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The wardrobe club a third space for women
Updated: 2004-08-26 09:36

It's Saturday night in a slick office building on Huaihai Road. Women are swanning around, too cheerful and chic to be overtime sloggers. Their destination: a 19th-floor boutique, from which the sound of laughter and spirited conversation floats.

Welcome to the Provence Fashion Club, where women gossip as they try on the brightly-colored cotton tank tops, elegant long skirts and matching accessories. It feels like a pre-wedding hen party and rarely do the guests leave empty-handed.

Nowadays, working women are more style-conscious and demanding, placing a premium on personal service and one-stop convenience.

Provence meets those needs with clothes for career women in a cushy alternative to impersonal shopping malls: Here, you can try on all the clothes you want, bypassing truculent sales assistants.

Provence's monthly sales is about 200,000 yuan (US$24,096), says owner Dai Weijia, who is also a managing director of a Japanese import-export fashion trading company.

With the establishment of Provence five years ago, Dai fulfilled a lifelong dream to own a boutique. Today, she has over 4,000 registered clients. Of course, you don't have to be registered to buy there.

Airy and swank, Provence is not an excessively decorated store and clothes are displayed according to price.

Customer Lin Lan sashays around in a short lime-green skirt she has just tried on and then tests length by sitting on the couch.

"I'm not sure about this," she proclaims. Other guests nod sympathetically. The skirt, which fits well while she stands, bunches up when she sits.

"At most big stores, no one would ever ask me to sit down and see how a skirt feels," Lin says. She then slips on a tank top and twirls in front of her friends, who are seated on a couch. As she tries on other items, her friends egg her on, saying "It's so your style, it's so cute."

It's all cordial and low-pressure. Dai carefully monitors how many of dresses or suits are sold to guard against her customers bumping into each other in the same outfit.

Wardrobe clubs of this kind offer an occasion for women to talk about fashion and lifestyle and perhaps, more importantly, to alleviate stress which can often be a constant companion of working women.

Dai writes a newsletter for her members every month, featuring inspirational stories about other successful women, sharing problems and her own travelogue. She hosts free lectures on cosmetics, skin care, golf, Chinese medicine therapy and even helps her members with personal issues such as legal advice for divorce. All of this makes the Provence Fashion Club more than just a shopping experience.

"This is not just a stop for fashion addicts," says Dai. "I want to create a third space for women, which is detached from the other two -- work and home. Obviously work and family stress have wreaked havoc on most women's nerves. They need a place where they can breathe and talk."

Zheng Lihong couldn't agree more. She started Fushi Fanhua (which means "humble flowers in a frenzied world") Women's Club last year, a skin care center, which she is now developing into a fashion club.

"Sometimes only women can understand women," says Zheng, who divorced and remarried and is now leading a happy life. "The Mars-and-Venus theory is true. Sometimes, it is more helpful for women to pour out their troubles to a woman than to a man."

A versatile business women who has tried her hand at just about everything, Zheng has played the stock market, invested in TV dramas, opened a bookstore and run a restaurant.

Sequestered from the noisy downtown street, her club is nestled in a high-rise apartment on Anfu Road. Skin care is focus but she is currently developing a made-to-order fashion service.

Zheng says customers can chat over endless cups of coffee the whole afternoon if they like.

Besides providing advice for the stylistically challenged, the club also offers free classes in flower arranging, yoga, Italian cooking and Western table etiquette.

Zheng's latest idea is to launch acting classes for her members in partnership with the Shanghai Drama Arts Center.

"We have different identities in different situations," she explains. "Some identities are suppressed for so long that we don't even realize we have them -- a very tame and demure woman may have a wild side. Acting can help people release their inhibited emotions. It could be fun."

Fun, yes, but how does she make money? Zheng says there's definitely money to be made in the classes and programs for members.

"Customers usually keep coming back," she says. "You just get used to the quality and the service of something like this and you won't settle for anything less."

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