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Finding success with traditional dress
By Qu Zhi

Chen Dongmei still remembers her first fashion sketch at the age of 10. It was a mini dress finished with elegant bell sleeves. She then gave the drawing to her cousin, an apprentice tailor, to bring the design to life.

“It looked like the dress a princesswould wear,” Chen recalls. Unbeknownstto her at the time, this simple sketch marked Chen’s first step into a career in fashion. From her days as a young girl with a keen interest in pretty outfits, Chen has emerged as one of the coun-try’s premier designers of the traditionalChinese dress known as the qipao.


After opening her own workshop inthe Jinqiao area of Pudong New Area, thesoft-spoken woman has built a long list of clients, which includes many celebri- ties and stars.

Born during the 1970s in Zhengzhou, Henan Province, Chen says attractive, stylish outfits were rare in her child- hood. The reality of her circumstances, however, did little to curb her nascent craving for couture.

“My mom always said the hardest thing was taking me shopping. Usually we spent the whole day strolling every- where and got nothing. So I started to make my own designs,” she says.

After graduating from high school, Chen enrolled at Zhengzhou University of Light Industry, where she majored infashion design. There she learned how toproduce and develop clothing designs,and was also exposed to the ins and outsof the fashion industry.

For her first job, Chen joined a state- owned textile company. “It was a light job. Everyday I finished work and went home at 4pm. It was not the life I wanted to pursue, so I quit,” she says. In searchof her passion, Chen went to Shenzheng,Guangdong Province before settling in Shanghai. 

As Chen moved around, becoming a fashion designer was never her goal. Herlife changed though after finding work in a garment company that manufac- tured qipao.

“I became obsessed with the enchant- ing cultural foundation of the qipao ... I have learnt Chinese painting for over 10 years. I wanted to make clothes that were steeped in Chinese culture,” Chen tells Shanghai Daily.

The qipao, a body-hugging one-piece dress sometimes referred to as a “Man- darin gown” in English was first worn by woman under Manchu rule during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The ini- tial version was looser fitting that its successors.

Today, many see the qipao as synony- mous with Shanghai during the 1920s and 30s. At that time, the qipao repre-sented the height of fashion for socialitesand upper-class women.

Chen’s workshop is located in a non- descript, industrial area of Pudong. First-time visitors often get lost. After climbing to the second floor of a red-brick building which bears the name of an automobile parts company, stepping into Chen’s studio is like walking into another world. Surrounded by antique ornaments, folding screens, ethnichandicrafts and reams of dazzling cloth,Chen can often be found working on her dresses.


“I’m not very interested in finding a fancy place, which would only mean a higher rent. I’d rather save my money for better material,” she says.

Indeed, Chen’s garments often featurethoughtful touches, such as imported lace from France, delicate embroidery work and an ancient Chinese silk-weav- ing technique known as kesi.

“The most difficult part of makingqipao is finding good suppliers and craftsmen. During the first few years, I traveled around China looking for suppliers. It also took me years to culti- vate relationships with my tailors,” she says.

The qipao which Chen makes in her Pudong studio are all tailor-made. Each choice of color and cut is made with the individual needs of her customers in mind. To get everything right, Chen’s customers normally come in for at leastthree fittings before their dress is ready.Depending on a client’s schedule, it can take anywhere from two weeks to two months to finish one qipao. This painstaking process means that Chen can usually handle no more than 100 customers in a single year.

As for prices, her made-to-order piecescould run anywhere from 7,000 yuan (US$1,127) into the tens-of-thousands of yuan range.

“I am a perfectionist,” Chen explainssimply. This, however, doesn’t mean she’sa slave to tradition. While she herself enjoys the old-fashioned aspects of theqipao, Chen isn’t averse to incorporat-ing more modern features, like straplessshoulders, into her pieces.

“Time’s changing. Qipao fashion start-ed in the 20th century. If we stick to theold styles and never develop, what do weneed designers for?” she asks. 

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