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