Shopping in Shanghai can be surprisingly limited for those with a mid-range budget and Western tastes and sizes. Chinese boutiques are plentiful but are often stocked with a dizzying array of animal prints and sequins, not to mention the petite non-Western sizes. High-end global brands such as Prada and Gucci are well-represented and the city boasts several glitzy shopping malls frequented by the upper echelons of society. For the rest of us, there’s Gap, H&M and Zara. But why pay US$50 for a generic Gap dress when you can have something created in the style and fabric of your choice, for a fraction of the cost? Having clothes custom made on the cheap was one of the greatest perks of living in Shanghai.
Whenever I wanted some China couture, I followed the trail blazed by countless expats before me to the South Bund Fabric Market, officially called the South Bund Soft Spinning Material Market.
The market consists of hundreds of stalls spread over three floors selling every kind of fabric you can imagine: silk, cotton, lace, polyester, velvet, leather, faux fur … you name it, they’re selling it. Each stall specializes in a narrow niche of fabric and styles, which are advertised by the garments hanging outside their individual entrances. Linen pants and tunics, imitation Chanel tweed jackets, wool suits and jersey dresses are just a sampling of the items you can have custom made. Scarves, ties and table linens are also available for purchase.
Browsing the many stalls can be overwhelming at first, especially with the shop girls calling out as you pass by. If you have time, I recommend doing simple reconnaissance on your first visit, seeing what’s available and identifying the stalls you have the most interest in. Take a business card so you can find it again later. If you are quoted any prices, note them on the card. Be prepared to haggle once you are ready to have your garment made. You’ll get a better deal if you order in bulk or frequently return to the same stall. Everyone loves a repeat customer!
I knew I was going to travel throughout Southeast Asia, so lightweight and easy-to-pack dresses were my first order of business.
Have them made Stall: 337 on the third floor (while many specialize in stretchy poly-blend dresses, this stall did the best work of any I tried) Cost: 225 RMB per dress (about US$37 - this will vary based on your size and the amount of fabric needed)
For running errands in Shanghai and long travel days, I preferred the easy comfort of cotton tunics over leggings. I had six or seven made, and while I kept the style the same, I mixed them up with colorful fabrics and different necklines.
Have them made Stall: 238 on the second floor Cost: 150 RMB per tunic (about US$25 - perhaps the result of repeat orders and expert bargaining)
Sometimes the need for something a little more refined would arise, like a baby shower or garden party. For such occasions I relied on my sweet little lawn cotton dresses. Fully-lined with short sleeves and a-line skirts, they are lady-like while still being fun. Best of all, the material was light and breathable for those stifling summer days. I received a lot of compliments on these dresses and regret not having a few more made!
Have them made Stall: 217 on the second floor Cost: 280 RMB per fully-lined dress with hidden side zipper (about US$46)
For my sister-in-law’s summer wedding, I wanted something really special. I searched the stalls for just the right fabric, finally settling on light-weight ice-blue silk with an elegant floral pattern. I went with a modern take on a qipao – also called a cheongsam – which is a slim-fitting gown popularized by wealthy Shanghainese women in the 1920s.
Have it made Stall: 224 on the second floor Cost: 450 RMB per fully-lined dress (about US$74 - the stall owner won't bargain but this price is significantly lower than those quoted by his competitors)
When I needed new jeans, I took my favorite pair to the so-called “denim lady” and asked her to make me a new one. They fit just right and no one can tell they aren’t from Banana Republic!
Have them made Stall: 340 on the third floor Cost: 160 RMB per pair (about US$26)
My mom and I took advantage of off-season discounts to buy new trench coats. I seem to have lost the receipt in the move, so I can’t tell you the specific stall number, but the photo of the shop below will hopefully direct you to the right place. I believe we paid 300 RMB each, or US$50, though it could have been a little less. We did some serious haggling!
Know before you go: After selecting fabric and style, the shopkeeper will take your measurements and note them on a slip of paper. You will be asked to pay a portion of the cost up front, sometimes as much as half the total; the remainder will be due when you pick up the garment. These are generally cash-only operations. Items usually will be ready one week after you order them, though you could probably have it rushed if you’re willing to pay for the privilege. You will be able to try them on and have additional alterations made if needed.
Another popular thing to do is to take in a beloved item from your own closet and have a copy made in a new color. Some tailors can recreate an item from a magazine or photo alone, but I was told they do their best work when they have something tangible they can copy. I had mixed results with this, though the flops were generally due to poor fabric choice on my part.