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What do you do if you're size 14 and want a qipao?

GUCCI. Chanel. We can do. No problem." Or Prada. Chloe. Yves Saint Laurent. Oscar de Larenta ... Whichever fashion designer in whatever style, Flora Zhang says she and her tailors can sew up a customized knock-off just for you.

Ditto for qipao and Tang jackets or tangzhuang.

Zhang's stall is my first stop at the South Bund Soft-Spinning Material Market, known simply as the Fabric Market. My Chinese editor assigned me to visit the three-story fabric mecca near the Nanpu Bridge on Lujiabang Road to figure out why so many foreigners go there to have their clothes made.

"Maybe it is because clothes in normal stores don't fit them," my editor suggests.

And on that note, I, an American, am also instructed to have something sewn for myself so that I can share my "personal experience" with those of you still wandering around Shanghai in trousers that are a bit too short or blouses that are just a tad tight.

Plus, since it's a tradition for Chinese to get new clothes to wear for the Lunar New Year, it seemed right to visit the market to prepare for the holiday that requires shopping and spending.

I can tell you there is a fix for your fashion emergency and it's only a few (relatively) painless ?? and inexpensive ?? stitches away.

It is a shop-'till-you-drop experience ?? and an addictive one. The Fabric Market is a favorite pastime for many expat women.

The South Bund market first started as a sprawling street fair back in the early 1990s. Vendors took leftover fabric spun by factories in Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces to sell in a city whose residents were desperate for style yet lacked the stores where they could find it.

Lu Zhangquan, who runs a stall on the second floor of the market with his daughter, was one of the original vendors. Before selling fabric, he grew rice and cotton. His neighbors, Lu recalls, were making so much money selling cloth on the street in Shanghai, he decided to leave his farm and do the same.

The original fabric market would become so big and so popular that police could no longer effectively force vendors to move, as often happened in its early days, says Lu. Eventually the city government provided an official venue on Dongjiadu Road.

In 2006, the market was relocated to its current spot to make way for construction for World Expo 2010.

I arrive on a recent afternoon and meet my interpreter on the sidewalk in front of street vendors selling silver Tibetan earrings, bags of oranges and wooden bowls.

As we walk inside, she says she has only been to the market once before, about a month ago with a Canadian friend picking up some pants he had ordered. She had never heard of it before then.

This is the case with a number of Chinese we interview ?? they are shopping at the Fabric Market only because foreigners had recommended it, not the other way around.

"Most Chinese don't need to get tailor-made clothes because they can find any perfect garment in the department stores," says Angela Lin, 22. She says many of her college-aged friends would rather save for months to buy something from a designer anyway.

Inside, the market is literally a multi-level maze of material. There are around 350 stalls, give or take a dozen, no apparent organization and no information desk.

Every inch is lined with stalls that teem with bolts of linen, silk, wool, cashmere, cotton, satin and too many other textiles and textures to name. Some stalls sell just boxes of buttons and brooches and fur collars and lace trim and ... The list goes on.

It is overwhelming. I am lost. I don't know what I am looking for. And I certainly don't even know where to begin. So I decide to venture into Flora Zhang's stall first, mainly because I spot a mannequin wearing what looks like a pretty good knock-off of a black boucle Moschino day suit.

As I look it over, Zhang announces in what little English she knows: "Gucci. Chanel. We can do. No problem."

Many tailors do speak some business English ?? classes are offered at the Fabric Center. You'll also hear tailors speaking a bit of French and other languages.

Through my interpreter, I learn that when Zhang was a teenager, she spent three years working as a servant in the tiny tailor shop of a hongbang master in Shanghai. She is now 39.

By official account, the name hongbang originally was given to a group of highly skilled garment makers from Ningbo (Zhejiang Province), who specialized in making Western suits for foreigners in Shanghai during the 1920s. Hong means red and bang means group.

Today there are less than 100 descendants of the original hongbang tailors, according to the municipal government Website.

Zhang lived in the store with a half-dozen other apprentices. They would cook and clean and run the tailor's errands in exchange for short lessons on how to properly sew on buttons or hem a skirt. Her memories, she says, are hazy and mostly unpleasant.

