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September 15, 2018

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This is the place to be if you want a custom-made suit in 3 days

BEING a native doesn’t always mean knowing more about the city than visitors. A few years ago, one of my friends from the Czech Republic recommended the South Bund Soft Spinning Material Market to me. He felt very excited about getting a custom-made suit at a fair price.

For foreign visitors, the market is better-known as the South Bund Fabric Market.

Having the intention of buying a suit, I recently visited the market. Taking Metro Line 4 and getting off at Nanpudaqiao station, I followed a group of foreigners to the market.

Actually, it is not difficult to find the place as a poster featuring a huge Chinese character “bu,” meaning cloth, and English words “Tailor-Made” below covered the building’s facade.

Established in 2006, the three-story building houses around 330 stalls selling custom-made suits, dresses, coats, cheongsams, accessories such as belts, scarves and bags, and buttons and clothing fabric of various types.

Before entering the building, I heard that many vendors were hawking their wares and greeted foreign customers by saying “Hello, hello!” and “How are you?”

The market is very international and foreigner- friendly. Every vendor has an English name and more or less speaks English.

Similarly, each store has both a Chinese and an English name, which can be seen on the visiting cards and billboards hung in front of the stalls. Even the plastic bags used by many stalls had “Welcome to Shanghai” written on them.

“The place is not only a trading market but also a tourist attraction and a window to the native people’s life and culture,” said Ji Xiaoyang, owner of the No. 282 stall. His English name is Jason.

Don’t belittle the tailors there as many of them once made clothes for superstars. Some shopkeepers have hung group photos on the walls.

For example, those featuring Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Sylvester Stallone at the No. 138 stall called Tom & Jenny, the former vice president of Colombia at the No.129 stall named Joyce & Rita, and Yao Ming at Jason’s shop.

“There were huge crowds inside and outside the market on the day Djokovic came. A lot of bodyguards and fans followed him. I have received an invitation from Federer who will land in Shanghai next month. In November, I will meet Stallone’s team and take measurements to these 250 people in their hotel. I also made clothes for the American Airline,” Li Xintao, whose English name is Tom, said proudly as he took a magazine from a glass storage cabinet and pointed out the clothes he made.

The cabinet is stuffed with fashion magazines and swatches which customers can leaf through to choose styles and colors. The surface of the cabinet was covered with the visiting cards of the customers whose jobs range from businessmen to diplomatic officials.

I dropped by Li’s store when Li was taking the measurements of a foreigner named Matt from Chicago. Li kept speaking English with Matt though he had a strong accent.

“When will you ‘pick off’ the clothes?” Li asked Matt three times. Finding that Matt couldn’t understand his words, Li asked “When will you leave Shanghai” instead.

Matt was staying in Shanghai for just three days. On the recommendation of his friend, he was visiting the market on the first day. He ordered a suit, and several pants and shirts from Li. Three days seemed to be too short to customize clothes but nothing is impossible here.

“They will be ready for alterations tomorrow afternoon,” Li said confidently.

Pants and shirts were 280 yuan (US$42) and 180 yuan each, and a suit was 1,250 yuan. Not having enough Chinese cash, Matt paid part of the cost in dollars, which is rare these days.

“Previously, most foreign customers paid in foreign currency and some of them even carried a currency exchange table. Nowadays, many foreigners use Alipay and WeChat Pay. Credit cards are acceptable but customers need to pay for the transaction service fee,” a woman surnamed Xu said. Xu, who is in her 60s, has worked in the market since it was established.

“The French are generally more sensitive to prices,” she added.

Cheap prices and fast work often equate to inferior quality, which might be true but for Matt the clothes appear to be reasonably good quality given the price.

In a WeChat message later, Matt said: “I was pretty happy with the tailoring but I’m not as sure about the material,” he said. “My friend was so happy with the work they did for him and I didn’t think about bargaining at all, which I really regret, but everything will be good.”

Crowded, cramped and messy, the market definitely cannot hold a candle to Savile Row, the street in London known for its bespoke tailoring for men.

