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China's enduring symbol of high fashion

By Xu Junqian | China Daily Europe | Updated: 2017-04-09 14:20

Qipao is making a comeback in China, with today's wealthy willing to splash the cash on intricate creations by renowned tailors such as HanartQipao in Shanghai

Months right after the Spring Festival is usually the slowest for Shanghai's fashion industry.

Many stores have yet to even change their displays to showcase spring collections.

But while most people in the fashion industry are still shaking off post-holiday fatigue, the workshop of HanartQipao, located on the first floor of a quiet residential building in downtown Shanghai, is already a hive of activity, as a dozen middle-aged women piece together exquisite qipao dresses for wealthy and famous clients.

HanartQipao, one of the city's most renowned qipao tailors, charges at least 3,800 yuan ($553; 518 euros; 444) for a dress. Some of the more elaborate ones can cost up to 60,000 yuan.

But for Zhou Zhuguang, founder and art director of the company, making qipao is much more than a lucrative business.

"Qipao is the future and perhaps also the beginning of Chinese haute couture," says the 54-year-old Shanghai native, who is also the vice-director of the Shanghai Fashion Association and chief consultant for the Shanghai Qipao Association.

"If there is one country that can make haute couture that is as good as France, it should be China. This country has for thousands of years been pursuing perfection in craftsmanship, regardless of cost."

Since 2012, when French fashion house Christian Dior held its first haute couture show in Shanghai, the term "haute couture" has been widely abused by domestic fashion brands that hope to add some luster to their collections. However, industry experts say China's fashion creations are still not as sophisticated as the people demanding them.

The pitfall of Chinese brands and designers "is that they always look outside and try to mimic, if not copy, what the Western industry is making. But I think one can only know where he should be headed if he knows where he comes from", Zhou says.

It takes between three weeks and three months to craft a qipao at HanartQipao; every piece is handmade by the 40 tailors in the workshop. Last year, the shop sold 2,000 dresses, which were made using a variety of premium fabrics, including silk, leather and velvet.

"Our clients are mostly successful businesswomen or the wives of successful businessmen who have adopted a rather genteel Chinese traditional lifestyle that includes drinking tea, reciting poems and collecting antiques," says Zhou.

While the qipao, which is widely considered the national dress, has yet to gain popularity among the younger generation, business has nonetheless been brisk for HanartQipao. Buoyed by a growing middle class that is getting more affluent, China's consumption of luxury goods has soared over the past decade.

According to Bain Company, sales of such items spiked at 16 percent in 2009, even though there was a global recession.

A report released by luxury consumption research agency Fortune Character last year forecast that luxury spending in 2016 would grow 3 percent year-on-year despite the current economic slowdown in China.

Before establishing HanartQipao in 1998, Zhou made his fortune by mass-producing and exporting qipao. That year, he was introduced to Chu Hongsheng, a qipao master, and accepted Chu's suggestion to "make perfect dresses instead of lots of dresses". Chu still works at HanartQipao today.

Less than a year later, Zhou got to know Xu Shikai, an embroidery expert whom he later hired. This was when he decided to combine Xu's embroidery with Chu's dresses - which has since proved to be a winning formula. In fact, Zhou's qipao is so coveted that people have even resorted to stealing them.

"These days people say copying is the highest form of flattery. I once had seven dresses stolen from the workshop in a single night. I think that, too, can be considered a form of flattery," jokes Zhou.

In 2015, together with four homegrown qipao brands, Zhou established the Shanghai Chamber of Couture Qipao to set quality standards and promote the craft of making qipao. The chamber has since organized various events in France and Italy.

To keep up with the times, Zhou has been introducing 3-D cutting technology into the production process and developing new fabrics, as qipao are mainly made using silk. He has even dared to venture into the creation of black and white qipao, traditionally only worn for funerals in China.

China's enduring symbol of high fashion

The 99-year-old qipao master Chu Hongsheng with models wearing his creations.  Provided to China Daily

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