Challenging Ralph Lauren to a fashion duel

In the two years I lived in Guangzhou, I kept meaning to have some tailor-made clothes done, but just never got around to it. However, once the move back to Hubei started looming larger and larger this summer, it seemed time to hit the Haiyin cloth market and find a good tailor. Although prompted by many people that tailor-made clothes were a bargain here, especially suits, I don’t think I’ve worn an actual suit (and tie) in maybe 30 years. So, my personal needs were pretty simple, just some new shirts.

Besides, all the “dress” shirts I brought with me to China were no longer looking all that dressy…

After the subway got us most of the way to Haiyin, we hopped in a taxi where the driver, after much discussion, said he know a woman with a shop (likely his uncle’s cousin’s wife), which turned out to be the typical dingy hole in the wall on a dingy street. Might have been at most four feet wide and about 10 feet deep. We’d brought one of my old shirts, the “pilgrim” style that I like without the flappy collar, to use as a starting point for the design. After, again, much discussion (there’s no such thing as a short, quick answer to anything in China), the woman allowed as how she could turn out a shirt to my specs for 70 kuai, roughly 10 dollars.

But we’d have to go buy the material first (as many of the tailors don’t carry cloth) and she told us how much we’d have to buy per shirt. We hopped back into the waiting taxi, where the driver assured us he had no relationship with the woman; he just wanted to be helpful to the laowai, so I’d have a good feeling about China.

We arrived at the Haiyin cloth market where they sell every kind of material you can imagine…for clothing to upholstery. And started perambulating around the maze of shops. Since I wanted to kind of test drive the whole tailor-made process, my intention was just to buy some good quality, 100% cotton material…in simple white. We bought enough cloth for two shirts…at a cost of 125 kuai (18USD).

Along the way, though, we’d passed by tailor shops actually located in the cloth market, so we stopped in one (another hole in the wall, but cleaner and classier looking) for a second opinion. I guess it was the upscale environment because the quote was 120 kuai (17.50USD). Maybe I should have gone back and given that woman a shot at my business (and saved a few bucks in the process), but I decided on one stop shopping and tailoring…convenience over economy, which I suppose is still very American of me despite my years here.

Having always bought off the rack, this was the first time in my life that I’ve been measured for clothing. A rather decadent (but inwardly delicious) feeling. Once they’d totted down all the numbers, we went over the design details…using the old shirt as a guideline, I told them I wanted some minor changes. Make the collar “this” wide, the cuffs just “so,” an inverted pleat in the back, etcetera, etcetera. Payment upfront required, handed a receipt and told to come back in four days.

When we returned at the appointed time, I tried both shirts on…both white of course but different button-down designs. And was very, very pleased. Not just with the quality, which was excellent. But also with the fit. A true fit for me, everywhere. Wonderful!

One shirt was button down all the way. The other was more of a slip-over, only buttoning down halfway. I like both designs, but find myself more partial to the slip-over. And now that I knew I could get exactly what I wanted…time to shop for more cloth. This time…black…and still 100% cotton. No surprises here for anyone who knows me. I tend to avoid prints, patterns and vivid or loud colors. Give me a solid, pleasing color…some soft, well-worn jeans…and I’m a happy fashion camper.

I had originally planned to have 10 shirts made, but found it harder than I’d thought it would be to find colors I liked. Finding, instead, a veritable glut of pastels and/or pin-striped cloth…I suppose for the typical business dress shirt these days. Bu zhidao…don’t know.

When we came back to pick up the two black shirts, I shopped more closely and eventually picked out two other colors…a dark, olive-green and a deep maroon…still 100% cotton, but in linen. But I only bought enough for just one shirt in each color, not being overly fond of linen cloth.

Jenny, by now moderately exasperated by my color cowardice, had been encouraging me (in her quiet way) to step out of my fashion prison…in particular, trying to get me to look at the countless silk prints available. I’m not sure how often I’ll have the gumption to wear it…and probably not to work…but I did end up finding a nice print that I rather like. And it’s some of that Guangzhou silk that’s sumptuously soft as well, so it’s very comfortable.

Before we left Guangzhou, we had some friends over for a goodbye dinner and they asked for a fashion show. So, the following is me on the living room runway…

The silk cloth cost about twice as much as the cotton material. I ended up with seven shirts for a total cost of about $200. Jenny was so excited that I’d actually taken a…for me…surprising fashion dive that she was showing it off to one of the shop ladies who exclaimed, “Hao kan, hao kan!” Good looking, or handsome!

And said that I could easily sell it for 1,200 kuai (175USD). Hmmm. Keneng…maybe.

Maybe I should give Ralph Lauren a run for his fashion…