Most stalls don’t even have a fitting room. Instead, vendors draw a piece of cloth over when customers are trying on clothes.

“The vendors are typical sales people in being too aggressive, but only a little,” said Matt.

Over the past decade, the South Bund Fabric Market has become very popular with foreign visitors and is mentioned as a “must-visit” on some tourism websites.

Strolling around the market, I had the strong feeling that there were more foreign customers than Chinese.

“Previously, 70 percent of my customers were from foreign countries, and now the rate decreases to 60. But still, there are more foreigners than Chinese. However, foreign customers begin to bargain, which they didn’t do before. Maybe they learn it from the Chinese,” said Ji.

While I was thinking about which store to go to, a woman with an American accent exclaimed to her companions: “Oh, it’s Jason’s shop!” Following them, I entered the shop which was crammed with people.

Ji was busy taking measurements while the two female shop assistants were giving advice to the customers. All spoke fluent English.

“I have never taken English class before. At the very beginning, it was very hard for me to communicate with foreigners. I learnt English through listening to other people’s conversation and practicing every day. One of my regular foreign customers said recently that my English is getting much better. I am also able to speak a little French,” said Ji.

Moving from Yangzhou in Jiangsu Province to Shanghai in 1990, Ji has worked as a tailor for almost 30 years.

A couple came to Ji’s shop and showed pictures featuring the styles they wanted. The man even brought an old pair of trousers in order to let tailors measure more exactly.

“I visited the market and ordered a dress six years ago. I still wear it now. My father also bought a suit which he said was the best quality ever. The prices are almost equivalent to those of ready-made garments in my country,” said Nora from Germany.

She once worked in Shanghai for six months and this time she came with her boyfriend. Like Matt, the couple were only staying in Shanghai for a couple of days and visited the market on the first day, allowing an extra day for alternations.

Nora’s boyfriend wanted to make his custom jackets unusual and unique so he chose yellow lining decorated with polka dot patterns.

“Foreign customers are more creative. For example, they prefer colorful suit jacket lining and some of them require the sleeve buttons with different colors. Chinese customers are more conservative,” Ji said while packing a suitcase.

Bringing several magazines and swatches, he was to meet a regular customer from Mexico in a hotel the next day. Ji has made clothing for him for over 10 years.

“He ordered five shirts and two suits this time. He is thinner than before,” said Ji two days later.

His store is just the showroom. Ji hires around 15 tailors working at a studio, which is 10-minute-walk from the market. Starting at 10 in the morning and knocking off at midnight, the tailors are very hardworking.

“Fewer people are willing to learn making clothing as the job is very laborious. Poor eyesight, neck problems and lumbago, we often suffer from the occupational diseases,” said Ji.

In recent years, many popular markets such as the Dongtai Road Antique Market and Tongchuan Road Seafood Market have been shut down for city construction.

How long will the South Bund Fabric Market survive? The answer is unknown but many vendors are pessimistic.

“The market will be closed sooner or later. Since 2012, there are fewer and fewer foreign customers. The business gets worse every year. Previously, when business was good, 10 pieces of clothing could be sold in one day, which is impossible nowadays,” said a shop assistant who preferred to be called Wendy, her English name.

She works at No. 270 stall which mainly sells leather clothes.

“I intend to open my own shop in a second-tier or third-tier city. The clothing market is saturated in Shanghai,” she said.

Among hundreds of stores, it is difficult for customers to decide where to order clothes.

For those who live in Shanghai, it’s better to try a pair of pants or a shirt first from different stores and compare the quality.

Be prepared to bargain but don’t haggle too much as customers get what they pay for.

Even in one shop, the abilities of tailors vary and the tasks are allocated to different tailors according to price. To save time, bring an old item or a picture of something you want copied.

If you go

Opening hours: 9am-6pm

Address: 399 Lujiabang Rd

How to get there: Take Metro Line 4 to the Nanpudaqiao Station. Leave from Exit 3.


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