shaped cut at the bottom. The material for the suit was a weave, so I needed it lined. "Just in the front," she concluded, then explained that women here found a lining that went all the way around the leg too bulky and confining. On the other hand, I don't wear long underwear in the winter so maybe that was a factor, though I didn't ask. I held up the cloth to the light to show how it was see-through and the idea of a complete lining was quickly approved. We briefly discussed jacket buttons and then she measured me. A week or so later it was time for a fitting. The jacket only had one sleeve, with the other side still open like a vest. The pants already had their zippers but were fastened on top with a temporary cloth-like Velcro. And of course there were pins everywhere holding things in place so that adjustments could be made. Like to the pant legs, which were too long. And there was another problem: I didn't have enough cloth for the rest of the suit. She showed me the chalk marks on the black cloth I had brought. The material for the vest had already been removed. One pant leg was sketched out, but there wasn't enough material for the other one. I had asked the cloth seller how much material to buy in order to make a suit and had even bought a little extra in order to avoid this problem. I didn't understand all the details of why the cloth turned out not to be enough, except that she was blaming herself for not measuring the last time. But no big deal, I had gotten name cards from the cloth sellers for just such an emergency. I gave her the information and we were able to get more of the same black material. I can't see any difference in the color, so it might even be from the same bolt. Just last week was the second and final fitting, really more of a final check just to make sure that everything was okay. I asked to quickly replace the faux diamond-and-gold buttons on my new black business suit with black buttons, and voila! My new look for a new year. Whatever your new look, I wish you all the best in 2006!


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