Later that evening, we visit the home of tailor Wang Hongbing, whose family has been making clothes for generations. Wang shares a dimly lit apartment with mint-green walls under an overpass in Pudong with his wife and eight other garment makers. They sleep all day and sew through the night to fill orders that clients need by the morning. Rush orders cost around 100 yuan extra.

Back in Zhang's store, I try on a copy of a red Armani pea coat. The fit is OK but not quite right and besides there are many more stalls to see (and I already own a red jacket). I decide to move on and find some shoppers who can advise me on how to make the maze of material suit my materialistic needs.

Jan Cantrill is asking for a Christmas-tree skirt when I spot her and then follow her to another stall where she is waiting for a friend. Her feet are hidden by plastic bags filled with garments she's ordered.

She pulls out a medium-length black satin jacket with a ruffled collar that's for her daughter in New York. It will be perfect, she says, for after-work cocktail parties or dinners (and cost only a fraction of what she would pay at a store on Fifth Avenue).

Since Cantrill moved to Shanghai from Colorado, the United States, three years ago, she says she has ordered at least a dozen suits and jackets at the market. "I am American size, and I could not find local clothes," says Cantrill.

Rarely does she pay more than a few hundred yuan for a piece, and her success rate ?? measured by how well a finished garment fits ?? is around 65 percent. "It's trial and error," says Cantrill, noting sometimes clothing will have to be altered a second or even a third time before it's just right.

One tip Cantrill offers first-time fabric marketers is to find samples of styles they like that are already on display and simply have one of those tailor-made. Or take in a piece of clothing or a picture of a piece of clothing to have copied.

Yet perhaps the best way to get the perfect fit is to find a friend to recommend a stall (No. 388 on the third floor is one of her favorites, if you're interested) and simply go there.

Now with more clarity, I decide that in the spirit of Chinese New Year (it's customary to have new clothes made for the holiday) I'll have something a bit more traditional sewn up. I wander into a stall (No. 246) on the second floor filled with vibrantly colored Chinese silk. Four other expat women also have the same idea.

Francesca Lee from England is trying on a red-and-black qipao that she's had made for the Lunar New Year.

"I am the queen of the fabric market," she says, posing in the dress. Almost every weekend, she and her friends visit the market to pick up clothes they've ordered or have something new made.

"Here you can make it personal," says Lee. "It's genuine."

The women help me pick out a turquoise and brown silk Tang jacket that's already been sewn. It's a little tight so Xiao Ping, the owner of the stall, calls her tailor who she says will need about 30 minutes to make it just right.

While I wait, I sit on a metal bench, flipping through the latest issue of Vogue and watching shoppers walk by.

And then as I look at a picture of a flowing blue Gucci gown, I realize that while even though clothing in the Fabric Market may not quite be couture, the experience of coming here can never be replicated.

Opening hours: 9am-6:30pm (closed for Chinese New Year holiday from January 23 to February 5)

Address: 399 Lujiabang Road (near the Bund)

Tel: 6377-2236 (administration office)

Website: (available in February)

Shanghai Government Website on Fabric Market:

Tips for the perfect fit

Most garments take about a week to make, but if you're prepared to pay more ?? like another 100 yuan ?? they can be turned around overnight and delivered to your door.

Patience is definitely a virtue in this material maze. It can take two, maybe three trips for fittings to get it just right. Or you might luck out on the first trip.

If it doesn't fit the first time, take it back. Tailors are happy to fix it ?? for free. Don't offer to pay.

Be prepared to bargain. The better the fabric, the higher the price. A cashmere jacket should run around 500 yuan (US$73). A silk evening gown nearly 2,000 yuan. A wool suit about 800 yuan. A cotton dress shirt around 80 yuan.

Walk with intent. Have some idea of what you want when you enter. A picture from a fashion magazine is always helpful (or one of your own designs). Tailors are usually eager to make a new creation but you'll need to give them time to get the perfect fit.

If you don't know what you want, find a sample on display, then have one custom-made for yourself.

Not sure what looks good? Tailors are willing to help find the right style for you, especially for traditional clothing, like Tang jackets and qipao.

Find a fabric market expert. Most regulars say they found their favorite tailor based on recommendations from friends.

Establish a relationship. One fellow goes to the same stall to have his dress shirts made nearly all the time.

Take a risk. If you see a sample you like, go for it. If it does not fit, give it to your sister as a gift from Shanghai.


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